Every story is about its main character.
The role of a writer is to elicit emotion in the reader to the extent that it leaves a lasting impression.
This means writing jokes that make them laugh (or at least do that little nose snort), tragedy that makes them cry, tense scenes that create a feeling of suspense, and by the end give the reader a satisfying sense of fulfillment.
A great story is always about the characters.
Sure, an amazing setting and an interesting world may draw your attention at first, but characters are an investment that always pay off in the end.
Here is a list of the main topics covered in this guide:
- Characters In Story
- What Makes A Great Character
- Character Arcs
- Human Psychology
- Character Speech Styles
- Character Conflict
- Creating Your Character
Characters In Story
- Characters in a story are there to move the plot.
- Stories revolve around your main protagonist(s) and the events the happen to them.
- Characters always have an external and internal journey during the story.
We love characters just like we love other people. We can relate to them, live vicariously, or sympathize with their situation.
By the end of a story, we all feel closer to that character, and in many cases feel like we made a friend.
This explains why we feel a gaping hole of emptiness when a series concludes. The relationship and adventures are over. Never again will we see them grow, learn, or act.
What your character wants (6 exchanges)
Something that motivates to fulfill an intrinsic or extrinsic desire that fits the parameters below:
- Time: immediate, short term, long term
- Focus: A small or large commitment that can impact decisions
- Topic Based: Something specific to a certain area or broad
6 Sources of Exchange:
What your character needs (Mazlows hierarchy of needs)
Mazlow’s Hierarchy of needs:
- Self Actualization- Desire to be the most we can be. Reaching full potential
- Ego- Self esteem, respect, status, freedom
- Social- Friendship,family, intimacy, belonging
- Safety- Security of body,health, resources,morality,family,shelter
- Physiological- food,water, air, sleep, homeostasis
What to do?
- Come up with a want for your character using one of the six exchanges
- Devise a backstory introducing the need, which will explain why they have that want
- As the character continues, you must portray that this want is not only ineffective, but creates more problems for the character and the story
A teenage boy wants to play football to get the most popular girl in school so that his friends don’t look down on him, but what he needs is better friends to accept him for who he is.
The teenage boy becomes obsessed with being the best football player and even takes steroids to boost his performance. As he dives deeper into this athletic life, his grades suffer, he hangs out with worse friends, and starts treating the girl he wants as on object of his desire instead of the person she is
What Makes A Great Character?
Great characters are hard to come by, but when they do, they feel so real that we believe that they could actually be a real person. We know how they act, their mannerisms, likes and dislikes, and what they might do in various situation.
The goal is always to create a believable character that we enjoy. This doesn’t always mean in a good way either. There are many beloved villains who capture out hearts with their own versions of an ideal world.
Personality: Every character should be unique. Their own voice, style, education, personality…etc. Think of people you know in your own life.
What makes them unique? How do you know them better than some stranger crossing a street?
Acclaimed author Brandon Sanderson (Way of Kings) believes that all likable characters have at least one of three traits that make them likable.
- The characters drive the plot forward
- Are extremely competent/talented in some skill
- They are well liked by other characters
Goals and Stakes
Take those aspects and apply to to your fictional character (Just don’t make your friends and family into those characters. )
What is a character arc: It is a journey the character experiences where they start in one place, and end up in another. This place can be a state of mind, a belief, skill, or relationship.
During this journey they will go through a change and when the arc is over, they will have a new perspective. Many times, the them has an impact of the desired change the occurs.
Character arcs are a great way to take someone along for a characters personal journey. After all, we go through similar journeys ourselves. We all have desires.
But should really get what we desire most?
Have many times have we believed that if we got something we wanted, that we would feel complete, just to feel as hollow as we did before.
Your story is going to be filled with all kinds of events and conflicts that will shape and morph your character.
Most of the time the things that take place help us understand the character as we go along, but after big moments, your characters might change.
They don’t always have to, but think of all of times you changed. Small things like doing poorly on a test don’t matter very much compared to the loss of a loved one or being in a tragic accident.
The same can be said about your characters.
Types of character arcs
Positive Changes: The character goes from a place of being bad and gradually changes into a place of good. The character starts with a need in the beginning. They must overcome their flaws or obstacles around them to finally achieve this need and therefore become a better person.
Negative Change: The character goes from a place of good and changes to a place of bad, or they have a need and they do not get that need satisfied by the end.
Bittersweet Change: The character does and does not change in the way they needed
No Change: Literally nothing changes. Stuff happens and there is conflict, but the characters in the story do not change or succeed/fail at their goals and needs.
Good Will Hunting character arc example:
In this character arc, a flaw is presented blocking the protagonist from having a better life. The arc is his journey to overcome it.
- Will Hunting is an extraordinary genius that was beaten as a kid and now believes that change results in emotional pain.
- Will uses defense mechanisms (though unaware to them) to justify his inactions.
- Wants to live his simple life of working lowly jobs and hanging around loyal but immature friends, which allow/prevent him to not grow up.
- The inciting incident that propels the story begins when Will is arrested and forced to help math wiz.
- As part of the deal, Will must see a therapist who tries to get him to overcome his flaw, along with his friends, and new girlfriend.
- The people he grows to care about force him to see his flaws and defense mechanisms, he is holding himself back from a great life others can only dream of.
- The story has a happy ending as Will finally overcomes his flaw and decides to take his best friend and therapist’s advice, to follow the love of his life to Stanford in California where he has a high level job in mathematics
An important rule to remember, is that characters are not people.
We make upwards of 35,000 choices everyday.
Can you image making that many for a fictional character?
Instead, we filter out all of the boring details of their life and focus on the important parts. We create a surface based idea of a real person, and give them enough personality to make their decisions believable.
How do we do that?
Luckily, there are many researchers in psychology that have summed up concepts of what make people do the things they do and why. As an author, we just have to combine that knowledge with our own personal experience and transfer it into what we believe is a dynamic and real feeling character.
Stakes: Anything the character could lose by taking a risk
Power over others
1. Legitimate: a person has been given formal authority to make demands of and expert obedience from others. The CEO of your company, for example, has legitimate power.
2. Reward: a person is able to compensate another – financially or otherwise – for complying with his her demands. A parent has reward power over his children.
3. Expert: a person has the knowledge and skills to outperform others; her good judgment is respected and relied upon. A specialist physician has expert power.
4. Referent: a person is strongly liked and admired by others and often exerts a charming influence. A celebrity has referent power.
5. Coercive: a person achieves compliance from others through the threat of punishment. A military dictator has coercive power.
Emotions and their opposites:
Virtues: Chastity, Temperance, Charity, Diligence, Patience, Kindness, and Humility
Deadly Sins: Sloth, Lust, Envy, Wrath, Pride, Gluttony, Greed
Character Speech Styles
How to make your character’s feel real
Everyone speaks differently. There are a host of factors that should be considered when creating a character, and one of the most important ones is speech style.
- Jargon from groups they are a part of
- Talkative or Shy
- Long winded or short winded
- Riddles or straight forward
- Description of how their voice sounds (pitch, tone, nasally, kind, gruff, raspy)
- Common Phrases
Another list of interesting aspects to consider for your character https://rowyn.livejournal.com/661276.html
One of the best ways to create a character’s speech pattern, is by listening to speech patterns of people from real life. Watch movies and analyze characters similar to what you have in mind for your story.
Take those characters and apply your version to them.
This concept refers to the usage of informal or everyday language in literature. Colloquialisms are generally geographic in nature, in that a colloquial expression often belongs to a region or culture.
- Using contractions like “Ain’t”
- Unique phrases: “Its the bee’s knee’s” and “Shut up or nut up”
- Often associated with geography and time period
This is a term that refers to the specific use of words that are learned and used from being a part of a unique group
- Sports: rules and techniques Think of a broadcasting describing what a player did in a sport you never knew existed. For me some things I never knew are a turkey in bowling (three strikes in a row) or a scrum in rugby (a type of formation teams get in to fight for the ball)
- Military: Formations, acronyms (there a so so many), orders, specific clothing, rules…etc
When creating a character’s identity, you might need to explore parts of their background to make them feel more real. To do this, you can add jargon into their speech to make it seem as though they belong to a certain group.
If your character is from a wealthy family they might use jargon related to polo, yachts, or golf.
You wont need to incorporate jargon all the time, but it is a great way to give an impression of who they are and what they might belong to.
One way to differentiate your characters is by making their speech differer based on intellect.
Also wit. characters might
Less is more but start off with a strong impression
Stories need conflict to be interesting. If you don’t stop your character from getting what they want you will bore your readers.
How interesting is it when a superhero goes to fight a villain and they instantly win. There is just no suspense when you know your character is invisible. More importantly, its just not fun!
Conflict is used to teach us lessons by proxy. Every society has rules.
Examples would be waiting for a traffic light to turn red, saying please and thank you, or not murdering people. We have all learned to play by these rules.
Life is a game. We play by its rules, and figure out its systems to get what we want while avoiding any unwanted trouble. But life is complicated and conflict will ensue when we don’t follow the rules.
Conflict also shows us who the character really is. There is no filter for them to hide behind when they are forced to play a different game. Instead, they have to be their true selves. Our instincts and how we were raised determine our actions. We are a combination of nature vs. nurture.
Characters talking to each other will speak differently based on their position in regards to the person they are talking to.
A manager will speak and handle objections much differently, depending on if they are speaking to the president of a company, a coworker, or a ditzy intern.
It is important to remember that many people will make snap judgements about others or believe themselves to be in a different category than they are.
For example: The high school jock who never grew up and works at a gas station might think he is better than a former classmate, even if that classmate is not a neurosurgeon. OR maybe the neurosurgeon feels inadequate compared to a famous actor.
The point is, our roles and positions are in a fluid hierarchy of where we rate ourselves and others. I would like to hope that all of you dont treat and judge others based on this, but it can certainly help when asking what your characters might do and say to other characters
Creating Your Character
If you are wondering how you can put what you have learned into practice, there is a surefire method you can use.
Write a single page where you make your characters talk. Don’t worry about perfection, just make them talk.
They can talk about anything. They can mention the weather, go over gossip, give boring data reports, or discuss recent conflicts. The point is that you get your characters in a conversation.
Once you have your page of dialogue down, go back and insert unique elements of speech from the topics above.
Did you do it?
How much more real do your characters feel now? I bet you can picture them a whole lot better.
Now, do this exercise for all of your characters when you need to. As soon at their number comes up for a scene, refresh your memory using their character speech page and then begin writing.
Character Building Tip
Create a character page.
- On this page describe your character
- Physical description(height, build, looks, etc), personality, quirks, habits, and anything else descriptive
- Have them talk about something
- Anything you want, It just has to reveal aspects of the character’s personality and beliefs
- Make them act out a scenario with another character
- This gives insight into who the are and what kind of choices they make
writing character arcs
https://blog.reedsy.com/character-arc/ (For a more in depth guide on the types of character arcs with examples)
https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/learn-5-types-of-character-arc-at-a-glance/ (Character arc with plot points)
http://www.katherinecowley.com/blog/writing-powerful-emotion-beats-in-fiction/ (tools for emotion)