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Character development is crucial to a good story

January 27, 2011|Lisa Prejean

When considering what makes a compelling story, most people might think that conflict is the most essential component. It is certainly a driving force in literature because it is a driving force in life. Conflict is what draws us together, pulls us apart and weaves the fabric of our lives. It is not always pleasant, but it almost always intrigues. "What a great story!" one friend says to another after the sharing of a tale. We like to know what happened, when it happened and how it happened. It is through understanding conflict and its resolution that we are able to comprehend the meaning of a story or the meaning of life. Yet conflict does more than all that. Conflict sets the stage for the characters involved in a story. The characters allow for the conflict to be fully developed. Getting to know a character is one of the joys of reading. Authors know that if they are going to be effective, they must produce characters that draw a reader into a story. That is not an easy task, but one that writers tackle from many angles. As readers, we get to know characters in a story the same way we get to know someone at work or in our neighborhood: We listen to what they say, we watch them in action and we listen to what others say about them. Writers use exposition — the part of a story that reveals what happened before — to tell us much about a character. What has shaped this character's personality, outlook, intellect? Based on the character's past, what should we expect for the future? Writers develop characters through the use of dialogue. How does the character interact with others? What kind of person is the character? What kind of person is interacting with this character? Writers also use description to help readers form a mental picture of a character. From the words selected by the writer, we learn much about the appearance and mannerisms of a character. Typically, the closer the character is to the conflict, the more we will learn about that character. Our discussion of character in class would lack much if it didn't include practical application. Each year in freshmen English we read Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island" as a good example of effective character development. Some readers might excuse Stevenson's piece as simple escape literature, but the story is also appealing because of its action and intriguing characters. Most teens relate to the story's hero and narrator, Jim Hawkins, a boy who is trying to protect his family's Admiral Benbow Inn from a pirate raid the day after his father's funeral. That's a powerful conflict that the reader wishes would resolve. Indeed, this story provides enjoyable reading year after year. The cast of characters? They are not soon forgotten. How could we forget a seafarin' man with one leg? Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at lisap@herald-mail.com.

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