Part 3: Characters
I watch a lot of science fiction movies and it’s often said that a special effect without a story is nothing, however spectacular it may look. The same can be said about story and characters. We may enjoy a good story, but it’s the characters in it we care for, fall in love with, or even prey they have an early demise.
Watching as a child, the end of Return of the Jedi encapsulated all of this; great special effects that still stack up in today’s CGI splurge-fests, the culmination of an epic story of good vs evil and of course wonderful and colourful characters. Even in my cynical Generation-X middle age I still adore it. The final assault on the Death Star is breathtaking, but I care because Lando and the rebels are there for one last charge. The lightsaber battle between Luke and Vader may not have endless leaping about and over the top choreography (thank God!) but the scene is emotionally charged because I care about Luke’s efforts to save his father and Vader’s eventual redemption.
In Aliens I care about Ripley overcoming her fears and going back to face her terrors, the dynamic she builds with Newt and the fate of the marines. The story, pounding direction and excellent effects probably would have got it a couple of viewings, but certainly not over fifty of them!
I could ramble on for ages, but you probably get the idea by now. Memorable characters make or break your story, and they can be catagorised into many distinct forms, or archetypes:
A brief search on the internet will reveal lots of sites with all kinds of different character archetypes. These are universal personalities which appear in most stories and share common themes and traits. Many examples will probably be from classic literature or movies, but since I’m a nerd here’s a few examples based on my favourite films and TV shows…
The hero (protagonist)
The classic hero fights for good against evil and adversity, protecting the weak and overcoming incredible odds to win through in the end. He/she will often use the same methods as the villain but has a moral code and a line that they will not cross. The hero is often an unwilling participant to start with, but gains in confidence as the story progresses. Heroes can be simplistic or complicated, questioning their decisions and having to live with the consequences.
One alternative to the classic hero is the antihero, a character who is flawed or shows traits that we normally wouldn’t associate with being ‘good’. They usually get away with this by being very charismatic. Captain Jack Sparrow is one example, as is StarLord from Guardians of the Galaxy.
The villain (antagonist)
The main job of the villain is to make the hero’s (and everyone they care about) life as difficult as possible and prevent them from achieving their goals; be it staying alive at all, getting through high school or being reunited with a loved one.
Everyone loves a good villain and as is the case with all of the main characters we need to care what happens to them, even if it’s that we hate them and want to see them get their comeuppance. The best villains are complicated people but with clear motives; we may not agree with their methods or point of view but we can at least understand their warped logic. They can also represent a dark mirror of the hero, the result of a different choice or path not taken. Dr. René Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark is a good example of this, as is Callisto from Xena: Warrior Princess.
The villain doesn’t always have to be a person either, it can be the elements (eg Twister), a regime (1984) or a monster (pick any Hammer Horror movie!). It’s perfectly possible to mix things up a bit too: Nightbreed (or Cabal for the book version) is a great example of where the traditional monster villains are the heroes and the police and authorities are most definitely the bad guys.
The mentor guides the hero with the benefit of their own experience, teaching them the skills they must learn in order to succeed. In the terms of the story they can also act as exposition for the reader/viewer to explain what is going on, without falling into the trap of having two experts talking about things they already know (Ghostbusters kind of gets around this by having Venkman not paying attention in class). Some examples of the mentor are Ben Kenobi (and later Yoda), Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, and Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The temptress is there to stop the hero from achieving their goals and act as a barrier they must overcome. They are usually presented as attractive and mysterious women who use their charms to get what they want (like the femme fatales of film noir detective stories), but can be either gender or even an idea or power, as long as they distract the hero or lead them down the wrong path. Elsa in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is one example, or Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct.
Sidekicks are a staple diet in superhero comics and movies, helping the hero on their journey and providing a moral compass to their decisions. At least in my opinion that’s what they should be, although often they are just there for (often bad) comic relief or to play the damsel-in-distress role. Buffy the vampire slayer was lucky to have an entire support network helping her, but sidekicks usually come in singular form.
My favourite sidekick of all time is Gabrielle from Xena: Warrior Princess, who epitomises everything that a good friend and ally should be.
In the silent movie era the damsel-in-distress could often be found tied to railway tracks waiting for the hero to rescue them seconds before the train hit. These days the damsel can be any gender, and their main role is to distract the hero and provide drama and tension to the climax of the story. Sometimes the hero will have to choose between the damsel and his ultimate prize, but will usually find away to save both.
Your story will demand that your main characters go through trauma (some of them may not even make it to the end) but most importantly they must change as a result of it. A character who is unaffected and sleepwalks through the narrative is not going to be very interesting to spend much time with. More of this in the next part!