Designing a unique, fictitious individual can be daunting. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands of how-to writing guides for the aspiring fiction storyteller. Still, all of the hours spent researching how to create a strong fiction character will only promise one learned conclusion at the end of the day: there is no right or wrong way of doing it. That in itself can be frustrating for the "architect"-type writer.
Detailed character interviews can be arduous and tedious. This idea is purposed to design the skeleton of a character, then give them a will and moral code.
From there, the character should stand on his/her own and will lead you to who they are meant to be all on your own.
Taking a page from Jedi tradition, it is the balance of both sides that create harmony, so in practice, wouldn't a writer that is strong with the force be able to tread confidently between the two? I know. It's easier said than done. I've poured through many how-to books and guides myself, trying to find the secret answer in how to write a strong character arc.
From charts to arcs, and a number of character interviews you wouldn't believe, I've been able to simplify the process by breaking down my plot-driving characters in four straight-forward, yet strategic questions. Answering these core questions give you the inspiration jumpstart for filling the blanks within individual arcs while giving yourself a bird's eye view to start shaping the overall story arc.
Some say you must work on characters before plot; others prefer the opposite. But you? You're a Jedi master, so you hone in on both.
As I go through each question, I will be using a personal favorite character for illustration. Gil Pender from Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. If you haven't seen the film, it's alright! You'll get to know Gil as we walk through each point.
No. 1: Desire
Desire drive plot. We want something, we face an obstacle, we react to said obstacle, and we either find ourselves closer or further from our desire. You can't go anywhere with your character until you nail down what they want. It can be big or small, because it is the obstacle and the 'lie' that will create the drama.
Gil's Desire: To find personal fulfillment as a literary writer.
In the story of Midnight in Paris, Gil is shown to be a successful script-writer for hit Hollywood films. Spoils and social acceptance surround the protagonist, though not even the bougie private wine tastings could satiate the character's wants.
Other examples of character desires include:
- To settle a score of revenge.
- To save a loved one from impending death/danger.
- To get a coveted promotion.
- To find a missing treasure.
Although this question seems pretty boiler-plate, this question is purposed to evoke thought around you're character's desire.
In your journal (I'll touch on the importance of ALWAYS having a journal in a later blog), you should have a page or two focused on note for your character's desire. There, you can wander through your character's thoughts to answer additional desire-driven questions such as:
- Why does my character want this?
- Is this considered a conventional goal in my character's society?
- What are the possible internal and external implication of achieving said desire?
Creating a paper trail as you explore these questions, you'll soon find that you not only know but understand your character and where they come from much more than you thought. Now, to consider where they're going.
No. 2: Obstacle
As mentioned before, a character must face an obstacle to evoke a story. Even if you're building a character who gets everything he/she wants, it's essential to create an obstacle for the character to surpass.
Gil's Obstacle: His company of friends and family discourage his unconventional desire to abandon his status to focus on his passion.
This question is another profound tent-pole idea to start designing a character's relationships and natural environments. Your character's obstacle page should include items like:
- Are my character's obstacles internal, external or both?
- Is this a new obstacle, or something my character has been facing for some time?
- Do I intent for my character to surpass this obstacle? How?
You see, this isn't a 500 question interview, but is still meant to help you flesh out your characters through natural brainstorming. From the good to the bad and the ugly, write everything down. You never know when you'll spark your next great idea.
Other common obstacles may include:
- Overbearing parents.
- A magic curse limits your character's skills and abilities.
- Insufficient funds.
- Being blackmailed by a malicious character.
No. 3: Lie
A character's 'lie' is a misguided belief that he/she had developed from a traumatic event or environment. Every character is led by a lie in some degree, whether big or small. It's human nature.
This is what connects your readers to your characters on an intimate level. We may not always admit it to our peers, but we root for certain characters because we share our flaws and relate our moments of misguided belief with them. It's why Amory Blaine is so admirable, even when he's being an uppity twit in F.Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise.
Gil's Lie: "I don't have what it takes to succeed as a novelist."
This is where you get to ponder over what makes your character tick. His/her lie page should also explore items such as:
- When and why did this character develop this lie?
- What are the consequences of this character's lie (good/bad)?
- Does your character overcome this lie? How?
Other common character lies can include:
- All [blank] are evil.
- I must have [blank] to get [blank].
- [Blank] is what [blank] would have wanted.
No. 4: Choice
Whether or not you know all of the in-betweens of your character, it's vital to know the end-point of their arc. It can only go one of two ways:
1. The character learns a lesson and makes a choice, thus overcoming their lie and obstacles.
2. The character is hardened by an obstacle and makes a choice based on his/her lie, facing consequence or demise.
Gil's Choice: Leaving his manipulative fiancee to focus on his ambitions.
It's up to you in how many trials you want to put your character through before they make their ultimate choice, but the choice must sooner or later be made to create closure to the arc.
Other choices include:
- Sacrificing oneself for a cause.
- Coming clean with a long-kept lie.
- Forgiving another character and surrendering retribution.
I've included a free template for you to plug in your characters along with their desires, obstacles, lies and choices (scroll down to download). The prompt can be answered in a sentence or a paragraph. Personally, I like to keep it short and sweet, so as to avoid getting caught up with smaller details. This is meant to be a big-picture analysis to inspire deeper elements in your story.
Lastly -- It is important to note, that I by no means consider myself a master of fiction, though only offer these tips to share what has worked for me in my stories.
At the end of the day, it's all about finding the method that works best for you. So if you have ideas, we'd love to hear it too! Leave a comment of what subject you'd like for me to explore in the world of creative writing. Together, we'll temper our craft!
the romantic rover.