Information for this blog post came from Steven James’ breakout session, How to Create Three-Dimensional Characters. He’s quirky, fun, and talks with his hands. Go check him out!
A woman is slumped on a couch; a man stands over her, glaring at her with folded arms. Who has higher status?
The woman finally closes her book and looks up at him, clearly annoyed. He puts his hands on his hips and starts complaining about all the ways she’s messed up today. She frowns, unimpressed, and says nothing. Who has higher status now?
The man tells her she needs to shape up or find a new apartment. The woman leaps to her feet, waving her arms and screaming. She flings the book across the room, and the man shakes his head and leaves. Now who has higher status?
There are many different kinds of status. Relational status is a character’s status in personal relationships (family, friends, that one guy from high school biology that you just can’t stand). Positional status is a character’s status in a professional setting, such as her position at work. Situational status is the status of your character against whoever she happens to be interacting with at that moment; if three strangers show up in your living room with knives, chances are pretty good that they have higher situational status.
What makes characters interesting is variable status. Maybe your character was no doubt the snappiest dresser at last Friday’s sock hop, but she then has to go to work Saturday morning for a squeaky-voiced misogynist who makes her stay after hours to clean the floors on hands and knees. But then she goes home and gets the royal treatment because she’s the only one keeping bread on the table since Grandpa retired and Joe got laid off. Varying status in varying situations is what keeps a character interesting. Without these dichotomies and contradictions, characters can feel one dimensional and unrealistic.
“Turning the tables” happens when a character with seemingly low status suddenly claims the higher ground. Say the three guys with knives charge into the living room to find an aging man sitting on his couch eating a bowl of ice cream. The three men seem to have the higher status- they’re in a larger group, they’re armed, they have the element of surprise. But then the man pulls a fully automatic rifle from under the couch and calmly tells them, “Kids, you’ve got about five seconds to get out of my house.” Who has the higher status now?
Control always boosts a character’s status. A character can manifest control internally (keeping her temper in check), externally (stopping the bomb before it blows up the White House), or interpersonally (calming his raging daughter with a few quiet words and a hug). The way a character stands, how long she holds a gaze, how cool she is in a crisis- all these things convey control, or lack thereof.
Let’s go back to the sample characters at the beginning of this post. They actually swap higher status back and forth. In the first segment, the man is using physical presence to attain higher status- the fact that he’s standing over her with folded arms is a very dominant position. But when he’s whining about everything and the woman keeps her silence, unimpressed, she has higher status because she’s clearly the calmer character. But that gets thrown out of the window when she starts ranting and throwing things. Stillness is power. A lack of stillness shows that she can’t even control herself.
The two most important characters you will write in your story are your protagonist and your antagonist. Both of these characters need to have high status, but they can have high status in different ways. For example, antagonists usually have very high positional status (such as Lucas’ Emperor Palpatine or Goodkind’s Darken Rahl) while protagonists often don’t (Luke Skywalker, Richard Cypher). But protagonists usually have high relational status- they’re loved and trusted by their friends- and situational status- people, powers, or tools, show up to aid them in their quest; they also always have the moral high ground. But no matter what kind of high status they have, it’s very important that neither protagonists nor antagonists lower their status through their own actions. If they lower their own status, they come off as weak, stupid, or otherwise unworthy of their counterpart, and the final clash in the climax is less tense as a result.
Protagonists need opportunities to be heroic, to be noble. They need to sacrifice for the good of others. They need to stand up for the oppressed. They need to place the best interests of others ahead of their own.
On the other hand, antagonists need opportunities to be dastardly. They need to be seen as scary, as wrong, as the kind of person that needs to be taken down. Evil for the sake of evil is boring, so they need motivation and intention that leads them in that direction. As Steven James said about all characters: “Action without intention distances readers- What are they trying to avoid, obtain, or overcome?” Your antagonist’s and your protagonist’s motivation and intention should be clearest to readers, so make sure it’s clearest in your own mind first.
Remember, “realistic characters: are consistent and reasonably predictable; are caricatures, not stereotypes; act only when motivated or caused to do so; and are believable and interesting.” If your characters are lacking in any of these respects, take the time to remedy that! Make sure you understand what motivates your characters, why they make the choices they do, how they move through their world. Understand how their status changes from person to person that they interact with, and use those actions to propel your protagonist to greatness.
During the class, Steven James shared a beautifully concise list of character actions and behaviors that indicated higher or lower status. I’ll post that Friday, because ‘tis the season. See you then!