Last year, a friend told me she had an idea for a story.
“That’s awesome!” I said. “Tell me about your characters.”
“The heroine is kind of a rebel who sees things differently,” she explained. “Then there’s another girl who represents the establishment.”
I stopped her and threw down some emergency novelist knowledge: characters are people, not parables. If you act out a story with animated representations of the abstract, it’s not a novel so much as a medieval morality play. Everyman calls upon Wisdom, Strength, and Good Deeds to defeat Temptation! Passable entertainment for culturally (and nutritionally) starved serfs, perhaps, but modern readers expect more complexity. This post, part two of the How to Write a Novel series, provides a quick-and-dirty guide to character essentials.
Characters must want something.
Story happens when the protagonist—the main character, the hero or anti-hero, the central figure whose actions drive the story—strives to overcome an antagonist standing between them and their goal. Antagonists come in two flavors: physical (another person or creature, an enemy or rival) and abstract (an opposing force such as illness, poverty, or nature). Most novels also include a cast of supporting characters who help or hinder your protagonist.
Every one of these individuals must want something. And they must want it badly. Why else would they put up with all the torment we authors impose on them? When creating a new character, I start with this foundational trinity:
- Motive: a desire, need, or goal. Chasing this object is what drives the plot.
- Obstacle(s): something lies between the character and their goal. It can be external (I can’t be with my true love because a snowstorm cancelled my flight to his city) internal (I can’t be with my true love because I’m still so wounded from my last relationship) or both.
- Flaws/Gifts: behaviors, attitudes and beliefs that help or inhibit the character’s progress. These traits are two sides of the same coin: a fiercely loyal character could be easily duped by someone they trust; a pigheaded character might be the only one who perseveres in a tough situation.
Grab a piece of paper and jot down the following for each of your characters:
- What is this character’s greatest desire in life?
- What prevents them from attaining their object?
- What must the character do in order to succeed?
- What are the consequences if they fail?
Do the same for your antagonist, if you have a physical one. In the words of Canadian writer John Rogers, “You don’t really understand an antagonist until you understand why he’s a protagonist in his own version of the world.”
Characters must take action.
We’ve all heard that good characters are dynamic, but what does that mean? Simply put, it means they do stuff. They don’t just sit there while things happen to them; they make decisions and take action. A story’s inciting incident can be an exterior force, but subsequent events should result from protagonists’ own behavior. What are some ways to kick your characters into gear?
- Force them to choose. Often in fiction, bad choices = good story. Present a character with two unpleasant options (for example, do they turn in a dear friend who committed a crime, or lie to protect them?) and see which one they pick.
- Challenge their pre-existing beliefs about themselves, others, and the world. If it’s something that matters to them, it’ll shake them into action.
- Get them in deep trouble and let them find a way out of it.
- Give them a taste of failure. Once they glimpse how awful things will be if they don’t attain their goal, they’ll leap to do something about it.
All this activity spurs evolutions. Dynamic characters undergo meaningful change as the story progresses (or sometimes suffer because of their obstinate refusal to change). By the time they reach the story’s end, they’re not the same person we met in chapter one. Like the seven basic plots we discussed last week, there are three common character arcs:
- The Change Arc. An unlikely protagonist goes from zero to hero and reached the end of his or her journey a drastically transformed character. Example: Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit.
- The Growth Arc. A variant of the Change arc in which the character overcomes internal obstacles in order to triumph over external ones. Often this manifests as a maturation or an “upgrade” to either abilities or personality. Example: Harry Potter in the Harry Potter series.
- The Fall Arc. Through a series of poor choices and misfortunes, a character descends into depravity, insanity, destitution, or other tragic circumstances. Example: Lily Bart in The House of Mirth.
With all this in mind, add the following to your character sheet:
5. A core strength your character possesses.
6. A serious flaw that could inhibit their progress.
7. Something about the character that will probably have to change before they can attain their goal.
Characters must have conflict.
Personality assessments can be useful tools for exploring character traits and how they influence behavior. Popular tests like the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and Kiersey Temperament Sorter draw from the psychology work of Carl Jung. More recently, the Five Factor Model established five basic personality elements:
- Openness to experience (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)
- Conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. easygoing/careless)
- Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved)
- Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. analytical/detached)
- Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident)
The irresistible conflicts, complements, and chemistry of many beloved character combinations draw from these opposites. Think of Mulder and Scully; Jeeves and Wooster; Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Where might they fall on these spectrums, and how does that make them a memorable pair? None of these personality structures should be used to create cookie-cutter characters, but they’re useful templates and encourage a deeper consideration of how people interact.
Back to the character sheet. Add the following:
8. What are some personality traits your character embodies?
9. What major event(s) shaped who your character is today?
10. Who are the most important/influential people in your character’s life, and how how do they cooperate or conflict with your character?
Look at the ten data points you’ve compiled. Guess what? You’ve got the foundation of a character profile. It’ll take a little more material to flesh them out–a unique voice, some quirks, physical attributes that might influence how they interact with the world–but you’ve constructed their skeleton. Characters need strong bones to bear the weight of a story on their imaginary shoulders! We’ll talk more about developing that story in the next installment on narrative tension.