Created by Paula d’Etcheverry, with an accompanying talk given at the June 7th Indie Publishing Austin event.
This presentation is geared for people who want to write commercial fiction.
The goal of commercial fiction is to reach out and touch the reader.
We read to become, invest, feel for, root for a character.
So how do you make compelling characters?
By following the “rules” of character creation
Character-driven books are focused on the arc of a character.
When creating characters, they should be:
You can have the most amazing world for your book, but if you don’t have interesting characters it won’t make a good story.
Conflict is always created within character. For instance, your space battle only matters if we care about the characters who are about to go into it.
Ask yourself: What is the most incrementally worst thing I can do to that character? Being nice to your characters is the death of your book. Your readers want to see how your character catches the next, bigger ball, and moves the story forward.
How do you create character? At a basic level, ask yourself:
- What’s the level of my character arc?
- What’s my character’s function?
- What’s my character’s goal?
- How does the character grow in this story? How do they grow over the course of the series?
- Every single significant character you introduce must have their own arc, but they must exist in relation to the hero.
- Strive for the biggest character arc because that’s the most satisfying to your reader.
- Know your character’s function. Are they willing or unwilling? This will determine how you develop their character.
- The best supporting characters are an aspect of the hero. They should reveal things about the hero, which the reader can recognize.
- Define your character’s goal, and use their function to check yourself
- Are they logically acting according to their goal?
- 4 basic heroic goals
- Win (the heart of the lover)
- Escape (the clutches of the villain)
- Stop (the world from ending)
- Retrieve (the ark of the covenant).
The most successful characters use at least two of the following basic character elements:
- Sympathy (spouse dies, kid is murdered, their home is destroyed)
- Jeopardy (in trouble somehow)
- Likability (does the reader enjoy their company? Get excited to spend time with them)
- Humor (does your reader laugh at them?)
- Power (the character is good at what they do. Often your superhero character.)
Our strongest emotion drives our response, which drives conflict. If you know what their core desire and need is.
- Desire drives plot
- Need drives character arc.
Conflict creates interesting characters, what’s happening inside the character or to the character.
Archetypes are a launching point. No character should ever be one narrow archetype, but some combination
From Christopher Vogler, who took these from Campbell, who took these from Carl Jung… Everyone is sharing these ideas:
The hero or heroine is the classic protagonist of the story with whom we associate most. They embody our most aspirational values and put higher duty and the welfare of others before their own, even to extreme forms of self-sacrifice. Achieving the goal of the story may thus be achieved only at terrible personal cost, although the hero may gain much personal learning and growth in the transition.
Heroes can be willing or unwilling, deliberate or accidental, solitary or leaders, already-recognized as a hero or start out as an ordinary person.
The mentor helps the hero in some way, furnishing them with important skills and advice. They may appear at important moments to help the hero get over an obstacle, then disappear (perhaps to mentor another unknown hero).
Typical mentors are old and wise. Although they may also be younger, they are still likely to be older than the hero as they offer their superior knowledge and experience in support. Perhaps once they were a young hero themselves.
The act of giving reminds us of the generosity to which we must aspire. The receiving of the gift may well be seen as reward for courage and self-sacrifice.
The Threshold Guardian provides the obstacles to the hero at transitional points in the story. To get past the guardian the hero must fight them, answer riddles, solve problems, give a gift, and so on.
The Threshold Guardian is often neutral, neither supporting nor opposing the hero, although they also may be allied to the antagonist or even a potential ally.
Thresholds appear before the hero sets out on their journey, before they enter the final ‘lion’s den’ and at critical scene changes. Crossing thresholds symbolize change and points of growth in the hero’s character.
The Herald announces important events verbally, telling us what we do not realize or emphasizing the importance of an event. In particular, the herald provides the information that triggers the hero into original action.
The herald need not be a professional announcer nor even a person – a message on a scrap of paper or a radio broadcast can serve equally to trigger change.
The Shapeshifter represents uncertainty and change, reminding us that not all is as it seems. They may be a character who keeps changing sides or whose allegiance is uncertain. They act to keep the hero (and us) on his or her toes and may thus catalyze critical action.
A typical Shapeshifter is a person of the opposite sex who provides the love interest and whose affections vary across the story. Other characters may also be shapeshifters, including Mentors, Guardians and Tricksters.
The Shadow is the opposite of light and provides the tension of anxiety and fear in the story. The Shadow is often opposes the hero and is typically the main antagonist. They may also be people who provide obstacles along the way, although not as a guardian.
The hero must struggle with the Shadow, somehow overcoming the opposition they provide.
The shadow also represents the darker side of our own nature, as in Jung’s Archetypes, and it is disquieting to recognize them as somehow related to ourselves.
The Trickster provides entertainment in the story through wit, foolishness or other means. They may be wise, as in the Shakespearian fool, or may be criminal in their deception. They provide further uncertainty and keep us (and the hero) on our toes.
The Trickster may remind us to lighten up and see the funny side of things. They also remind us not be naive and to expect the unexpected.
Michael Hauge’s Archetypes:
Fewer than Vogler and Jung’s archetypes, but similar:
- Drives the story
- Character whose outer motivations drives the plot
- Sidekick (wife, husband, best friend, coach, trainer, boyfriend, girlfriend)
- Most closely aligned with the hero
- Good guy who is in opposition to the hero
- Whoever most stands in the way of the hero achieving his goal
- The reward for overcoming the obstacles
Other places to find archetypes
Chinese / Asian zodiac
Mythologies of any society (Christianity, Norse, Celtic, Oceanic/Island, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Native American, India)
Take any of the silly “What _____ Are You” tests on the internet as your character
Read any article in any magazine, either social or scientific, on a personality trait, such as confidence, and then use those to create the opposite traits in the necessary character. http://www.forbes.com/sites/travisbradberry/2015/04/01/12-things-truly-confident-people-do-differently/
Make each character from a different county
- Not literally; just use the cultural stereotypes (YES, the stereotypes) from these countries to give some basic characteristics
- This isn’t the time to be politically correct! In fact, DON’T be!
- USE the stereotype to get a broad picture, then refine, refine, refine!
- You goal is to start out with a hunk of marble and end up with the Pieta.
- Take the Myers-Briggs test, answering each question as you think your character would.
Make one main character “Type A” and the other “Type “B.” Easy-peasy way to create characters who are going to drive each other crazy!
Use birth order characteristics: Hero, Scapegoat, Lost Child, Mascot
Interview your characters. Some use a free form, stream of consciousness technique. If you want a list of questions, just Google character information sheets. Just see how your brain returns from the query. It will surprise you.
• Start each question with the shortest possible answer and complete the questions in a way that logically and reasonably would have lead this person to have become who they are now
• Then go back, because you’ll know more about them by the end of the questions, and run through them again with a little greater depth.
Sample Questions from Larry Brooks
What is your character’s backstory, the experiences that programmed how he thinks and feels and acts today?
What is her inner demon, and how does it influence decisions and actions in the fact of out demons?
What does he resent?
How does he feel about himself, and what is the gap between that assessment and how others feel about him?
What is your character’s worldview?
What is your character’s moral compass?
Is she a giver or a taker?
Does she adhere to gender roles and stereotypes? If not, how is he/she different?
What lessons have they not learned?
What lessons have they experienced, but rejected or failed to learn?
Who are his/her friends? Are they like-for like, or either above or below them?
What is their social IQ? Awkward? Eager? Easy? Wallflower? Life of the party? Totally faking it?
To what extent are they an introvert or an extrovert? How does this manifest in their life?
What is their secret yearning?
What childhood dream never came true and why?
What is the worst thing they have ever done?
What are their secrets?
What do the people closest to them not know about them?
When, how and why does s/he hold back/procrastinate?
What has held them back in life?
How many people would come to their funeral? Why would some not attend?
What is the most unlikely or contradictory aspect of this character?
What are their first-dimension quirks, habits, and choices?
Why are they in evidence and what are they saying or covering for?
What is the backstory that leads to those choices?
What are the psychological scars that affect their life, and how does this link to backstory?
How strong is the char under pressure?
What is your character’s arc in the story? How does s/he change and grow over the course of the story? How does s/he apply that learning toward becoming the catalytic force that drives the denouement of the story?
Brooks, Larry. Story Engineering; Story Physics
Card, Orson Scott. Character and Viewpoint
Coyne, Shawn. www.storygrid.com — I enjoy his blog, but his grid is definitely for the uber-plotter/planner.
Hargrave, Jan Latiolais. Let Me See Your Body Talk
Hauge, Michael. www.storymastery.com Writing Screenplays That Sell; Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds.
James, Steven. Story Trumps Structure
Keirsey, David. Please Understand Me II (Textbook on personalities)
McKee, Robert. Story
Night, Brian. Hidden Secrets of Body Language
Truby, John. The Anatomy of Story – 22 step structure. Enjoyed part of the book immensely; his system doesn’t work for me, but an uber-plotter would love it.
Vogler, Christopher . The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters. Studio City, CA.: Michael Wiese Productions — I prefer the third edition. I’ve read all three; the first edition is good, the second edition is not as good, and he really hits his stride in the third.
Vogler, Christopher and McKenna, David. Memo From The Story Department: Secrets of Structure and Character.
About Paula d’Etcheverry
Paula d’Etcheverry is a multi-published romance author who spent a long hiatus from writing pursuing other dreams. She’s getting her writing feet back under her in SF/Fantasy. Dusting off all the books from her reference shelf has reminded her why she loves the process of writing so much.