Characters are people to whom bad things happen. This is a good definition as far as it goes, but if this is as far as you take it, you will fail to properly raise the stakes in your story, and the entire reading experience will suffer as a result.
Sure, bad things happen to characters. They find themselves in the midst of conflict, after all. But you don’t want these things to merely happen to your characters. The events of your plot should not be random calamities that happened to strike your brave and stalwart protagonist just so you can show how admirable he is.
This construction inevitably leads to shallow stories. You miss out on the power of cause and effect, the opportunity to deepen your themes, and, most importantly, the ability to explore your characters.
Characters should not be simply people to whom bad things happen. Instead characters should be people who caused bad things to happen to themselves.
Victim or Catalyst? How to Tell if Your Character Is Moving Your Plot
You don’t want your character to simply be someone who gets run over by the plot. Rather, you want your character to be someone who hijacks the bus and drives the plot—even when it’s to her detriment.
The secret to dynamic characters is involving them in the events of the plot. Even better, make them responsible for the events of the plot, to at least some degree. Not only does this prevent the plot events from seeming like random catastrophes, it also deepens your ability to explore your characters’ motivations and reactions.
If the character’s own decisions are at least partially responsible for the fix in which he finds himself, he will be forced to look deeper into his own soul. Instead of being able to cast full blame on the nasty antagonist, he must instead search his own heart for answers to the story’s plot and theme questions.
When you fail to make your character responsible for the story’s consequences, he becomes little more than a bland victim, and you fail to raise the stakes in your story. Consider, one last time, Gavin O’Connor’s problematic western Jane Got a Gun, in which plucky Jane recruits her ex-fiancé Dan to help fight off the outlaws who shot her husband Ham.
The story revolves around Jane and Dan’s pained relationship. Why didn’t she marry him? Why did he abandon her? Why did Ham marry her? Why is the antagonist Bishop after all of them?
Turns out the answer to every one of these questions is pretty incidental:
- Jane made the arguably wrong choice of marrying Ham instead of Dan, her first love. But was she responsible for this decision? Nope. She thought Dan died in the Civil War. How much more interesting had she knowingly chosen Ham over Dan—and then had to live with the consequences?
- Dan never returned from the war to marry Jane—for which she blamed him. But was he responsible for this decision? Nope. He was a prisoner of war, unable to get word to her to wait for him. How much more interesting had he chosen not to return to her—and then had to live with the consequences?
- Ham worked for the Bishop gang who abducted Jane, supposedly killed her daughter, and attempted to force her into prostitution. But was he responsible for playing a part in what happened to her before he fell in love with her and rescued her? Nope (or at least, we never know for certain). He appeared to be a good guy (with bad judgment) from start to finish. How much more interesting had he knowingly participated in Bishop’s dark deeds—and then had to live with the consequences?
So many juicy possibilities to explore! And yet, as it stands, nobody in this story is responsible for anything. They’re all just nice, bland people who were victims of incomplete information and to whom bad things happened through no real fault of their own.
How to Make Your Characters Responsible for Their Actions
It’s extremely easy to look at plot as merely a series of external events to which characters must react. But if that’s all that’s happening, you’re missing a wealth of opportunities.
Take a look at all the major turning points in your story. What consequences must your characters endure? Now ask yourself: are they personally responsible for these consequences in some way? How could you raise the stakes in your story?
Consider Uncle Ben’s death in the Spider-Man stories. Peter Parker certainly didn’t fire the gun that killed his uncle; he certainly didn’t want his uncle to be killed. And yet, he is still responsible for this terrible event through his own choice not to prevent the robbery in which the killer took part.
This decision fuels the entirety of Peter’s story. How much less interesting would his character development have been had he been merely a helpless, innocent bystander to the death of his beloved father figure? How much more interesting is the story because he was partially culpable?
Don’t play nice with your characters. It’s not enough to simply allow bad things to happen to them. Raise the stakes in your story by laying the burden of responsibility upon your characters for the tragedies that befall them.