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Demanding Greatness of our Characters

I want to talk about the importance of demanding greatness of our characters – in everything they do, and regardless of their gender or station. This doesn’t mean our characters won’t stumble. They may, and big time. What it does mean, is that through the writer’s vision they are endeavoring to demand greatness of themselves. To be better, do better, learn, grow – even when they’re terrified and are likely to face grave consequences for their actions.

Aspiring to something great or at least noticeably greater is a key ingredient in any story worth a damn, but I’d say it’s especially crucial to get it right when there’s a central romance – especially in the romance or romantasy genre. Because as writers, we’re not only asking a reader to follow our characters’ exploits through the course of a story, but we’re also trying to get them to fall in love with our romantic characters and be chomping at the bit to inhabit their romance or love story. And there is a difference between a romance and a love story, by the way, but we’ll delve deeper into that on another day.

This Holy Grail of greatness is also vital in a series, when we’re asking a reader to follow the elements of a story, and characters essential to that story, across a number of books. We, as the creators, are being tasked with sustaining interest in our characters and their goings on, by always plotting their next “dare to be great moment” (I’m quoting the 1989 film Say Anything here). One that will reveal yet another aspect of a main character’s character, another way in which they can shine and truly distinguish themselves, make themselves worthy of a reader’s time, of their love, of their next obsession.

These dare to be great moments can happen on every level of the story. On a personal, historical, or a professional level, depending on what type of story we’re writing. It could be a work about warriors, physicians, spies or police detectives, or it could be about the poor and the young who are struggling to ascend and do the right thing both civically and morally under some difficult, disheartening, at times downright dystopian circumstances.

That sense of greatness – aspiring to greatness, achieving greatness within a character’s own milieu, especially after a tremendous struggle – is imperative to sustaining the sort of excitement I want to dig into here and now. It is essential to infusing our characters with charisma and lighting a fire beneath everything they say and do.

I’ve thought a lot about charisma, about how we, as writers might manufacture charisma in our characters. Both through circumstances and through our characters’ reactions to circumstances. Through those dare to be great moments that take our breath away.

To me, the basic definition of charisma is when opposing elements converge within a person and are demonstrable. The powerful man or woman, who is also humble and gentle. The outlaw with an unshakable sense of honor. The son or daughter of privilege who volunteers for the hardships of war. The nerdy librarian who is sexy as hell.

I like to reference the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon when I talk about gold standard charismatic characters who demand greatness of themselves and achieve it. Her central lovers, Claire and Jamie, are both formidable characters in their own right, who primarily aspire to greatness in their values and in their own personal sphere. Some of the Outlander books take place in fancy environments like the French court of the 18th century, but in most of the Outlander novels, Gabaldon’s characters are really just living their lives, being heroic in everyday sorts of ways and within the context of their time in history. They’re helping people, standing up for themselves, for their region. Yet Gabaldon manages to make theirs an epic story, whether they are fighting pirates, or political intrigues, or are simply farming in rural colonial America.

Now, Claire is actually a time-traveler, so that complicates things and manufactures charisma organically to some extent. That’s a great lesson in the conjuring of charisma because these dare to be great moments really do come to the surface quite often when she’s around, and for good reason. Claire carries the certitude of a modern woman. Her brand of confidence comes from emancipation, a career, and legal rights that were not available to women of her adopted time. Quite naturally, she moves differently in the world than the women around her and ends up as an unwitting role model to many, and a bitter enemy to a dangerous few.

As for Jamie, her husband, he is a man who aspires to greatness no matter what he’s doing – whether he’s chopping wood for a fire or chasing a villain through the forest. He stands by his woman, and stands by his men, his friends, his people – always. Strong and consistent, noble and rakish all at once. He’s not above gambling and fighting, but he’s always got a damned good reason to do either.

He’s the sort of gold standard character who not only captures a reader’s attention, but holds it, makes them not only willing, but eager to follow him, and consequently Gabaldon’s vision anywhere – even to some really weird places. In short, characters like Jamie and Claire give an author air cover to take big chances and do something different with a story.

I suppose that’s why I get stuck on this topic of greatness. Because I definitely take my own readers to very weird places and want to inspire our authors to feel empowered enough to do so as well. It’s fun! 

At every turn, I’ll ask questions, gauging a characters’ reactions, seeking clarification and amplification. If they see a ghost, how do they respond to that? What is the biggest action they can take? How might they react to being someone who can commune with ghosts? How do others react to them? How does their ability change their circumstances? And how does an author elevate that, give it real meaning in the story? Make characters and their feats of heroism, their struggles to overcome failure and tragedy, stay with a reader like a glorious hangover.

When that happens, that’s when a character, a story, has transcended entertainment for me. Both as a reader and writer. When I’ve absorbed this fictional world and its citizens into my psyche, my way of being in my world. When these characters have changed me, made me aspire to be better, or dare I say it? When they've demanded greatness of me.

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