Characters in a Nutshell

A lot of writing concepts, I think, float around in the recesses of my mind, difficult to put into a blog post but easy to do by instinct.  I can explain a few of those in conversation, but never get around to writing a blog post about them.  Some of them are too simple to wrap an entire post around– others are too complex to explain.  Others are concepts I feel I have already explained, and thus don’t need to blog about.  Unfortunately, I only explained those concepts to one or two people.

I here endeavor to reiterate a concept I have known personally, explained partially in assorted blog posts, and used to help others brainstorm story ideas.  I do so because I just used this concept last night, on my current WIP Desolation.

The process is this: boil down your character into a single word or idea, then decide what you can throw at them that challenges that idea or at least rubs them the wrong way.

This goes along with the idea of my post Motives on Steroids, wherein I postulated a character would act according to their principles, their inner character.  If a character is independent (such as Adam Parrish, my example from the post), that character will make decisions based on that.  Also, if you try to write a character contrary to their inner principle, they will rebel and won’t feel right– thus creating what many call the character fighting the writer, or writer’s block.

But forcing a character to choose something they wouldn’t choose is one thing.  Throwing things at them that go against their principles– that’s completely different.

Emma Coats, in her sixth Pixar Rule for Storytelling, says, “What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?”  This goes as much for the character’s abilities (one aspect of making a capable character work is throwing them into a situation where their capability doesn’t apply) as it does for their emotions.  If they like to work alone, throw them into a situation where they have to depend on a team.  (That’s the basis for Pixar’s The Incredibles.)

Where do these one-word attitudes come from?  I touched on this recently in my post Backstory Without Bludgeoning: the principles of a character come from their backstory.  A man who lived for years on a farm slaughtering animals for food decides to become a vegetarian, but when he’s locked inside a fast food restaurant with only a freezer full of hamburgers, he’s got a problem.  That’s conflict– that’s a story.  The backstory informs his principles, which inform the most powerful story that can be told around this character.

Backstory is one way to find out your character’s attitudes.  Of course, it isn’t the only way.  I wrote nearly eight thousand words of Desolation before I sat down to figure out what story would work best for the characters.  Why?  Because I’m a pantser, and it was easier for me to let the characters show themselves on the page than for me to create them out of thin air.  I still don’t know the backstories of these characters– I had to come up with their motivations a different way.

Instead of looking at their histories and following them to a logical conclusion, I looked at how they acted within my story and traced that backwards.  If backstory informs motivation, which then informs action, you can work backwards as well.  When characters act a certain way, you can figure out why, and from there you can figure out what happened to make them that way.  Right now, I don’t need to know their backstories, although they will be useful eventually– I just need to know their motivations.

Let’s say you have a character who impulsively turns ketchup bottles around so he can’t see the front labels.  He does that in his first scene, he continues to do that even when he isn’t interested in looking at the nutrition facts.  He does it almost without thinking.  What makes him do that?  Of course, you can trace this all the way back to a situation of childhood trauma having to do with ketchup labels, but we don’t need to know that to make a good story about him.  We just need to know why.

Perhaps he doesn’t like to see the brand name.  Perhaps he dislikes the sight of tomatoes.  Perhaps the label brings back memories of his traumatic childhood experience.  With the first, it could be any number of motivations– he once tried to start a ketchup company but was shut down quickly by the big brands, and he’s still bitter about it.  His bitterness about this causes him to act this way.  Or he feels that since he was taught as a child that I should precede E, Heinz ketchup should be spelled Hienz ketchup.  He’s unwilling to accept the truth that some English rules make absolutely no sense.

Depending on which motivation you choose for this character, you could go in any number of directions.  For a straight comedy, you might be able to run with the simple dislike of ketchup labels– when this character lands a job slapping labels on ketchup bottles, we’re in for a good laugh.  However, if you want something more emotional (and I know I picked the wrong example if I wanted that), you might go for something deeper, like bitterness.  What happens when this guy loses it all and has to get a job at Heinz, doing what he used to love for people who just want the profit?  I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of interested now.

What’s actually happening here?  Two or more emotions are conflicting at once, creating the friction we need for a good story.  The character’s driving emotion is one thing, such as bitterness– it comes into conflict with the need for money that drives him to work for his archenemy.  This creates the emotional complexity that a good character needs.  A character who wants a puppy, a puppy, and only a puppy is not going to have an interesting story.  However, when they also love their cat and can’t have both at once for external reasons, the emotions come into conflict and we have a story.

Now, a quick caveat: this technique requires a little bit of forcing.  With a loyal character, the best story will be one that forces the character to be disloyal at some point.  With a bitter character, he will be forced into the job he hates.  Yes, forcing these characters into those bad situations is ultimately a result of their emotions, but if they had their way, they would have their cake and eat it too.  External circumstances have to force them one way or another.  Unfortunately, that seems to require passivity.  Is that what I want?  Of course not.  The protagonist has to be proactive.  The external circumstances are things they cannot change, forcing them into these positions, but that doesn’t mean they should just be beaten down, or else we have no story.  They have to feel that their emotions are rubbing each other the wrong way.

This last bit is difficult to explain, but I hope you understand it.  A lot of good stories result when a driven character is forced into a situation in which they can’t act the way they want to– that doesn’t mean they should just give up.  They are still driven.  Where they go from that bad situation depends on them.  Find your character’s central principle and stick them into a situation that will test them and strengthen them.  That will make the character seem perfect for his own story.


78 thoughts on “Characters in a Nutshell

  1. This is a good post. And I am really looking forward to April when I can better apply this post and start writing this story that’s flitting around in my head…

    Off topic, but when ever we can, I need to talk to you about Stakes.

      1. First rule of camping: always carry a pistol.

        Second rule of NaNoWriMo: quantity before quality… which sounds a lot like that first rule.

      2. Fourth rule of NaNoWriMo: it is perfectly acceptable to throw in an existential essay or crisis because your stuck.

      3. Nope. Just one. He typed fast. And had been planning the behemoth of a masterpiece for years. But he got stuck often. So then he’d throw in 6 chapters backstory until he found his way back to the story.

      4. And he was a Mistborn. He stayed awake with pewter the entire month. Wrote all day and all night.

      5. Agreed. Though it sounds useful and somewhat fun, I think I’d need Allomantic mental help somewhere in there. My brain doesn’t like it when I don’t get enough sleep. And can you imagine the pewter drag in December?

      6. Of course, I’m sure there are several Wrimos who more or less go into a coma after November 30th, anyway.

  2. I’m now trying to think of ways to use this, and am not thinking of anything useful. I think I need to go develop my characters some more….

    Also, I think I’m now going to always turn ketchup bottles the other way around, just ’cause the English language is terrible. (Then again, now that I think about it, I’m not sure we buy the Heinz brand…)

  3. When you started talking about the guy who hates ketchup labels, I thought for sure you were talking about me. Your description of him was suspiciously accurate, so I was a little creeped out for a moment.

    I plan to refer to this post while I revise my NaNoWriMo first draft. While all my main character had serious flaws, I didn’t put him in any situations that challenged them and forced him to grow.

  4. This sounds complicated. I get it, but it sounds complicated.

    Liam, I was having a very interesting discussion with my literature teacher today and I ended up getting a bit confused. Before I begin, what is your definition of a climax?

    1. Ha. That’s one of the weirdest things I had to learn. I always thought the climax was the low point, but the climax is basically the moment before the heroes win. (My Freshly Pressed post was actually this very question, open for comment discussion.)

      Let’s see… what movies have you seen? Star Wars: A New Hope would have its climax at the moment they fire the torpedo into the Death Star– we don’t know whether it’s going to work or not, and it’s the high point for all tension and action.

      What did your teacher say about it?

      1. THAT IS WHAT I THOUGHT TOO! The point before the heroes win. The point of highest drama!

        She’s saying it’s the mid point. As in, when the whole plot is being revealed. I DO NOT understand that. In her mind, that is the climax. I don’t agree.

      2. I’m going to elaborate on what I previously said.

        In her view, the climax was the point at the very middle of the story where information is suddenly revealed. We were talking in the context of Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, so in her opinion, the climax is when Oedipus realises his true birth and the sins he has committed (this is what I consider the mid-point), and NOT when he reacts in terror, finds the body of his wife/mother Jocasta and blinds himself with her brooch. The events that follow this gruesome scene would logically be the falling action.

        Look at these two story graphs.

        Graph A:

        Graph B:

        In my opinion, Graph A is the correct one, but Graph B seems to be more popular. I even told her about this structure theory I know of (maybe through your blog, I don’t remember now).

        The theory is that there are three points from which we can’t go back. Three points in the story that change the characters/plot/mood indeterminately, and we cannot go back to what it once was. Now, we have to see the story through to the end. I told her that in my opinion, the mid-point or the big reveal (what she called the climax) was the second point of no return. (I don’t think she was too happy with me contradicting her, but whatever.) She still stubbornly held on to her view (and I suppose with a PhD in English Lit, she’s allowed to), but I still can’t bring myself to agree with her about this climax/mid-point business.


      3. My argument there would be, how do you keep an audience engaged for the second half of the story if it’s continually decreasing in suspense? They’re going to get bored. I definitely like the first graph.

      4. That was *precisely* my argument. But she was adamant on her stand and finally, I am just a lowly student XD. Thank you for agreeing!

      5. Once she tries to write her own novel, she’ll see. Maybe. (It seems to me that people who care the most about structure are the first people to throw it aside.)

      1. Well, you’re making yourself an excellent candidate for the guy who turns ketchup bottles around. *pulls out notebook and pen*
        Please continue.

      2. Oh, just a few little questions. For instance, why do you dislike ketchup? And what’s one word to describe you? And what do you want? And what’s your worst fear? That last one is very important. How else will I know what to send after you?

      3. 1. I dislike ketchup because it…I think because it tastes sweet and tomatoey and just…it shouldn’t taste sweet. I don’t know. I used to like it.
        2. Um…you tell me?
        3. For all the ketchup to be destroyed, of course!
        4. That I’ll have to eat vats of ketchup to save the world or something.

        (Can you tell I just made all that up on the spot?)

      4. Wow. This could actually make a story…

        But be comforted, new character. I’m not mean enough to send the last one after you like that… I’ll make you eat French fries or hamburgers or something with that ketchup.

      5. Once upon a time, there was a girl who loved ketchup. She ate it on everything (except ice cream, but nobody eats ketchup on ice cream). Then one day, she was betrayed by the ketchup company when they changed their recipe. The ketchup was too sweet now. The girl was heartbroken. She tried to like other brands or learn to like the new recipe of her favorite brand, but she could not. The thought of the betrayal left a bitter taste in her mouth.

      6. As the girl was in the supermarket one day, wrinkling her nose in disgust of the ketchup aisle, she wished that ketchup didn’t exist. That it would just suddenly be obliterated from the earth. And the more she thought about it, the more she realized how much it sounded like plan. She would remove ketchup from the earth! By the time she reached the checkout, she had the entire plan plotted. All she needed was some help to pull off this daring heist.

      1. Maybe. Not me though. I love ketchup!

        But acid accidents would explain it… unless they’re trying to stay away from acids completely. Apples are highly acidic, too.

  5. Ketchup.

    I have no idea if I like it or hate it.

    The guy who turns ketchup bottles around is so intriguing!! Jeez. I really want to know more about him, LOL. Awesome post!!

      1. Totally! I’d love to read a story about why a guy turned his ketchup bottles around whenever he saw them.

        …As for ketchup itself, I’ve decided I like it yesterday, tomorrow, but never today.

  6. Hopefully she’ll see. Anyway, you asked me to keep you updated, right? The agent responded and asked to see the complete manuscript! 😀 I’m doing some hurried editing. I haven’t touched it since I finished writing it, except for fine-tuning the sample chapters before I sent it to her.

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