Characters are at the heart of every story. The characters (who) together with the plot (what) and the setting (where) are the basic elements that must work together to create a compiling story. It is very rare that a story can exist without one of these elements. And even if the setting is fuzzy and if the plot is missing (like in a vignette), it is virtually impossible to have a story without characters.
It’s obviously not enough to just throw in some characters to have a good, memorable story. You need the right number of characters, and all of them need to be built from the ground up in such a way so they feel real and believable. The reader must perceive those characters as actual people because that’s the way readers connect with them. The reader must be able to put himself into the shoes of a character and get a sense of realism, of plausibility, but also feel entertained and emotionally connected.
You’ve probably heard this before: create 3-dimensional or multi-dimensional characters, be aware of and avoid flat or cardboard characters. What does that mean?
This advice spawns from the fact that nobody in our real world is a one-dimensional individual. Nobody is just bad or just good, or just stupid or just smart. People are generally bad about some things, and good about others, they are stupid about certain things, and smart about others. They have positive traits and negative traits, and all of them together make that person who he is.
Moreover, a person evolves and changes over time. A person is influenced by his environment, his family, teachers and friends. Someone who started as being a cynic might change later on when a stressing event occurs. Someone who was a loving person might turn into a misanthrope after they had lost their loved one to an accident; a god-fearing person might turn into god-hater after they had lost their child to a disease. Either way, people change – in good or in bad – and that makes them real too.
The combination of personal traits and the way that those traits change during one’s life are what define that person in multiple dimensions. It’s what makes that person unique. In the context of fiction, it’s what makes that character interesting and worth caring about.
So, to create powerful, memorable characters you must answer 3 fundamental questions:
1) Who is this character?
2) What does this character want?
3) How does this character change?
Let’s take a look at each one of these, one at a time:
Who Is This Character?
In this article, I am not worried about the way a character looks, i.e. his/her physical appearance, even though in some instances the way a character looks is integral to his/her personality. I am mostly talking about personality traits. Other things such as name and looks are just bonuses that, when used correctly, will propel your character further. Just imagine Darth Vader being exactly as he is, but instead of the ominous black suit, he’d be wearing a yellow overall and his name would be Skippy. I know, it’s an exaggeration, but I wanted to make a point. After you read all of the text below, an apply everything you have learned about personality, give your characters some physical features and a name that matches. Then, you’ll have a real winner!
Let’s go back to personality now. In order to define a full character we will turn to something called the Myers-Briggs test.
Now, don’t get scared: you won’t have to become a psychologist just to create powerful characters. I will give you an easy, child-proof way to reverse-engineer the Myers-Briggs test. I will only touch on the basic points here, but if you want to learn more, you should check the Myers & Briggs Foundation site for some in-depth information.
Basically, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a way to take the 16 dimensions defined in the theory of psychological types described by Carl Jung, and apply them to people. Each person will be defined by a combination of 4 factors, each factor having one dominant feature, and one minor:
a) Favorite World: do you prefer to focus on the outer world (Extraversion (E)) or the inner world (Introversion (I))?
b) Information: do you prefer to focus on the raw, basic information you have (Sensing (S)) or to interpret and add meaning to it (Intuition (N))?
c) Decisions: do you prefer to first look at logic and consistency (Thinking (T)) or first look at circumstances and their influence on people (Feeling (F))?
d) Structure: in dealing with the outside world, do you prefer to get things decided (Judging (J)) or to stay open to new information and options (Perceiving (P))?
What is great about this is that none of us is only one thing or another. We all have things we are extroverted about (like cursing out loud at a soccer game) and things we are introverted about (like asking a stranger a question). The test is conducted through a series of questions and depending on the answers you get allocated a letter of each.
So, for example: INFP = Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceiving
Obviously you have 4 x 4 dimensions which results in 16 possible combinations.
If you want to try it out and learn about your own personality, and thus learn a little bit more about this, here is a link to one of these tests: Human Metrics.
So, now let’s build the personality code for a character:
- a) Favorite World:
- a. (E)xtroverted: (Keyword: OUTER)
- i. Acts first, thinks later (trigger-happy)
- ii. Feels deprived when cut off from the outside world (hates isolation)
- iii. Open and motivated by the outside world (feels great in crowds)
- iv. Enjoys a wide variety people and the way people change
b. (I)ntroverted: (Keyword: INNER)
- i. Thinks first, acts later (over-thinker)
- ii. Needs private time to recharge (loner)
- iii. Motivated internally (others find hard to read him or “break thru”)
- iv. Prefers one-to-one communications (hates crowds)
- a. (E)xtroverted: (Keyword: OUTER)
Think about your character; which one of these is he/she leaning towards? If you like numbers use percentages (for example 70% extroverted, 30% introverted), otherwise just say (E) first, (I) second, to signify that this character is more extroverted than he/she is introverted.
Let’s keep going. Use the same method for the other 3 parameters:
a. (S)ensing: (Keywords: PRESENT, REALITY)
- i. Mentally lives in the now (carpe diem)
- ii. Uses common sense and easily creates practical solutions (practical)
- iii. Good memory of details of past facts and events (facts!)
- iv. Improvises well from past experience (street smart)
- v. Likes clear and concrete information (hates guessing)
b. I(N)tuitive (Keywords: FUTURE, POSSIBILITIES)
- i. Mentally lives in the future (opportunities)
- ii. Uses imagination and creates/invents new possibilities (theoretical)
- iii. Good memory of patterns, contexts, and connections (feelings!)
- iv. Improvises well from theoretical understanding (book smart)
- a. (S)ensing: (Keywords: PRESENT, REALITY)
a. (T)hinking: (Keyword: DETACHED)
- i. Searches for facts and logic in a decision situation
- ii. Looks at work as a task-based process, independent of people
- iii. Can provide an objective and critical analysis
- iv. Accepts conflict as a normal part of life
b. (F)eeling: (Keyword: ATTACHED)
- i. Uses feelings and impact on people in a decision situation
- ii. Sensitive to people’s needs and reactions
- iii. Seeks consensus and popular opinions
- iv. Unsettled by conflict; dislikes disharmony
- a. (T)hinking: (Keyword: DETACHED)
a. (J)udging: (Keyword: HAS A PLAN)
- i. Plans many details in advance before taking action
- ii. Focuses on task-related actions, completes segments in order
- iii. Works best when is able to stay ahead deadlines
- iv. Uses goals, targets, dates to manage life and work
b. (P)erceiving (Keyword: AS IT COMES)
- i. Plans on-the-go
- ii. Likes to multitask and mix work with play
- iii. Tolerant of time pressure, works best close to deadlines
- iv. Avoids commitments which interfere with flexibility, freedom, and variety
- a. (J)udging: (Keyword: HAS A PLAN)
Okay, so by now you should have two columns: one with the dominant characteristics, and one with the minor ones. For example:
Dominant: ENTJ (Extrovert, Intuitive, Thinking, Judging)
Minor: ISFP (Introvert, Sensing, Feeling, Perceiving)
What you should do next is read the description of those two types. Your character will be a LOT of the first (dominant), and a little of the second (minor), which is why you want to read both.
You can read these descriptions on the Myers-Briggs Site or on the PersonlityPage. I like the PersonalityPage in particular because they have a short description and a long, more detailed description for those who want to go deeper. In addition, they name each type with a matching label. In our example above:
ENTJ = The Executive – Assertive and outspoken – they are driven to lead. Excellent ability to understand difficult organizational problems and create solid solutions. Intelligent and well-informed, they usually excel at public speaking. They value knowledge and competence, and usually have little patience with inefficiency or disorganization.
ISFP = The Artist – Quiet, serious, sensitive and kind. Do not like conflict, and not likely to do things which may generate conflict. Loyal and faithful. Extremely well-developed senses, and aesthetic appreciation for beauty. Not interested in leading or controlling others. Flexible and open-minded. Likely to be original and creative. Enjoy the present moment.
Here is a quick chart that gives you an idea about each of the 16 types.
The Duty Fulfiller
Just a little note here: Each of these types can be additionally decomposed to provide a deeper understanding. For example, a person who is an ENTP (The Visionary), can be described as follows:
You probably don’t need to go that deep, but if you do, the PersonalityPage mentioned above can give you all of these breakdowns. Their detailed descriptions are really good. After you found your character’s personality, read the description and ask yourself: Does this sound like the character I had envisioned?
Now that you have your character described, the trick is to show the readers those traits through the character’s actions or dialogue. The reader probably doesn’t know the personality code, but we are all more or less versed in reading these types naturally. Read the description for The Executive above; take all those features and figure out how to show them in your prose. “They value knowledge and competence” – show the character praising this and show them display hatred of the opposite.
Make sure you choose at least one or two of the traits from the minor type and show that sporadically in your story. Maybe your executive is also loyal and faithful. He’s portrayed as this mean boss-type person, but at home he’s a loving husband and father. Give your characters 75% of their main type (which already is a combination of 4 different dimensions) and 25% of the minor type. You will wind up with an actual person, someone who is real, and someone with whom the readers can connect.
Obviously you will use actions, body language, and dialogue to load your character with the above traits. There’s something called “visual identification,” which is a method by which you observe a person and figure out his/her type from their body language, speech mannerism and so on. Since you know your type now, you need to figure those body language cues and manners of speech that would indicate that. You are in luck, because psychologists have been dealing with this for years. The 16 types info site has some descriptions related to visual identification. Use those cues to bring your character to life.
To do some of this on your own, use a simple Q&A method. If this person “plans-on-the-go” what does that mean? Brainstorm: he doesn’t have a calendar planner, he’s late, he improvises, etc. Take all the bullet points from above and figure out what does your character need to do, say, and how he/she should act in order to ooze that particular trait.
In addition to this, besides the personality traits, to make characters even more human you should give them flaws and redeeming features. Your protagonist is the hero, he saves everyone, but he also has his/her own demons. Your villain or antagonist is mean and bad, but he also has some characteristics that makes us like him/her. Everyone agrees Darth Vader is evil, but the fact that he can’t kill his own son and turns against his master at climax makes him real. Indiana Jones saves everyone everytime, and does so selflessly, putting his life on the line. But he’s afraid of snakes. Sherlock Holmes is a great detective, putting criminals behind bars, but he’s a drug addict and his ego makes him behave rather mean towards people he considers of lower intellect. See the pattern? Give a lot, take some away.
Readers also love unexpected acts of kindness especially during stressful times or from characters who don’t seem like they would be inclined to act that way. Dr. Kimble in The Fugitive movie risks blowing his cover, while on the run, only to help read a patient’s chart.
Just be aware of one thing: don’t tack good traits on a villain or flaws on a hero just for the sake of it. It will feel forced. Make sure that those traits flow naturally and actually integrate with the plot. We all hate Valdemort, but we do feel a bit of sympathy for the guy given the life he had. That’s much better than showing that he loves dogs.
All these things make the character more human. All these little facets give your characters depth and make them easier to understand and believe.
2) What does the character want?
Kurt Vonnegut once said: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”
Stories need conflict and conflict arises when a character wants something and he is unable to get it. So, make sure that you make this clear from the beginning.
During a complete story, characters will want:
1) To solve the story’s main question (what is the one thing the character wants that is directly related to this plot?)
2) To fulfill their life-long desires – these are things that exist with or without this story; they are inherent to the character. The story could be about something, but your character might ALSO want to get a better life, or find a wife, or kill an enemy. There are things all of us want and we continue to want them throughout our life. The story might not be about those, but they do add to the character’s dimension, making them have a life outside of the
story, thus more realistic. Those things should be mentioned and hinted at in a subtle manner.
Once you establish what the characters want, make sure, absolutely sure, that it’s extremely hard for them to get it. Nothing bothers readers as much as a well-defined character that dashes through the story and succeeds at every step. That’s because in reality, life is not like that, and we all know it. And in the end, we actually despise people that have it easy in life. In reality, for most people, very few things can be obtained without a struggle. (Have you ever thought kindly about the kid who inherited a fortune and is now flashing it everywhere? Of course not, even if he saves a squirrel.)
Since I quoted Vonnegut, let me continue with his advice here: “Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
Now we’re talking. You have defined a real, multi-dimensional character, you gave him/her something to desire, and then you’ve made it hellishly hard for them to get it. We’re on the right path!
3) How does the character change?
I think deep down inside nobody thinks that they change. I have to struggle to remember what my values and thoughts were in my twenties. I am sure they were vastly different, but because change happens in us so slowly and gradually over time, we fail to notice it.
Sometimes the ones around us notice it, especially those whom we haven’t seen for a long time. So, we are aware that people change, but we see it in others more than we see it in ourselves. That’s why we are also very much aware when a character changes in front of our eyes.
A story is a slice of life and to create memorable characters you want them to change throughout the story.
Now, don’t get me wrong, not ALL characters must change. Allow me a parenthesis to explain. There are 4 types of stories in general: Milieu (it’s a story about a place), Idea (it’s a story about information), Character (it’s a story about a character’s character), and Event (it’s a story about something that happened). Each story has a little bit of each of these types. For the purposes of this section, we are mostly referring to the Character-heavy stories. Those are the stories where we follow the character arc and we can clearly see a beginning character, a path of change, and an ending character.
The Indiana Jones movies are Event stories. The emphasis is not on the character’s character, which is why Indiana Jones is pretty much the same from beginning to end.
A Christmas Carol is a Character story, and here we see the evolution of Ebenezer Scrooge from a cold, miserly person to a selfless person who cares.
There are few ways that you can modify a character in your story:
- Change – your character turns from a regular person into a hero (Frodo)
- Growth – your character becomes a better person (Scrooge)
- Demise – your character becomes a worse person (Michael Corleone)
When it comes to the character arc, this is also not a one way street. Throughout one’s life, a person might find himself on a growth path for twenty years, then something happens, and the rest of the life is a downward spiral. That in itself could be an interesting story to tell.
James Scott Bell wrote in his Plot and Structure that, “As opposed to the plotline, the character arc is a description of what happens to the inside of the character over the course of the story.” He goes on and provides us with a simple list to follow this arc:
- “A beginning point, where we meet the character and get a sense of his interior layers
- A doorway through which the character must pass, almost always reluctantly
- Incidents that impact the layers
- A deepening disturbance
- A moment of change, sometimes via an “epiphany”
- An aftermath”
When you work on your characters’ arc, try to follow this simple forward-looking list. Your arc should span the entire novel (or even more, an entire series) and should be clear enough so that readers can understand it.
By playing with the character arc, in the context of the personality, you can create very memorable characters. One critical keyword I want to mention here is “alignment.” Make sure that the change is possible for the personality type. A very introverted, heads-in-the-clouds artist is unlikely to change so radically as to become the President of the United States (unless you are writing comedy, in which case all bets are off). So, make sure that your character evolution is aligned to the character’s personality so that it sounds plausible. That’s why you define the personality in the first step by walking your way backwards, learning more about your character as you develop him/her.
If you defined your character’s personality well enough, gave them something to desire, made it very hard for them to get it, and established a path by which they change, you probably have a very strong character, one that readers can relate to and who will stay in their minds long after they’ve finished your book.
In your novel, you should go through this exercise for your protagonist(s), antagonist(s) and, perhaps on a smaller scale, for your sidekicks. If you populate your story with these well-defined characters, you are already one step ahead towards a memorable novel. Of course, these great characters must do something exciting and interesting, but that’s a whole other story for another time.
I hope you enjoyed this post. Please give me your thoughts. I am curious what is your approach to character development?
Some additional reading materials:
- Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
- Profiles of the Sixteen Personality Types
- Personality Test
- Alternative Personality Test
- 15 Days to Stronger Character
- Strong Characters versus Weak Characters
- How Do You Build A Strong Character In Your Writing?
All the best,