What is the most important aspect of storytelling? In my opinion, it’s characters, because that’s how it works in real life too. Life can have pretty much anything happen in it, same with stories, but, the things people really care about and respond to are other people.
Characters can determine the course of action in a story by how they relate to what’s going on around them. If you write a story based on plot, and force your characters to do things to get to a certain predetermined destination of your choice, the characterization will probably fall flat, and your audience won’t care about your characters because they can’t view them as real human beings.
So how can you create characters that choose their own path in life, yet still have them arrive at the point necessary for your story? I call this the “God” factor. (And this is not meant in a weird spiritual way at all, it simply means you are the creator of, and in control of, your story.)
In a sense, you are God of your story. You create the characters, and give them life and personality, and you also create the world you’re going to put them in. Now, what you can do, is either tell them exactly what to do, or, let them make a choice based on the information you allow them to have. That’ where the story starts. A good part of storytelling is creating characters, then letting their personality and opinions decide what they are going to do next in the situations you’ve placed them in.
You may know what’s best for your characters, but, as in real life, will your characters listen to you, or decide to try things their own way? As with Adam and Eve, even if you put them in a perfect environment, they may choose a destructive path.
If you think of characters in that sense, you will (In a God role) also know what triggers them, or what shuts them down. Then, you can give them situations that will either grow and better them, or send them on a downward spiral (depending on the needs of your story.) The most important thing to do as your writing is get to know your characters.
A way to get to know your characters is, through improvisation. An exercise I give my theatre students is to be able to answer 20 questions about their character that have nothing to do with the script. To do so, they have to create their own back story and personality traits, that aren’t revealed in the information I give them. The reason I have them do this is so they can 1, give the best performance they can, and 2, know how to deal with any situation that may happen during the performance, that wasn’t pre scripted or rehearsed. (Mac’s rule number two, anything that could go wrong probably will, so better be prepared!)
A form of this in writing is to sit down, and think of a random thing that could happen. For example: Character A, is shopping in the grocery store, when a monkey shows up and starts throwing watermelons at them. What in the world would they do? Make sure it is something true to what they would do, and not, what you personally would do. (for a bunch of excersise starters, see this post.
Short notes version: let your characters make their own decisions, and your story will take off in new ways and you may find plot points you had never thought of before. :)
Coming soon, I’m going to be analyzing the current (6th) season of the TV show LOST from a character perspective, and how the creators allow the characters free will while still movie them towards a preset goal.
What are your opinions of letting characters run your story?