Overcoming Characterization Challenges

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One thing that has long fascinated me is the idea of fate. According to many religious and cultural premises, each with their own unique twists, there are those of us who are fated to deal with extraordinary challenges and to accomplish extraordinary things. In the stories we tell, these people are often heroes with exceptional arcs.

Two themes tend to be intertwined with such an arc. On the one hand, these heroes are often driven by duty. They’re not looking to be heroes, but they feel duty-bound to act in heroic ways. On the other hand, some of these heroes resist their fates, but end up fulfilling them anyway. The trouble writers often face is the challenges of bringing this fated hero from the person they start out being to the person they become.

In referring to Joan of Arc, my husband mentioned the “solution” of saying, “God gives you a sword and an army and tells you to go forth and do His work.” Even with challenges and impediments, using acts of God or acts of the gods to solve a plotting/arc problem is a cheap way to go, even if it fits into the story. It doesn’t ring very true in real life, because even when we are assigned a duty, we don’t always have what we need to fulfill it. Fulfilling the duty is part of the journey, part of the arc.

Robert Jordan had a peculiar way to resolve these challenges. In his books, the sudden acquisition of the means to fulfill the duty always comes with a steep cost, so that the “reward” satisfied the needs of the plot, but came at a cost to the character that may or may not influence the plot.

In the start of the series, Jordan presents us with three simple, village/farm boys. Very early in the first book it is also established that all three boys have some unknown, Creator-given duty and that chance is distorted around them as one means to help them fulfill it. This distortion of chance solves more plot problems than it causes, but it’s also developed in a way that makes sense without feeling like its cheating. This distortion, alone, is not enough to get them to where they need to be, because one of these boys will become a cross between a king and a savior and the other two become his most trusted generals in an epic-scale battle to save the world.

It is established, through a variety of developments, that these boys have the natural talent to become what they need to be. They pick up the skills relatively easily, though they still must be presented with the opportunities to acquire them. This process seems so natural to the boys that they don’t even realize how much they’re changing. At the same time, even this process isn’t really enough to get them where they need to be to do their part to save the world.

To help the savior character fulfill his destiny, the character is afflicted with a peculiar form of madness that empowers him to interact with who he was in a past life. On the one hand, this arms him with what he needs to know, because the knowledge was acquired by the man who used to be, though that knowledge isn’t always reliably available. On the other hand, he has to fight within himself in order to maintain control of his body and not lose his life to his past self. So, it provides him with a resource, but the cost is steep and that cost influences the plot in negative ways.

To help one of the soon-to-be-general characters fulfill his destiny, the character is given the opportunity to learn the skills he needs at an accelerated rate when the boys’ homeland is under siege. He’s highly motivated to do what needs to be done, and the people around him fall in line (which is part a reflection of his natural skill and part a reflection of the distortion of chance), but the price is a level of responsibility he doesn’t really want and doesn’t feel confident that he can handle. Besides that, he’s driven by grief, because his entire family—mother, father, little sisters, little brother, aunts, uncles, and first cousins, everyone who lived on the farm he grew up on—was murdered before he ever got there. He gets the chance to practice his skills, but the price is extremely high for him.

Finally, the other soon-to-be-general character resists his destiny. Through a series of events, it’s established that he has natural skills, but he is also a gambler who takes reckless chances (sometimes for good reasons) and has a tendency to get himself into trouble. It is through this recklessness that he ends up losing a sizable portion of his own memories. And it is through this recklessness that he tries to get them back and ends up with pieces of the other lives he’s lived in place of the memories he’s lost. This provides him with a lot of knowledge about winning wars and leading armies, but it also provides him with other random bits of knowledge. What he remembers most, though, is his many deaths. And the personal price he paid for this “gift,” which wasn’t at all what he wanted, was to be hanged almost to death. Again, this gift is presented in such a way that it doesn’t feel like cheating and that the cost for the character outweighs the benefit to the plot, even though the benefit is necessary for the plot to progress.

I find these three examples of how to overcome characterization challenges without sacrificing believability to be very informative. The fact that no one technique is used, but many techniques are woven together, makes it even more powerful. The crux of it, though, is keeping in mind the character’s cost versus the impact on plot. Something can be very costly to the character without having a dramatic impact on the story’s plot.

About the Author

Stephanie Allen Crist

Stephanie Allen Crist is a writer, advocate, and marketer. Stephanie’s first two books, Discovering Autism / Discovering Neurodiversity: A Memoir and First Steps: Understanding Autism, are available now.

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