Monthly Archives: November 2014

Newton’s Three Laws of Believable Characters

I went out to lunch with a friend last week. The restaurant was packed. It was lucky we we showed up when we did because just a few minutes later a line formed, spilling out the door and into the parking lot.

After discovering our order would be delayed an hour, we got to talking about how late we would be returning to work–about the explanations we would be asked to give, and about punishments and consequences.

“Every action has an equal and opposite reaction,” I said, scanning the restaurant for our very late waiter.

“Or, in layman’s terms,” John pointed out, “actions have consequences.”

I stared at him for a moment, taking in the parallel he had just made between Newton’s Third Law and one of the most fundamental aspects of character-building.

If there’s only one thing an author can get right about a story, it should be his characters. Characters are the heart and soul of writing–stories don’t exist without people.

When developing a story, it’s easy to remember the most basic building blocks needed to create believable characters. Believe it or not, they’re same basic building blocks you’ll learn in a high school physics course.

1. An object in motion stays in motion unless acted on by an external force

People don’t change overnight. A girl who’s deeply in love with her boyfriend one day won’t wake up hating him the next (unless she forgot to take her Seroquel). Bad guys don’t suddenly become good and a drunken fool won’t sober up without a fight. Consistency is the key to a believable character.

Take Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. He sold his soul to the Ring a long time ago. His life was bound to it. Then Frodo came along, offering Gollum a chance to be free. But it wasn’t enough. Gollum’s many mistakes kept him tied to the fate of the Ring. Frodo’s hand wasn’t strong enough to push him off that track–Smeagol had died a long time ago.

2. Force Equals Mass times Acceleration

Plot is the force of a story. Reading a story with a dull plot quickly zaps any passion for the written word. To grow a good plot, two seeds must be carefully attended: character and motive.

Plots don’t happen to characters and should never dictate their actions (see rule 1). A plot can only unfold when a character comes to life, living as he sees fit.

Do you think Romeo and Juliet died on accident? Everything that came to pass in that story (believe it or not) was influenced by the character’s actions. Because he has an affinity for drama, Romeo chose to relieve the pain of his latest breakup by crashing the Capulets’ party. For the same reasons, he convinced a naive Juliet to marry him the next day. When Romeo heard the news Juliet’s “death,” he–again true to his over-active emotions–killed himself.

None of this happened to Romeo, all he did was live life as he saw fit. An audience cannot suspend disbelief if they can see a puppeteer pulling the strings.

3. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction

Actions have consequences. If a private in the military mouths off to a superior, do you think his commanding officer will let him slide? Poking a bear will leave you face-to-face with 42 gleaming bear teeth.

Every action a character makes is important and should serve to move a story forward. A good author will only record the moments in a character’s life that are necessary to bring life and color to the story he is unraveling.

Take the Broadway musical, Les Miserablés. This is one of the most comprehensive plots I know. Every action in this story serves a purpose. Every song explains a little more about the character singing. Even with a running time of nearly three hours, every word of every line serves a specific function.

It’s the deliberate placing of one foot in front of the other, the determined sense of purpose, which allows an audience to get lost in the story.

Conclusion

Without characters, stories wouldn’t exist–which is why it is so important to get them right. Inconsistency, lack of motive, and unneeded actions are like a glass of lemonade without sugar. While some people may enjoy lemony water, with the wrong ratio, your refreshing drink would just be a sour mess.

Next time you find yourself writing flat characters, think back to high school. Consistency in characters is as important as consistency in motion. Without it, the universe of your story will collapse.

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