Douglas Adams has many great characters in Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, but one of my favourites only exists for about a page—the sperm whale that is suddenly called into existence a few miles above the planet of Magrathea. Of course, the ending is fairly predictable.
“Hey! What’s this thing suddenly coming towards me very fast? Very very fast. So big and flat and round, it needs a big wide sounding name like…ow…ound…round…ground! That’s it! That’s a good name—ground! I wonder if it will be friends with me?”
I remember reading interviews with Adams where he explained how this whale came about. In cop shows on TV at that time there would often be chase scenes with both heroes and villains firing guns. Naturally, the villains were never the best of shots, and innocent bystanders would end up dying. What annoyed Adams about this was how nobody on-screen appeared to care—there was nobody to cry over this loss of life, or even say ‘Hey! I was going to play tennis with that guy this afternoon!’ (apologies if I’ve got the quote wrong—I’m going from memory here). In short, these characters were only there for one purpose—to be killed.
So Adams decided to write a character whose only role was to die, and make sure the reader cared about them.
I think it’s safe to say he achieved this.
But this points to the importance of characters in stories. Often, stories are viewed as primarily plots (the stuff that happens), with characters simply being the ones this stuff happens to. But in a good story, the plot is driven by the characters—initially through their reactions to events (like the thoughts going through Adams’ whale’s head), and then through their actions (although the whale’s meeting with the ground prevents anything in this example). Story is not so much the events as the characters’ reactions and actions. In fact, I believe we can go a stage further—characters are story.
To illustrate this, I want to compare a couple of books—Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama and Andy Weir’s The Martian. Both are hard sci-fi, and as such both dive into scientific details. Both give the reader a sense of place through their scientific world-building.
Rendezvous… is about a team of astronauts investigating a huge alien artifact that has entered the solar system. We follow this team as they uncover various mysteries, learning more and more. Occasionally, things go wrong, but the team are professionally competent, and they soon solve any issues.
This is one problem I had with the book—there’s very little tension. Yes, there are the constant questions about Rama, but the whole ‘story’ is more like a narrative documentary than an adventure into the unknown. The characters (and I can’t remember their names, nor anything distinguishing about any of them) are simply tools through which Clarke can describe this fantastic world he has created.
Now compare this with The Martian. Mark Watney is stranded on Mars, and right from the start we’re with him as he struggles to survive. We ride with his ups and downs, feeling the tension of his struggles and the release as he solves problems. Yes, there’s science and maths in his solutions, and he’s competent and professional, but we relate to him as a person. What might have been a guide to survival on Mars becomes, through the character of Watney, a story of survival in a hostile environment.
Story comes to us through character, not through situations or environments.
Think of any successful book, and chances are you think of the characters driving the story.
The battle for Middle Earth is huge, too big for the average person to hold, and so Tolkien tells his story through the struggles of a few characters, primarily the hobbits. The fight between good and evil is made personal in Frodo’s struggle with the power of the Ring. Sam, his stout friend, gives us hope because he’s someone we can relate to—not particularly skilled, terrified much of the time, but with a firm belief in what is right, and a drive to do what he can to help Frodo. The story exists not in the vast sweeping history but in the struggles of these characters.
There are many other examples, of course. The conflict in JK Rowling’s wizarding world is brought to us initially through a young boy’s introduction to his own abilities as a wizard, and continues through his struggles both with his power and his develop into a young man, culminating in his confrontation with Voldemort. In the Hunger Games books, a whole world’s struggles are made real through the constant battling of Katniss Evergreen. Dune’s political intrigues are grounded in Paul Artreides, and his understanding of exactly who (what) he is. The battle against the Empire is shown through Luke Skywalker. The wonders of Douglas Adams’ bizarre universe are shown through the hapless character of Arthur Dent, confused and often wanting to simply have a lie down and a nice cup of tea. The fight against thieves in an office block is made personal through the character of John Mclane (and, to a certain extend, through Alan Rickman’s character—not a common thief but an exceptional one).
Without these characters, would these stories be the same? Would the stories really exist? Maybe they could be told in other ways, but they’d still need engaging characters. Maybe without Harry Potter, we’d have Neville Longbottom’s fight with Voldemort. Without Arthur Dent, maybe Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy would be Trillian’s story. We can’t know for sure. But we can say that, without characters, these stories would simply be stuff that happens.
Because characters don’t inhabit stories, they are stories.