The common character type in action/adventure stories is the loner. A man or woman without friends who often doesn’t want any companionship. Done right, that can be a very successful character.
However, Loner needs to be in a lot of pain for the character to be interesting. Too much pain and the reader grows bored with Loner. Too little pain and Loner becomes unbelievable. And why is Loner unbelievable? Because Loner is shallow and boring.
All characters, all good characters, whether good guys or bad guys, have to be strong. Even tertiary characters have to be strong–they must have motivation.
You hear that a lot in films and stories spoofing acting. “What’s my character’s motivation?” someone will ask. “What’s my character’s subtext (the inner dialogue motivating him/her)?”
There has to be believable motivation. Whether it’s a female character wanting a relationship or marriage, before her biological time clock runs out and she can’t have babies anymore, or it’s a male character searching for a purpose in life, so his life has meaning to him.
Here’s a good example. In the film “We Were Soldiers,” about the first airmobile (helicopter borne) division in the Vietnam War, a young and gung ho lieutenant leads his men on a wild goose chase after a lone North Vietnamese soldier running away from them. He and his men get separated from their battalion, it gets surrounded by the enemy, the lieutenant gets shot. As he lying on the ground bleeding to death, as his men try staunch the out-flow of his blood and call for medical evacuation, with bullets zinging around them, the lieutenant dies. His last words to his men are “I’m glad I could die for my country.”
His men stare at him, stunned at his words. Then they get on with the task of survival.
Most people who have seen this film, when they remember that moment, think or say “What a load of patriotic bullshit!” People who think or say that are too caught up in their own beliefs and are too blind to see what is really going on. (Now, that’s good–not that they think that way or are blind to what’s really, truly going on, but it’s good for writing because you can put that into a scene. You can put into a character–into your main character, if you wish–and reveal how that character’s personal beliefs blind him/her to reality.)
What was really going on in that scene? The poor lieutenant, as he lay dying, wanted to believe that he had done something noble and worthwhile, rather than screwing up and leading his men into a trap. He wanted his death to have meaning and value. It was literally a last-ditch effort, or Hail Mary, on his part to overcome his fear and find nobility in his death.
It’s too bad so many people were so blind to that moment in that scene. But writers can put every aspect of that moment into a story, from the blindness of people’s beliefs, to the dying man’s desire to have his death have meaning. And readers will eat it up, because it adds value and meaning to the scene.
Now, Loner can react whichever way you wish Loner to react, if Loner saw that young lieutenant die. It doesn’t have to we a war story. It could be a reckless young man or woman dying at the scene of an auto accident. It could be someone dying from a rock climbing fall, some who tried to save his/her date from muggers, anyone who made a mistake and is trying to atone for it during his or her last moments alive.
Whether tertiary characters, secondary characters or primary characters, you have to feel what they’re feeling and you have to make the reader feel and see what your characters feel and see. Your words do that. But not too many words. Use few adjectives and adverbs. Don’t over write it.
In my first Ebook, “Sky Knights” my main character feels guilt and grief over the death of his new partner. He was off on his own, glorifying in his revenge on the villains when his partner is ambushed and killed. As he walks by his dead partner’s hangar bay, he feels shame that his new friend will never tell another joke, never see another day.
See how easy that is? “…never tell another joke, never see another day.”
If you’ve ever lost someone, you can feel that pain in those eight words. Sometimes less is more, but only if you can avoid more becoming less.
Life is full of riddles. And so is writing a good story.
More on characters later on.