“Who” Versus “How” a Character Is

Let’s mince some words with a couple of arbitrary definitions for the sake of having a discussion.

Flat characters, to me, are ones that are built as a list of bullet points, and you can see right though them.  The character is X, Y, and Z, and so they do things that are obviously connected to those things.

It’s a great starting place, but we can get ourselves into all kinds of trouble.  Another way you could look at “flat” is “stereotyped”.  They’re not exactly the same, but within the category of person that this character is—the category of XYZ—if they act squarely in the center of what you’d expect, then they’re not interesting.

Sometimes the mere exploration of XYZ is enough of a literary task to make the character truly interesting, but don’t rely on this justification.  Are you absolutely convinced your XYZ is so unique that it demands a book be written about it?  If so, fantastic.  If you’re kind of waffling as you decide, then the answer might just be no.

So start asking yourself How your character is.  This requires you to understand their internal struggles, not just because of XYZ, but because they are a rational-emotional being.  What things do they say or do that might at first contradict this XYZ formula?  We all have them.  We justify things to ourselves, we synthesize explanations for our behavior to others when they call us on contradicting our core beliefs.  Some things get us mad while the person next to us goes unfazed.  Some things bring some of us to tears, and others not.

These things are in motion at all times.  I’m a black box and you can’t always know how I’ll be just because I am XYZ.

Allow yourself to create diverse characters.  Try making two characters that are both XYZ, and yet are fundamentally different people in the way they think or act.

Planning a Character Arc

When speaking of fantasy and science fiction,  I feel that I would be doing a disservice to approach a story without some notion of a character arc.  Some authors don’t try at all to build one in advance—they let the character arc come out as part of the theme of the finished product.  To me, planning one adds a dimension to the overall progress of the story while I’m still in the early stages of conceptualizing the book.

Choosing who needs an arc

Let’s quickly clarify that of course not every single character and side character deserves an arc.  Some characters might have long ago experienced their arc and they’re not going to have a new one just because the camera is turned on and following the heroes with them in the background.

Side characters only get them from me when I find believable ways to alter their relationship with the main characters or the plot.  A side character might only have a single line in the book that proves that they experienced an arc that I wrote into them, and it might not have been planned for them from the beginning.

The first-come first-serve of arcs are the main characters.  These people are why the story exists in the form it does, and I want the reader to spend time with them and their motivations, and then watch how they change.

Character development in baby steps

Before there is anything said about sweeping character transformations, remember that not everything needs to be turned up to 11.  If you break the illusion of plausibility in the reader’s eyes, then the jig is up.

Small changes have the potential to be very powerful.  Characters that have behaved a certain way for decades might see or learn something profound, and yet the only change we see from our place holding the book might be that they say “thank you” a little more than usual.

Alternatively, this character might have a desire to change something about themselves.  By the end they might have finally found a reason to take a real step towards trying.

Emotional transformation

This is other end of the spectrum, and it’s often where I go first for ideas.  As the story develops around the character, I periodically go back and see how my plan for them is going to pan out.  Sometimes the answer is that it won’t, and the arc should be toned down or changed altogether.

I select an adjective to describe the character in their beginning state.  I will often take a few minutes to wordsmith just the right term because I am about to imbue this character with a nuance that I will have to work to capture.  I’m adding a dimension to them beyond their identity, and I want it to feel right.

Even though I have no idea where my story might be going yet, I try to pick a destination state and assign that an adjective too.

This pair of single words is concise, easy to remember, and hopefully evokes the same mental imagery every time I look at them.

The words don’t have to be opposites!  Why should they be?  Maybe there’s a leap which begs the question of how the person might be pushed into that change—in fact these kinds of changes can be quite interesting due to the reader’s difficulty to foresee the arc long in advance.

Some examples:

  • vengeful → protective
  • outsider → influential
  • beholden → accomplished
  • bridled → uncontrolled
  • follower → converted

These are often just statements about what the character should accomplish during their time in the spotlight, but because I don’t yet know what the story will have in store, it’s a brainstorming exercise.

The adjective you choose might turn out a little melodramatic once you see the story unfolding.  Try to envision where this character is headed, and pick a better adjective to describe some aspect of it.

Now you just have to figure out how to get your character from point A to point B.

Characters Learning Things Isn’t the Same As Character Development

When I’m wandering my way through a plot, I’ve written a few characters for whom the arc is just them learning a series of secrets that eventually leads them to foil the baddies.  It’s pretty much just a plot-driven conflict disguised as a mystery, and it’s not doing either one of those things very well.

Motivation

The best insight I’ve had into solving this problem came when I looked at the villains first.  What I had was Bad Guy trying to get away with something delicately couched as a secret plan.  If it wasn’t a secret, the heroes and the entire world itself would have no trouble eyeballing that plan and raising a stink about it.

My villains were weaksauce.  What they were doing relied entirely on the rest of the human race just not noticing the heist.  Sometimes the vehicle for this was that my villain was actually pretty influential, but was tackling this one alone for the glory.  Other times it was the opposite—Bad Guy is essentially just a nobody with a secret to turn the world on its head.

Consider a different look at the problem of the villainous trail.  When my hero, we shall call her Good Gal, is finding clues laying around, it calls into question what kind of operation Bad Guy is running here.  If Good Gal finds this garbage, why not someone else?  The answer might help you weave the details in your own trail mystery in a believable way, but you can’t get very far by ignoring the question.  Like if this is Bad Guy’s master plan and life’s work, what in the world would possess him to be this careless about the trail?

The issue as it relates to Good Gal is that the plot for this story can be summarized by “someone gets information that Bad Guy wishes they hadn’t”.  Not super compelling, and worse, Good Gal could literally be anyone.  She could be the least engaging character in the Milky Way and a the story would be fundamentally unchanged.

Stakes

It was now time to look back at Good Gal.  I was addressing some of the believability issues I had about this villain of mine, but Good Gal was still lacking.  In a disgusting case of her being possessed by the plot itself, she was doing whatever had to be done to make sure Bad Guy got caught.  She was moving from one thing to the next, the clues themselves nominally markers for progress, but without any development on her end.  She perhaps had a moment of change when she encountered the first clue and the story begins, but after that, she was not forced to cross thresholds that committed her to seeing it through.

The most meaningful thing you can make a character suffer as plot progression markers fly by is to come up with reasons why the Good Gal can’t just turn back.  “I’m so close to solving this that I can’t turn back!” is a pretty unconvincing motivation all by itself.

Markers of progress need to cost something, either personally or against the greater debt implied by failure.  This doesn’t have to be earth shattering, just something that stops the character from going back to the way it was before.  Learning something isn’t often a strong enough call to action to do that.  Most of us could learn something awful about the world and retire to an island mansion and never think about the rest of the messed up world ever again.

It could be that all we need is Good Girl in Act II messing up a friendship with someone that she respects.  She could miss her rent in the chaos of the chase, and now she’s got nowhere to crash when she really needs it.  Someone could die, in an extreme case.  Perhaps inaction is to blame, and she loses the one chance she was counting on to have some closure with her past.  Literally anything is going to be better than nothing.

No personal stakes means the story isn’t drawing you forward with each event, and if I’m missing that component, then my engagement with the character is going to grow thin.

Learning things doesn’t automatically make Good Girl a deeper character, but if such a thing transforms her outlook or alters the motivation she has, I’ll have done a much better job writing her character.