In this chapter we will look at character building. Your characters carry out your plot. We will examine the two main characters, supporting characters and then character building in general.
Two Most Important Characters
Your two most important characters are your protagonist and your antagonist. Your protagonist is the main character the novel is all about. Your antagonist is the character whose goal is to thwart the protagonist’s goal. The antagonist doesn’t necessarily have to be a clear cut villain like Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter. In fact, in the Black literary tradition, the antagonist is usually a fellow victim whose strategy for combating white supremacy directly opposes the strategy of the protagonist in a way that they cannot both achieve their respective goals. The protagonist/antagonist configuration can be carried out in three ways:
1. Man against man
2. Man against self
3. Man against nature
Man Against Main
This is what you will typically find in most novels. Your antagonist can be a single character or it can be the society your protagonist lives in. Even if it is the society, the actions of that society should be carried out by real people. Your novel is made stronger if there’s one particular character in the society who is hell bent on thwarting your protagonist. For an example of individual characters playing the role of an antagonistic society, you might want to read The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. This is a long book and the protagonist faces a string of antagonists one after the other. In The color Purple, that one character is Mr. Celie is his wife, so he has a vested interest in keeping her oppressed.
Man Against Self
Beloved is the antagonist in Morrison’s novel. It may be said that Beloved is a personification of Sethe’s own mental anguish. On some deep level, her mind will not allow her to achieve the normal life she seeks with Paul D until she confronts the guilt she feels after killing her baby.
Man Against Nature
This works better with a short story, such as “The Open Boat.” Theoretically, it is possible to write an entire novel with the elements of nature as the main force keeping the protagonist from achieving his goal, but you’d have to be a master to carry it out. Instead of using nature as a blind force, you might want to have nature represented by a god or goddess or some nature spirit that can interact with your protagonist in a sentient and intellectual manner.
In his book, The Art of Dramatic Writing (2009), Lajos Egri describes orchestration as putting together characters who will naturally produce conflict. And not just any old kind of conflict, but conflict that will force the protagonist to confront his or her demons and move toward the goal of the story. In the Color Purple, Celie and Sofia are perfectly orchestrated. If Sofia were not someone Celie admires. Celie would not feel hurt when Sofia returns her presents. So you see, conflict is more than just arguing and fussing and fighting. If the story doesn’t move as a result of the uncomfortable encounter, then it isn’t conflict. It’s just arguing and fussing and fighting. In Beloved Paul D and Sethe are perfectly orchestrated. If Paul D were not a man of integrity, Sethe would never desire a normal life with him and Beloved would never decide to come put a stop to it. Things would keep on with Sethe dealing with a spiteful baby and there would be no story.
Unity of Opposites
Unity of opposites is what Egri calls that element or elements in a story that keep your protagonist and antagonist on stage. What makes them stay grappled in conflict? What keeps either one of them from saying “Forget it. I don‘t need this. I‘m going home.” Unity of opposites strengthens your conflict and makes the tension more compelling. Even if your protagonist escapes to a place of safety, there has to be something compelling him or her to abandon this comfort zone and rejoin the conflict. Poverty and racism are the unity of opposites in The Color Purple. After Celie leaves Mr., he is no longer the main antagonist and we have a rather long denouement. In Beloved Sethe’s love for her baby and her inescapable feelings of guilt serve as the unity of opposites.
The unity of opposites can be tied up in the protagonist’s goal. Because the antagonist’s goal is to keep the protagonist away from his or her goal, the protagonist cannot reach that goal without dealing with the antagonist
Building Your Protagonist
Give your protagonist something he or she likes to do, then work that into your plot. In The Color Purple, Celie likes to sew and that becomes her ticket to freedom. In Harry Potter, Harry likes to play a game where he learns how to fly a broom. In the novel I’m now working on, my protagonist loves to dance and that becomes an integral part of her movement in the story (pun may have been intended.)
Although your protagonist will change and grow, let your reader see that growth happening as a result of the plot. If he/she starts out meek and humble, don’t have him/her suddenly cuss somebody out. Show the reader how events led to that change. Show the protagonist fighting against change but make the situation so compelling that he/she has to change.
Other Major Characters
I personally don’t like novels where all the people I’ve come to know and love get killed. Other major characters should be fleshed out. Give them personalities, backgrounds and motives of their own, but make everything they do play some role in moving the protagonist towards his or her goal.
These are cashiers, doormen, people on the street, bus drivers, etc. that play no role in the protagonist’s life other than that brief encounter. They don’t have to be fleshed out. You can use them for comic relief by giving them a memorable personality, a twitch in the eye or a funny-looking hat that you can later use to spark the protagonist’s memory of an event.
Stay tuned for the next chapter on dialogue and narrative.
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