In my article Is SCQA the minimum structure for story telling? I discussed how Situation, Complication, Question, Answer is the minimum description for a story. I’ve been reading about the challenge of making all characters in a story rounded, and if you look for three-dimensional characters (for example) you will get plenty of opinion and techniques.
What I want to do is consider this at a more abstract level and also suggest this is a use of tension to drive narrative. I do this by talking about computer games and other odds and ends.
The role of characters
In the vast majority, if not all stories, characters are essential. They carry out the actions, they carry the burden of living the story. With no hero, it would be hard to have a Hero’s Journey!
[pullquote]they are a bit vanilla[/pullquote]
We writers spend time (sometimes a lot of time) crafting our main characters, the hero, villain, love interest, companion and so forth. What we may struggle to do is make every other figure relevant. How many one-dimensional figures are in your latest work? The barman who is rude to tourists, the soldier who blindly follows orders, the policeman who wants to get all his paperwork in order; these are all minor characters from some of my recent work. I have to say in the cold light of day they are a bit vanilla, a bit stereotypical. If any of them were to have more than a few lines of narrative they’d need more life.
As writers it might be great if we could give every person in a story a basic configuration and then leave them to run themselves. This is very much like the game The Sims. In this game you create / meet a range of people, each with some parameters (ambition, favourite colour, job, skill) and let them live. Some you can manage others you can leave to do their own thing. They go off, live in the little Sim town and to a degree it all looks very convincing. To a degree.
Stories need tension; the hero needs a nemesis, there needs to be a conflict in the centre of a story (at least one) to provide the energy that drives the story forward. It may be the tension of being a newcomer to a school where everyone knows everyone else, it may a love rival, it may be war. Whatever it is there is tension. It may just be the abrasive relation between two people destined to fall in love, obvious to the reader not the character. Whatever it is there is tension.
I believe there needs to be tension within characters as well; this is what makes them three-dimensional. This can be personality based (the extrovert who works as a lighthouse keeper miles from the nearest town), it can be context based (the woman sent away from home to an arranged marriage who wants to follow tradition but wants to choose her own husband) it can be any ugly duckling type story (where a character is in a very atypical setting – at the time of writing women in IT is unusual, and provides much of the setup for the Channel 4 TV show The IT Crowd). Whatever it is, tension is vital.
SCQA putting it all together
Each character needs an element of tension, the next fisherman you write needs to be unable to swim, the next school teacher hates children and so forth. Sum it up like this:
Situation: the character exists
Complication: there is an aspect to the character’s life / situation that drives tension, a contradiction in the most extreme case (as happens in sitcoms – it makes characters easy to identify)
Question: why -> back story; so what -> how do they resolve their tension, what actions do they take, how does these move the story forward?
Answer: the extroverted lighthouse keeper runs a pirate radio station using the lighthouse as a radio mast, the generous traffic warden lets the family off a ticket on Christmas Day, the story of Scrooge in Christmas Carol… the list is endless.