World building, plotting, and good writing are all important to a story—vitally so. But it’s the characters who make or break the story. It’s the characters who carry us through—or fail to. Bad characters can ruin a novel or movie that is otherwise flawless. Likewise, good ones can carry an otherwise lame story to victory.
For example: The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco. This book has so many elements that I usually love: a strong female protagonist (a Dark Witch who can raise the dead!), a non-Western-based setting (fantasy Asia!), and exquisite world building (magic users as geishas! Fantasy characters who acknowledge the need for money!). It’s a well-crafted, well-constructed gem of a book.
I can’t stand it. The characters are lifeless. The protagonist never expresses a single heartfelt emotion, and neither does anyone else. I didn’t care what happened to anybody when I tried reading it; not because they are portrayed as cruel or evil people, but because they are barely portrayed as people at all.
On the other hand, there’s Into the Badlands, an extremely silly Netflix show. It has lots of elements that I normally hate: interminable fight scenes (come on, Sunny, can you really take on over fifty nomads single-handed?), improbable feats of martial arts (fighting in six-inch heels, Minerva? Seriously?), and gaping holes in the world building (why are the Barons growing cash crops like opium and silk when they’re not living in a cash-based economy?). It’s a foolish, over-the-top flimsy excuse for lots and lots of hand fighting and ridiculous martial arts scenes.
And I love it. I’ve watched that show over and over. I’m cheering Sunny and M.K. every step of the way. I’m even cheering on the villains. I love them all.
It’s all about the characters.
The characters in The Bone Witch are almost antiseptic; their thoughts, feelings and experiences are described, but never truly experienced by the readers. The characters in Into the Badlands, on the other hand, live and breathe. They range all over the vast spectrum of emotions, and those emotions are true and heartfelt. Their relationships are well constructed and well portrayed, and genuinely interesting, as well as totally believable. No one is portrayed in black and white: the heroes, Sunny and M.K., have done terrible, evil things in the past, while the villains are complex human beings, as motivated by love and a sense of responsibility as ambition and personal gain. I was heartbroken when Veil died, because she was a real person to me; I mourned with M.K. over his tragic past. I love the show because I love the characters.
So, if you’re going to write a story, or a novel, or a screenplay, make those characters breathe. Everything else—plotting, writing, the setting—is important, but nothing is as vital as those characters. Who are our heroes and villains? Seriously, who are they? What are their motivations? What’s their fashion style? If you offered them a doughnut, would they accept with delight or faint dead away at the thought of all those carbs? Make them live: make us think their thoughts, feel their emotions. Make us believe in those characters, whether they’re villains or heroes, naughty or nice, before you make us read the story.
Because, frankly, I don’t want to read about a bunch of overly-competent, self-sufficient automatons with perfectly controlled emotions. I want heroes with flaws and villains with good sides. I want those characters to be human! Because, if they’re not, I’m just going to pitch the book and go watch Sunny beat up his enemies some more and hope that when I watch it this time Veil defeats Quinn without killing herself. I’d rather explore the Badlands, with their complex characters and foolish setting, than tour an exquisite setting with boringly competent geishas.
It’s all about the characters. Every time. Make ‘em count.