An Experiment in Immersive Storytelling
Behind the Scenes:
Zarina, the Protagonist Who Played Along
How do you get your characters to play along in your story? Let's take a look at Zarina to find out.
- 5'11" (180 cm)
- 145 lbs (65.8 kg)
- Scandinavian or something Viking-ish?
- Golden blonde hair
- Emerald green eyes
Wait...no, that's not right.
- 4'9" (145 cm)
- 102 lbs (46 kg)
- Black British with a London accent
- Jet black hair
- Ocean blue eyes
The protagonist, without a doubt, is the most crucial character in every story ever made. They drive the story, make critical decisions that affect the plot, and face the biggest and most challenging obstacles. For writers, it's important to know all the essential details about the protagonist.
I sometimes spend time around other people trying to create stories—novels, short stories, comics, video games, etc. I'm often surprised at how much time people spend writing up these things called "character bibles" before they even consider writing anything.
There are plenty of pitfalls in writing, and this is one of them. Take a look at the two profiles of Zarina listed above. Would either of them change the story of Absolution? The answer is a clear 'no.' They only contain a list of physical attributes. You could, perhaps, try to infer other things about Zarina based on her physical characteristics, like maybe the taller one would have a higher chance of winning in a fist fight against a werewolf, so she'd choose to get into a brawl, therefore changing the story. But, I happen to know a woman who is close to the 4'9" description, has decades of experience in martial arts, and could probably kick a werewolf's ass—but knowing her personality, she might try to befriend it even if it stood a few feet away snarling and spitting at her.
These so-called "character bibles" are a trap if used the wrong way. They can be great places to collect information as you write to help you ensure consistency. You can even use them to jot down some basic information to get you started. Just remember that there are things that matter to the story, things that might matter, and things that don't matter at all.
- Five and a half-ish feet tall
- Average to slim
- Dark brown hair
- Brown eyes
- Loves mysteries
Okay, now we're getting somewhere. I like character-driven stories, and character-driven stories tend to focus on discovering who they are as people. No one looks into the mirror and suddenly realizes, after twenty years of life, that they have a "tawny complexion." Does it matter to the story? Maybe, if it's an element essential to the world around them. But often, it's not; it's just thrown in as an info dump before a story even gets started.
When I write a story, there's no way I'd ever start it with the protagonist going to the doctor or DMV and filling out paperwork showing her height, weight, eye color, or hair color. So, why do a lot of stories start like this? I think it's because, at some point, the writer put a lot of hard work into compiling this type of information and feels that it is important, but most of the time, it isn't important to the reader. (See the previous section of Behind the Scenes for more information about the writer/reader connection.)
Absolution, of course, couldn't have this issue even if I tried to create it because Zarina is a real-life person. I cheated because I didn't invent her appearance or her personality. However, I did need to consider a few key elements about her so that the story would work for her as a character.
- Loves mysteries
- Adept at problem-solving
- Loves words & written language
- Experienced at improv
- Observant; notices small things
- Zero experience with hand-to-paw combat
That last description of Zarina is true and accurate and describes the qualities necessary for the entire story to work. Also, can you imagine if I started a story with Zarina looking into a mirror and describing herself in excruciating detail?
"Hi, my name is Zarina," Zarina says as she opens her brown eyes at herself, blinks twice, and compares her eye color to paint swatches she's been collecting from Home Depot. She still hasn't found an perfect match in the swatches she's managed to snatch, and Home Depot security kicked her out three times this week. She makes a mental note to take a selfie in Photoshop to find the color hex code of what she believes are her hydrogoethite irises and dark brown tourmaline pupils. "I often gaze at myself in the mirror and think about how much I love mysteries and solving word puzzles." Zarina brushes her long, dark brown hair with something entirely inconsequential, like a fork or whatever, while jotting down her exact age in days1. "I consider myself an improv expert because of my time in New York theatre," she says, stepping on a scale that reads precisely 121.7 pounds (55.202191 kilograms). After writing her daily weight on the 5x8 inch (12.7 cm x 20.32 cm) whiteboard beside her mirror, she marks her height on the yardstick glued to her wall—same as yesterday: 5'4" (162.56). Sitting on her bed, still looking at herself in the mirror, Zarina slides on a pair of US women's 6-8 socks (EU 36-40). While inspecting the notebook2 of her body measurements and top five favorite orders from Starbucks, she continues talking to herself, "I notice small things, like that scuff in the mirror by my chin from when I fell into the glass while reflecting on the fact that I have never had a boxing match with a werewolf."
1 Zarina Rosiello is 9,234.5 days old at this exact moment
2 Blue Five Star Advance 3 Subject Notebook with moveable pocket dividers
That would undoubtedly be some kind of story. As a writer, how do you get your characters to play along? You understand and focus on what matters. This concept may not only apply to characters in stories, too. 😲