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Do Stories Need Good Characters?/Characters Aren't Fun to Write

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by evolution_rex, Nov 4, 2015.

  1. evolution_rex

    evolution_rex Inkling

    My favorite movie and novel is 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film opened my eyes when I was young and made me see the potential in art and storytelling. I realized that the method in which someone can tell a story doesn't have to the standard way. Point is, I think the film and the novel are a great. But what makes them really unique to me, especially the film, is that they pretty much lack a 'main character', or characterization in general. The best way I can describe the story is that it's beyond any specific individual because the story isn't about a person but about the evolution of mankind. It's a big story told through a few scenes which are abstract and told through surreal visuals and music rather than dialogue.

    This impacted me when I was young and the stories I come up with now do not start with the imagination of a character. In truth, I have a hard time writing characters, which is why I usually stick to one lone main character rather than a 'group' or 'team' of them. As I grew up and began to take more interest in writing, I knew that characters were important so I forced myself to try to write them better. I think I can make a decent character, but I simply don't find that part of the writing process fun. The fun part are the concepts, the setting, the themes, and how I can write a scene. Characters are often just the vehicle for the plot and the themes to express themselves for me. I don't mean that I force my characters into bad or out of place decision making just to move the plot along, but to me the pieces of plot are what comes first, and then I have to come up with the characters just so the plot can be a story,

    My questions are; do you think every story needs good characters? Are there any examples you know where a novel tells a good story without major emphasis on their characters? If I don't find writing characters fun, does that mean I'm not cut out to be a writer? Do you find writing characters fun? Is there a way to ease the pain of writing them?
  2. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    I think, like all things in writing, this is a spectrum. Typically it is known as "character driven" vs. "plot driven" writing. And of course, there is everything in between. Different people value different things. I tend to be very character driven. There are others on this site that I debate with often because they are more plot driven. I have read some books that are very plot driven and I enjoyed them (David Gibbins comes to mind. I really liked Crusader Gold because it was a very interesting story, but I couldn't tell you even while I was reading it what the MC's name was. He was just a vessel to keep the plot going.
    Last edited: Nov 4, 2015
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  3. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    As Helio said, there are different types of stories.

    I'd suggest you get a hold of Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy book. Here's a blog entry discussing the part of it that I think applies. Karen Woodward: Orson Scott Card & The MICE Quotient: How To Structure Your Story

    It's called the MICE quotient, a acronym for for factors that can be the primary focused on in a story.

    Here's also a Writing Excuses episode discussing it.
    Writing Excuses 6.10: Scott Card’s M.I.C.E. Quotient » Writing Excuses

    If you're looking for stuff like 2001, then you should probably read Arthur C Clarke, who wrote the book which the movies is based. He wrote tons of books.

    Another author, that I've heard of that writes good idea books is Verner Vinge. I haven't read him yet, but give him a look.

    With that said, you don't have to write the most dynamic characters to tell a story, but you have to achieve a certain level with them. You have to make the reader care to a certain degree. I mean the reader will be spending time with them, and if they don't like the character at least a little, then they'll wonder why spend any time with them at all?

    You may not like writing characters, but you can't avoid writing them. I think part of writing characters is write characters that you like or find interesting. I mean if you don't like spending time with them, why should the reader want to spend time with them either?
    Last edited: Nov 4, 2015
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  4. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    TO me, characters are the story. BY that I mean that when I write (and read) I'm interested firstly in the characters, who they are, and what they're doing when they're relating to each other, and secondarily, the plot/ antagonist, and thirdly, the world. That isn't to say I find the world unimportant, but just that if the characters aren't interesting and engaging, the story isn't for me.

    To be honest, I can't imagine what you mean by saying that characters aren't fun to write, because to me, it's the only thing I write--characters and their interpersonal relationships. Sure, I have a world, and it has loads of details and unique elements, and places that stand out from the real world, but it's my characters that ARE the whole story. My MC in Dragon's Blood isn't just a mercenary who goes through challenges, he's a man who's running form his past and who he was, and he's feeling the toll of his years when the story hits the midpoint. It's that inner conflict that sets in motion the second half of the book, not a series of events, really. If he wasn't questioning his mettle, he wouldn't have befriended a secondary character and opened the can of worms I sum up in the novel as "much unsolicited advice" and go on a personal journey with the secondary character to discover his fate.

    To me, the plot and the character are inseparable, but if I favor one, it's definitely character. Like I said, so often, it's the character who moves the story forward by changing, acting, or reacting to another character.

    To answer your question about whether a story can be told without a character, or without a "good character" (which I don't really understand, because I think you mean fleshed out and complex), I'd say probably yes, but I'm not sure. IN movies, it may be easier to accomplish this kind of thing. With a book, you have only words, not music and visual cues. I'd imagine one could write very compelling tale about a thing, though, as I've done that in shorts. But could you do that for a whole novel? I'm not sure.
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  5. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

    Some first person horror stories, like the old weird tales, don't necessarily have to have a "good" character, just someone who convinces us of how terrifying the events they experience are.

    Not liking to write characters is going to limit what you can write, more than not allowing you to be a writer at all.

    Why don't you find them fun to write?
    Last edited: Nov 5, 2015
  6. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

    If you can find it, Robert Silverberg's Worlds of Wonder might be a good book to pick up. It's a collection of science fiction stories Silverberg thinks are useful to analyze from a writer's perspective, each with an essay dissecting it. Only the very last story in the anthology is character-focused, and Silverberg repeatedly complains about sci-fi writers who waste too much time on what he sees as pointless characterization.
    evolution_rex likes this.
  7. Russ

    Russ Istar

    I think there are lots of great books that are not heavily dependent on character for their success.

    Assimov's Foundation work springs to mind right away, as does the Lemmus trilogy, both written on very large canvasses and huge scales that I enjoyed very much and had some substantial success.

    Having said that, both of the successes are decades away. I think audiences and expectations have changed and it would be much harder to write a commercially successful book these days without engaging and fascinating characters. I believe that one of the most important aspects of successful fiction writing is characters that the reader wants to learn more about, wants to see succeed or can identify with.

    I am not saying it cannot be done, and there are not successful examples of it, I am just saying that it runs significantly counter to what most people believe current tastes are.
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  8. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

    Randolph Carter, Lovecraft's main protagonist, is a character that isn't developed all that much, compared to your typical hero; yet the adventures he takes part in are still thrilling. The Dream quest of Unknown Kadath is probably my favorite of Lovecraft's longer stories, and is where we learn a little about Carter but the plot itself is more important than fully fleshing him out.

    Kadath itself was such a fascinating place, both in a physical and metaphysical way, that I'm putting in something similar in my fantasy series. Though I'm trying to not make the main antagonist of the second half of the story be like Nyarlathotep. :D
    evolution_rex likes this.
  9. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

    I relate very much to this issue. I’m not a people person at all, though I’m mostly friendly and easy to talk to. I have two things working against me, as far as writing success goes. One is that I’m a dreadfully slow writer, and the other is this ‘character’ issue.

    For some of my stories, I put in a bunch of work on the characters, stuff that didn’t even end up in the texts. I gave them back-stories, personalities, skills, motivations, specific details, attitudes, relationships with others, everything I could think of to make them individuals.

    Judging from the response from readers, this work was largely wasteful. I don’t know if it was the chosen details, or my execution within the story itself, but few care about or relate to my characters (actually, I’ve made one character that some people don’t hate). I’ll continue to work on it in the hopes of reaching a minimum level of characterization, but I’m resigned to being an ‘idea’ or ‘conceptual’ type of writer. I can only put in a story the kinds of things I myself respond to as a reader, and warm and fuzzy isn’t it for me.

    Here’s the thing though. There are at least two of us. I suspect there are a lot more than that. I’m writing for you and me, and for the rest of us weirdos. I do it knowing full well I’m likely to be considered cold, cerebral, detached, and intellectual, and expect near-endless rejection on that basis.

    And yet I read book after book after book that I would say do not have a strong character element to them. Of course many are on the older side, but can still be found on bookshelves today.

    I still plan on creating characters I would be interested in reading about. I’ve just accepted that no one else is likely to. For good or ill, I’m not stopping.
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  10. MineOwnKing

    MineOwnKing Maester

    Give a character a reason to be passionate about a goal and then put an obstacle in their way.

    Even if your character lacks depth, their pain will be identifiable and tie the reader into the story.
    Feo Takahari likes this.
  11. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

    It would be nice if it were that simple--so many of my issues would evaporate. My novel has this element, but I expect it won't be nearly enough.
  12. Chessie

    Chessie Guest

    @Evolution_Rex, it would serve you well to learn how to write good characters if selling books is something you desire to do in the future. I understand where you're coming from, but the truth is that (even gonna say most) readers prefer to have protagonists or other characters in the story that they can connect with. Think about when you watch a movie or t.v. show. It turns out that you always have a favorite. If you're entertaining through words, readers are going to be brought into your story by the viewpoint of the protagonist. Therefore, she or he needs to be a solid individual that can narrate and experience your theme, questions, etc.

    Since you mentioned that you like to write about themes in your O.P., then remember that your characters, especially the protagonist, are ALL an expression of the theme in your book. Basically, characters being their own people, take different paths on the journey to expressing your theme. This might be a good starting place for you in order to soften to the idea of having to write about people. If you can get a one sentence theme on lock, then pose a question to your audience involving that theme and have your protagonist act it out in your story.

    There are many craft books out there that can instruct you on how to do that, and this is one website that is worth recommending to get you started.

    On a last note at those saying that stories are either plot centered or character centered, I've never agreed with this concept. The way a story is portrayed depends on the questions, themes, and essentially the subject matter the author is trying to communicate. Some stories focus on larger problems that involve communities, or a big cast of characters, or relationships between characters (romance), or magical items, etc.

    All of these stories require plot, character, setting, problem in order to be well balanced and keep the readers sucked in. No one element is more or less important in books, imo, because writing a book is like baking a cake. If you don't add in the eggs, milk, or oil, your cake will come out all jacked up. The same goes for books. This is why writing is so difficult, because you're attempting to balance all of these ingredients into a coherent and interesting story.
  13. evolution_rex

    evolution_rex Inkling

    Yes, Clarke is a favorite of mine, I've read a lot of his stuff. In my original post, I mentioned both the novel and film.

    I'm not sure. I don't enjoy coming up with individual characteristics to make characters stand out (I of course care about the big characteristics, like if he's a good guy or a bad guy. It's the small stuff). I don't enjoy describing the physical appearance of characters either. In outlines, I hate having to make character sheets even though I know I need them. Occasionally, I can write a character I'm really proud of, but most of the time I don't have that much interest in the characters so when I write them in detail, it's a chore.
    I notice that both science fiction and horror are usually the ones with characters that aren't 'good'. They both happen to be genres I enjoy (I'm picky about horror, but I love writing it).
    This is what I usually do.
    I've never picked a favorite since I was a kid (I use to love Ed from Ed, Edd, and Eddy). I can usually see when a character well or poorly written, but I never pick favorites. It's the reason why I despite procedural shows, it's a new story each episode and they rely on the main characters to make it interesting. But to me, no characters are worth a 45 minute episode-long story that concludes at the end.
    That's a good way of putting it, and the character that I do end up liking usually are written like that.
  14. Well, let's take Tolkien, since he's the most prominent and prolific writer in the fantasy genre ever. His stories weren't exactly about particular characters. His work focused more on Middle-Earth. Middle-Earth was his main character. Very few characters in his works appear through the entirety of the series. The only common thread in each book is the setting, but he brings it to life with such vivid detail.
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  15. Helen

    Helen Inkling

    But....2001 is told in a standard way.
  16. evolution_rex

    evolution_rex Inkling

    Neither the book or film is. The book is a bit more 'normal', but I wouldn't consider it standard.
  17. Brian G Turner

    Brian G Turner Scribe

    Modern stories tend to be character-driven.

    Making comparisons to film is unfair, because we are a species primarily driven by the visual experience, something that film and TV use to great effect. Written stories work with the imagination, which means that the visual experience immediately becomes reduced - you have to appeal emotively and empathically - and that means characters.

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