Outsell James Patterson

5 characters every story needs

This entry is part 3 of 11 in the series How to Win at Authoring

So you followed the first part of this course on ideas and the seeds of your next great story are beginning to grow.

That’s great, so long as it doesn’t turn out better than mine.

Now you have the germs of your story, you’ve progressed to the next logical step, creating characters.

That’s not just any characters, mind. We’re talking about the heroes and the villains that will drive outstanding conflict, complete great quests, and bring your readers to orgasm, tears, laughter, and terror.

All at the same time.

Only there’s a hitch.

You’ve drawn up your characters and they all suck. They’re boring. Drab. You’ve tried to make each and every one unique and yet they’ve all turned out like different versions of you, and you’re the worst.

If your mother won’t even have dinner with you and you can’t hold down a girlfriend, how can you expect people to be interested in a book full of yous?

You can’t.

That’s why you tried to make your characters unique in the first place.

Your fatal mistake.

How many characters are there in fiction?

Go on, guess.

Just off the top of your head.

Doesn’t have to be exact. Just a guess.

Go on.

WRONG.

Whatever number you said is wrong because the exact figure is… uh… not very many.

But, no, you cry, and not just – you think – because you’re being purposely obstinate (like usual).

Your rationale is you can think of a hundred great characters. A thousand. So my exact figure of ‘not very many’ can’t be right.

But it is.

See, once again you’re working too hard. Trying to create something original in a world that has already seen at least a billion characters across thousands of years.

And the big secret of all those characters?

They were all drawn from the same place. From the same small pool. The same people with different faces and slightly different habits and hairstyles, but the same none the less.

But it’s okay. Once again I’m about to pull back the veil and give you five characters that appear in almost every story, with examples from four hugely successful stories – Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Lion King and Harry Potter.

With my guidance, we’ll fill your story with characters that are the same as everyone else’s, but a little different.

Because that, not originality (which is stressful), is the key to success.

So, let’s get into it.


1. The Hero

Our Examples:

  • Lord of the Rings: Frodo
  • Star Wars: Luke Skywalker
  • Lion King: Simba
  • Harry Potter: Harry Potter (duh).

The Three Stages of Heroism

Stage one: The Hero is introduced to a whole new world (don’t you dare close your eyes)

Once you’ve created your world, it’s time to create your hero.

The best way to do this? Make someone so far removed from the world you’ve created you can hardly believe they could ever find their way into it. Make sure they are bored/ miserable/ restless.

Then, introduce them to their new world. This is Gandalf telling Frodo the truth behind the ring, Luke learning his father was a Jedi Knight, Simba heading to the Elephant Graveyard, Harry being told he’s a wizard.

Next stop, adventure!

Stage two: have your hero ask plenty of stupid questions

Like your readers, the hero is someone you should have complete and utter contempt for.

This is because your readers and the hero are connected. It is, after all, through your heroes eyes that the reader will experience this new world.

It’s important to think of your stupidest reader and make your hero like them. Ensure they ask plenty of dumb questions. You know, the kind of stuff no real person would ever ask because of how obvious it is.

Harry Potter is brilliant at this. Through seven years he manages to ask some of the dumbest questions you could ever imagine, with Hermione needing to spell out literally every single thing to him four times before he understands it.

That’s what you should aim for. Just think, children could be reading your books, and just think, those children could be missing half their brain, and just think, those children could be reading your book upside down.

Gotta make it real clear.

Stage three: Drag them kicking and screaming to a climax with the main villain, then make sure it is not them who defeats said villain

You’ve probably been sitting there thinking that because your hero has come through so much shit getting to the climax of your story, they should probably defeat the big bad themselves.

It’s thinking like that why you’re not a successful writer.

No, in truth, we don’t want to see our hero succeed. They’ve been an idiot for the whole story, why should they overcome the baddy and destroy them now? That would be stupid.

Look at our great hero examples. Frodo gets to a place where he can destroy the ring, only to decide he wants to keep it. It’s then only destroyed when Gollum bites it off his finger and falls into the volcano.

Luke gets to face off against the Emperor and his daddy then proceeds to lie on the floor being viciously attacked by the Emperor until Darth Vader decides it’s all gone a bit too far and throws said Emperor down a well. A move that leads to his own demise.

Simba comes the closest to killing his enemy. At least he actually beats Scar in a fight, but he then leaves him to be devoured by the Hyenas.

Finally, Harry Potter beats Voldemort because of equipment malfunction. After about eighty times of trying and failing to kill your boy HP, Voldemort’s wand gets sick of him, backfires, and kills Voldy instead of Harry.

Congratulations guys on doing nothing and still saving the day!

Creating your hero

This is easy. Find someone far removed from the action of your story, give them a reason to be pulled into it (preferably because of destiny rather than hard work or any of that nonsense).

Make sure they’re thick, so not able to save the day, give them too big of a heart and make them fail right near the end of their quest.

That’s when you bring in the real hero of the story to defeat the enemy and excite your readers.

The Lucky Break.


2. The Mentor

Our Examples:

  • Lord of the Rings: Gandalf
  • Star Wars: Obi-Wan (Ben) Kenobi
  • Lion King: Mufasa
  • Harry Potter: Dumbledore

The Mentor’s Story

Introduction

The Mentor is introduced as a great wise presence who introduces our pathetic hero to a world he never knew existed or didn’t understand.

Examples: Gandalf telling Frodo about the ring, and sending him on his quest; Ben Kenobi giving Luke his father’s lightsaber and talking about the Empire; Mufasa talking about the circle of life

Exception: Dumbledore is the exporter of much key information along the way in the series, but does not come into Harry’s story until he is already aware of his Wizard status (ignoring that it was Dumbledore who put baby Harry on the doorstep, of course).

Power

The Mentor is revealed to be greater than the villain in question and to have some connection to him. Basically, the mentor could defeat the baddie no trouble if he had the time. He’s just been busy. You understand.

Examples: Ben Kenobi trained Darth Vader; Mufasa is Scar’s big brother (presumably half); Dumbledore taught Voldemort and was the only one he ever feared.

Exception: Gandalf is not shown as being more powerful than Sauron, but he is still a million times more powerful than anyone else Frodo goes questing with.

Demise

The Mentor is killed performing an act of heroism, putting paid to any hopes that he might kill the villain single-handedly, allowing the hero to go to bed or catch up on Eastenders.

Examples: Gandalf is dragged off a bridge by the Balrog, allowing the others to flee; Ben Kenobi realises he left the oven on and is killed by Darth Vader; Mufasa saves Simba before being pushed under the stampede by Scar

Exception: Dumbledore is killed, but not exactly heroically. It’s really Snape who is being the hero here, making it so Draco doesn’t have to kill anyone. Dumbledore wouldn’t have had to die at all if he hadn’t put that bloody ring on.

Return

Finally, forgetting momentarily they are dead, the mentor returns temporarily to offer moral support via a flimsy but quotable line when our hero needs it most (because they are being a baby).

Examples: “Use the force, Luke”, “remember who you are”, “Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love.”

Exception: Again, Gandalf does return, but he then eschews normal convention by refusing to go away again. This is incredibly helpful for our heroes but does somewhat undermine the narrative and struggles of those around him.

Creating your mentor

Pick a character who is much older than your hero. Make him patronising but patient, ready to explain plenty of simple concepts to your idiot hero.

Ensure he is more powerful than anyone could reasonably expect to be in whatever your universe, and make it clear that he is far too powerful to die, so everyone can be well surprised when he does (assuming they’ve never read a book or seen a film before).

Finally, connect him to your villain. For example, if your villain is a nasty shoe salesman, then maybe our mentor taught him how to shift Nikes by the bucket load.


3. The Villain

Our Examples:

  • Lord of the Rings: Sauron
  • Star Wars: Darth Vader/ The Emperor
  • Lion King: Scar
  • Harry Potter: Voldemort

The Great Villain Checklist: A great villain is…

One: Desperate to take over the world/ galaxy/ rock

This is the obvious one. A villain is not a villain unless they want to take over something.

Sauron wants Middle Earth, Darth Vader and the Emperor want the Galaxy, Scar wants… uh, a rock… and Voldemort wants the world.

Obviously, if they aren’t trying to take something then our hero can’t try and fail to stop them from taking something.

Two: Ugly

You are probably a brilliant writer.

Your prose is gorgeous, your world’s fleshed out, your characters may even already be engaging

But it turns out the real world is full of shallow arseholes who will refuse to believe a hero is a hero if they ain’t pretty, and the same in reverse.

If Sauron looked like an elf, no one would be able to believe he was a bastard – and so he is that big eye thing. The emperor has his super wrinkly face and Voldemort looks like a snake.

Disney, who are racist, took this in a slightly less PC direction, making Scar the only dark furred lion.

This is not advisable.

As writers, we need to understand evil actions aren’t enough. Sure someone might set fire to an orphanage and kill everyone inside, but if they have a pretty face, can they have an ugly soul?

Of course not.

That’s why people are happy to route for Patrick Bateman as he murders prostitutes and Walt White as he murders Mike. Because neither of them is unattractive.

Three: Not interested in workers rights

This is absolutely key.

Yes they’re trying to take over the world, and they’re super ugly, but what really sets a villain apart from a hero, is not that they’re bastards to the other side, but that they’re bastards to the same side.

And by no interest in workers rights, I mean more than being overworked and underpaid (although these are key cornerstones). I mean being willing to torture and kill your own people for failure.

Would baddies be more profitable if they were kind and forgiving to their own staff?

Probably.

But that’s not really the point, is it?

Creating your villain

What more is there to say? Give ‘em something to want, make \em really ugly, and have them act like Tesco to their staff.


4. The Love Interest

Our Examples:

  • Lord of the Rings: Arwen
  • Star Wars: Leia
  • Lion King: Nala
  • Harry Potter: Ginny

Just don’t leave it out

In this world we live in, you could get away with leaving out the villain or hero before you could get away with leaving out the love interest.

It doesn’t have to make sense. It doesn’t have to add to the plot.

It just has to be there.

Sure you can try and make it a little more interesting. Arwen is an elf who has to give up her immortality to be with Aragon; Leia is Luke’s sister and, even worse, Ginny is Harry’s best friend’s sister.

But, as Nala proves, you don’t even have to do this.

So, once you have your hero, pluck another character out of thin air, and say they will be in love with your hero (or Aragorn).

They don’t have to be well suited. They don’t even have to make sense.

They just have to be pretty.


5. The Comic Relief

Our Examples:

  • Lord of the Rings: Merry & Pippin
  • Star Wars: C3P0 & R2D2
  • Lion King: Timon and Pumbaa
  • Harry Potter: Ron, Fred & George

The biggest burden of them all

As you can see. This is one burden no character can face alone.

Within these stories you are crafting beautiful drama, and conflict, and woe.

You are putting your characters through such terrible trauma that no one man could lighten the mood. This takes two, or even three.

Like the love interest, these characters don’t necessarily have to make sense to the story.

Would anyone have allowed Merry & Pippin come alone as part of the fellowship of the ring? No, but they were good for a laugh.

R2D2 sure was useful, but any normal man would have had C3P0 sent down the same trash compactor that almost killed the rebels.

And of course, Timon and Pumbaa are the very definitions of comic relief, as are Fred and George, while Ron ran out of uses the moment he won that chess game in book one.

After that, he became the Xander of the group.

So when crafting your comic relief characters. Don’t worry about whether they can drive the plot forward, or whether they will be of any actual use to your main character.

Just make sure they can make you laugh.

These ones don’t even have to be pretty.

Not that it doesn’t help.


Looking Ahead

So, you’ve created a brilliant story idea by using my techniques in last month’s course and now you have the means to create the characters to fall within them.

Next up, we’ll be looking at planning, and how we can make these characters and these ideas fit together in a cohesive story.

See you in May.

Series Navigation<< 5 ways to generate ideas10 stages every novel plan needs >>
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International worst selling author Mark Ayre has been writing since before he could pick up a pen (somehow). Recently he is taking the internet by storm with his Man vs Bookshelf Challenge where he aims to read the 210 books on his bookshelf in 210 weeks, reviewing them on his blog and Goodreads along the way. He is also publishing books on Amazon, his most recent being the family suspense novel, Poor Choices, which you can find here.

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