Creating strong characters is complicated. The best characters are the ones we relate to. They remind us of someone we know or hope to be. They, often, take the form of the protagonist; the ones we root for to save the world, or at least themselves, from certain destruction. We forgive them their shortcomings and give them pep talks, in the hopes that, unlike us, they will learn from their mistakes and get their act together in time to make things right.
Sometimes those characters take the form of the antagonist. They remind us of those we steer clear of or who we work hard not to be. Those parts of ourselves we only show to our mirror (and sometimes not even then). These antagonists access the shadowy bits of our souls our parents or priests have warned us not to embrace. Those lies told or cookies stolen represent the most innocent or sinister of transgressions sure to put us on the Devil’s shortlist.
Regardless of which arc the character takes, writing strong characters requires a great deal of practice and attention to craft. A good character is never the one you sketch in, rubbing your pencil lightly over the surface of the plot and hoping they’ll find their way to the end. They are the ones we frame out, methodically developing their structure and then filling it in like plaster over a wire frame.
Their strength exists in the dynamic nature with which they navigate the plot, exploring the nuances of subplots, conflicts and any road furniture we may throw in their way. Even when they would rather not, they change. Sometimes for the better, and sometimes not, but they know that to do nothing would weaken them in our eyes.
While I’m a novel writer, I love a good book adaptation for the screen. Currently, one of the best, in my opinion, is The Walking Dead. Adapted from the post-apocalyptic graphic novel of the same name by Robert Kirkman, The Walking Dead series exemplifies how strong characters can be built. The ensemble of main characters in the series is extraordinarily diverse. They are housewives and business people, civil servants and clergy, mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers. The only thing they have in common is their desire to survive in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds.
Some of the characters resist true change until the very end of their existence, which in itself tells us a great deal about them. For even the act of resisting requires a shift as plot, conflict and other characters exert forces upon them. These characters, like Morgan in the series, refuse to compromise their morals, values or individuality to the moment.
Others are in a constant state of flux, adapting to their environment on the fly, reaching deep withing themselves to find a new solution. That character is Carol, who transforms from a helpless, beaten wife to a calculating, killing machine in a relatively short period of time.
The pressure exerted on each of these characters throughout the story seems to have them on a collision course. Until now (Season 7), they have chosen to respond to conflict in different ways. Early on in the series, Carol realizes that in order to survive, she must leave her former self behind. No longer being a passive participant in her life. The opposite is true for Morgan, who believes that pacifism is his only chance at survival. However, at the current point in the plot both characters find themselves in exactly the same place. They must stare solidly at the choices they’ve made and decide whether they will serve them.
How can two dramatically different characters experience diverging story arcs and wind up in the same place? The answer lies in the strength of their characters. Kirkman (and his writing team) has succeeded in crafting characters with depth. Even the conflict (and believe me there’s lots of it), can not chip away enough of the plaster to reveal the wire frame upon which these characters have been built. When it comes to creating strong characters, the deeper the author goes in their development the stronger they are. Creating strong characters is complicated but, in this case, complicated is a good thing.
Who are your favorite characters and what makes them complicated?