4 Steps to Dynamic Characters

I’m in the process of creating characters for the sequel to my first novel and I realized:

I don’t want to do what I did last time.

It was exciting, interesting, crazy, and took way too much time.

Like many people, I had a concept and a main character for my first book, and the excitement of writing and discovering her world made it fresh and fun. But now I know better. Writing, especially when you are actually trying to write well, is hard. I want to craft stories that are interesting, that resonate with readers, and that do my characters and ideas justice. Those are tall orders.

So what I did last time—let my characters grow organically and then edit like a maniac until my eyes bled—won’t work again. Not without me becoming alcoholic at any rate.

I need a process.

I need something that will work 95% of the time for 95% of my characters. (See how much I’ve learned? I’m not shooting for perfection anymore!)

Well, I decided to go about it methodically.

Read Everything

Ok. I didn’t read everything. But I read a lot.

I read John Truby’s Anatomy of Story.

I read Stephen King’s On Writing.

I read Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story.

I read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

And I totally skimmed some others. Wow, is there a lot out there for writers. The wonderful and horrifying thing about writing is that there is no one right way to do it. These authors all had something important to add to my understanding of character, yet none fit just right for me. So…

Who Am I? (As a Writer)

If you’re answer was: Jean Valjean … I love you. (If your answer was 24601, I love you even more.)

But, musicals aside, this is a serious question.

There are many different ways of approaching writing, and I have to be true to myself. That means not forcing my writing into some sort of square hole just cause it’s there. The writers and readers and experts who came before me know what they’re about. They know their likes and dislikes, and favor certain rules over others. So I need to take the advice that’s applicable to my situation and figure out how to use it best.

As a reader and writer, I enjoy complex characters who have more than one facet to their personalities. For me this comes down to the basic fact that while I believe there is ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in the world, I don’t see any evidence that anyone is wholly one or the other. Even if I want to use archetypes to form the basis of my character, such as ‘the warrior’ or ‘the mother,’ there has to me much more to that person than first appearance would show.

I like when stories are driven by the actions and reactions of the characters—not where it feels like the characters are puppets acting out a story that has been forced on them.

I also value characters who do the unexpected, whether that’s defying a trope (such as the first boy gets the girl, or five man band), or growing in an unexpected way over the course of a story. One day, I hope to be a good enough writer that this is where my characters naturally go. But for now, I’m still learning.

Put it Together

I have an idea of craft, an idea of what kind of characters I want to make, and how I want the characters to drive my story. The only thing left to do is figure out how those pieces fit together.

Easy, right?

I’m on my way.

This is what I have so far:

4 Steps to Dynamic Characters:

  1. Give them a driving desire. They may actually have more than one driving desire, and this can provide for a meatier story (more about that in a forthcoming post). But the important thing here is that all great characters have at least one thing that they want, and they want it soooo bad that their story would never happen without it. Katniss Everdeen wants to stay alive and thereby win the Hunger Games. George Bailey wants to see the world and become an engineer. Marty McFly want to get back to his life in 1985. Blanche Dubois wants to be young and attractive forever.
  2. Give them a fault line. Like the San Andreas fault, just waiting to pitch California into the ocean (sorry, California), complex characters have a rift in their personality that can and should be exploited by the story. In fact, some might argue (including me) that the whole point of a character having a ‘fatal flaw’ is to exploit it. To make the character confront their failings and ultimately grow stronger for trying to change. There are characters without this trait, characters such as James Bond and Miss Marple, whose function is to not to be ‘characters’ so much as ‘actors’. The reason I discount this type of character is because, while they are important in fiction overall, they are not the kind of character I want to write. If that’s your love, then just leave out or reduce the importance of the fault line. Examples: Katniss is so concerned with her own survival, she doesn’t allow much love or affection into her life. George Bailey is so disheartened by his inability to follow his dreams, that he fails to appreciate his importance to the people around him. Blanche Dubois doesn’t accept reality, because that would mean confronting her fears of being unattractive. Marty McFly is easily goaded into fights (by people calling him ‘chicken’) because he doesn’t want to appear weak like his father.
  3. Give them a toolbox. Like Mary Poppins’ magic carpet bag, great characters have unique skills, attributes, and experiences that help them work toward their driving desire. This can include their physical traits, but only if those are relevant to the story. For example, Harry Potter’s scar is both a physical trait and an item in his toolbox (and also a burden, see below). It’s a manifestation of the magic that kept him alive (and which continues to save his life during the stories), and it also serves as a link between him and Voldemort. All of the things that a character has, or learns to have, during the course of the story is part of their toolbox. I’ve got more to say about the toolbox, but I’ll save it for another post as this one is getting long!
  4. Give them burdens. This is the opposite of the toolbox. Burdens are all the things that weigh a character down—minor flaws, physical or intellectual or limitations that may or may not be overcome. An important thing to remember is that a character’s burdens have probably contributed to their fault line. A character may be a compulsive liar, which might make their story-journey more difficult (burden), but the lying is likely part of a deeper fault, of not trusting other people (fault line). So when you are crafting fault-lines, be sure to create spin-off burdens for your characters that fit with that fault.

If you’re still with me, you probably now see the framework I’m working with:

A dynamic character can be created by:

  1. giving her at least one driving desire…
  2. which she tries to reach by using her toolbox…
  3. while her burdens hold her back…
  4. until she finally confronts her fault line and either leaps over it, or falls to her untimely death (metaphorically speaking!).

I have more to say on each of these topics, but go ahead and dissect a few of your favourite stories. See if you can find the 4 categories for existing characters or—even better—craft your own character using this technique and let me know how it goes.

Until next time, hunt for inspiration every day, and write as though your words will live forever.

Original image by Arthur (CC)

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