Do you listen to Writing Excuses? If you do, good. If you don't: For Shame! That's right, I'm giving you the evil eye.
Writing Excuses is a great resource for writers, lovers of genre fiction and for many others of refined taste that only have 15 minutes and a busy schedule. I've listened to every episode of their nine seasons and recently Brandon and the team threw down a great tool for character development.
The basic premise is this: Your character not working? Do you and your readers not feel engaged with the character. Disinterested? Well, perhaps we need to look at how the character is structured and how they interact within the confines of the story.
Brandon suggests there are 3 aspects, or prongs (as he calls them) to creating an engaging character:
Sympathy - Are they a good person? Can you relate to the character, or sympathize? Frodo doesn't want to take on the burden of the ring, he feels inadequate for the task, and yet he does it anyway. We feel the impact of that decision and it pulls us into the story. (It also plays on Proactivity, but I think we mostly sympathize with this undertaking.)
Competence - Are they really good at their task? Tony Stark can be a bit of a jerk at times...ok, he's a HUGE jerk a LOT of the time, but we love his ingenuity and he's about as competent as you can get. Now when it comes to his love life...not so much.
Proactivity - Does the character take initiative? Or do they slump at the side of the action, watching it go by, whining and sighing through each scene? Remember Bella from Twilight? For me (and millions of other complainers), she was mopey, inactive and as depressed as a...16 year old. Ok, so maybe that is wholly appropriate, but it was still irritating.
Take your favorite character from movies or books and see where they sit on the scale. And don't forget the villains we love to hate—the slider does run from negative to positive. If you take an unsympathetic character (negative Sympathy) high on Proactivity, then you have a character that is often the villain. If they are competent you have a serious story, and if they are bumbling, you may have a comedy.
Mary notes that the scales can—and probably should—change over the course of the story as the character goes through their arc.
So, if high attributes is good, we should max the sliders out. Right?, But if you do, you may run into the Superman problem, where the character is so capable in every respect that they actually lose relatability and slide down on the Sympathy scale. This could be bad, or it could be fine. It ultimately depends on what you are trying to achieve. But if you want the reader engaged with the character it could be a problem. I know I'd be annoyed if someone did everything perfect. The bastard, how dare they! It takes me two hours to pay bills with the kids running around the house. How can they save the world, if I can only just barely balance the checkbook?
Which is why Howard suggested the 4th slider of:
Conflict/Plot - For a superman, the consequences, the risk, and ultimately the conflict must be greater to help balance the excess ability elsewhere. Superman may be perfect, but that is why the plot often revolves around saving others in peril and his limited time to do everything—world peace is kind of a large task, you know.
Now, stories should always strive for strong (i.e. interesting, engaging) characters AND plots, but if you are unengaged from your character and you're maxing out their attributes, perhaps you have not adequately emphasized the threat of conflict. It doesn't have to be exploding worlds and collapsing universes. (But those are fun.) Everyone has likely experienced the crushing blow of unrequited love, the stress of meeting deadlines and finagling complicated family gatherings where the turkey catches fire and the pumpkin pie revolts. Well, show how the conflict is a big deal for the characters and you'll help to connect the dots. Superman would be less interesting if his job at the Daily Planet and his relationships were less important to him, but they are, so it works.
Brandon clarifies that this is just a tool and it may not be what you need, but I think it has a lot of potential. When I was doing my Hammerblood rewrite, I realize now that I upped the Proactivity of Hestea and that helped to make him more engaging (in my opinion).
For the podcast, jump over to Writing Excuses and listen to episode 9.13 - Three Pronged Character Development, and tell me if you don't laugh at their Indiana Jones analysis.