We call oddball eccentrics “characters.” Yet character is also the possession of attributes, often moral, and characters are the individuals enacting a plot. Compile all these definitions, and you get—story.
Story harnesses entertainment to make morality easier to swallow. Based on that, your characters need equal parts moral fiber and zany individuality. Those are the building blocks for making characters more “real” than real people.
In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner reminds us that “The primary subject of fiction is and has always been human emotion, values, and beliefs.” The more your plot delivers that, then the more complex emotions your readers will experience. So you need conflict—big conflict, even the danger is exclusively psychological.
Adversity tests a character’s character. Will you answer the quest? Continue despite seemingly insurmountable odds? Earn the love, happiness, respect, honor, or victory that the antagonist mercilessly struggles to rip from you?
Robert McKee has said that the pressure the antagonist exerts brings out the best in a character. It also brings out the best in the reader, who begins wondering, “Would I fight that hard?” “Are my own struggles as weighty as those the protagonist faces?” “How can I not feel empathy for a battle of this magnitude?” How come the great human issues never change?
Your readers respond that way because of the emotional, causal, and moral nature of fiction. As Robert McKee put it in Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting:
A character is no more a human being than the Venus de Milo is a real woman. A character is a work of art, a metaphor for human nature. We relate to characters as if they were real, but they're superior to reality. Their aspects are designed to be clear and knowable; whereas our fellow humans are difficult to understand, if not enigmatic. We know characters better than we know our friends because a character is eternal and unchanging, while people shift - just when we think we understand them, we don't.
Creating characters who are metaphorical works of art is a tall order. What makes that happen?
~ Breed empathy.
Your antagonist(s) can help.
~ Emphasize resilience.
Who loves a whiner?
~ Celebrate morality.
Life is unfair. Should fiction be?
~ Liberate your characters.
Unless you set them free, how can they surprise you or anyone else?