I’ve read dozens of articles and books on characterization, all written by well-meaning people, and personally I found them befuddling. While each had a few good ideas on how to generate characters, most of the authorities found themselves trying to give so much detail about what makes a round character that the writer eventually got stuck down in the weeds, creating detail that could never be used.
That’s a waste of your time and your mental energy.
There are some things that you really do need to know, and the first one is “What is your protagonist’s character arc?”
You see, stories are about character advancement, about the opportunities that come with risk, about growth and learning, and a whole bunch more. One easy way to begin plotting a story is to look at your character and ask, “What is the opening state of my protagonist?” and “How does he change through the course of the story?”
One piece of popular writing software for writing adventure fiction suggests that your protagonist will move through four phases during the archetypal hero journey. These phases are 1) Orphan, 2) Wanderer, 3) Warrior, and 4) Martyr.
That’s helpful, but not extremely helpful. You see, even this software gets it wrong. It’s true that your character might move through those phases, but before one can be an orphan, one usually has a family, right? So perhaps we should add “Child” before the orphan phase. Luke Skywalker started out with an Uncle Owen and an Aunt Beru, right? Dorothy had a mom and dad before the tornado sucked her up and carried her to Oz. So this means that as a writer, if you were writing a hero journey cycle, you might want to start your protagonist as a child, perhaps with a loving family, perhaps with something less.
And what’s with this “wanderer” phase? The purpose of that phase is to have your character gathering allies—usually unknowingly, and usually at least three allies of very specific types, while the recognition of a growing threat mounts. It’s true that a wanderer is often rather aimless, and your protagonist in a hero journey normally doesn’t have the right aims. So I might suggest that the “wandering” phase has more parts—“establishing current goals vs. gaining new direction,” “gathering a guide,” “gathering a sidekick,” “attracting the one true love.” Most of those steps occur in adventure stories. My point here is, the advice is good, but it’s a bit too vague to be helpful.
Yet if you look at a tale as being about a character moving from one phase of life to another, you can immediately begin to see some of the conflicts you might want to establish, and you’ll get ideas for what needs to happen.
Take the movie Gladiator. In it, our protagonist moves from being “Most trusted general and family man,” to “accused traitor,” “to widower/bereft of family” to “slave” to “gladiator” to “arena champion” to “avenger” to “gaining heavenly reward.” That’s a great character arc.
The fun thing is, you can do this so easily. Your character may start out at the top of the world: “prince.” But his father is murdered by his counselors, and so he becomes an “orphan.” He flees the country in secret as a “refugee.” He is wounded by an assassin and becomes an “amputee.” While being nursed back to health, he falls in love with a young woman and becomes a “love-smitten doofus.” He realizes that he could live in a tiny village and be happy, so he decides to become a “peasant immigrant.” But one night, just before his wedding, he is discovered by his father’s true councelor, a man who barely escaped with his life, a guide character who urges him to re-take the throne. Our protagonist refuses the call, but hears news that his own people are being oppressed, and finds himself among the expatriates where he is befriended by a “rabble rouser” swordsman who seems to recognize him, and he is accused of being one of them. He begins to learn what is really going on, when his new wife is attacked, and he realizes that he only has one choice: he can either be a “victim,” or he can go re-take his throne. Now he becomes a “soldier,” and in his attempt to re-take the throne he may risk everything, becoming a “martyr” for his people, only to be saved in the last instant by his guide character, who gives his own life in effort reestablish a just kingdom. Thus he winds up a “king.”
Do you see how it works? Just about any noun that defines a state will do. How about “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”? Or “Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief?” Using this method, you can literally suggest an entire plot for a novel or series of novels in a few words. Here is one that I’m working on: Jester, Outlaw, Defender, Wizard.
So choose a character that interests you. Are you writing a romance? Maybe you might start by defining your character as a “dweeb.” But where does she go from there? I’ll let you play with the answers.
Have fun with it!
November, Nation Novel Writing Month, is coming up fast. Every year I do a Writing Mastery Camp—a week-long workshop that let’s you get away from interruptions and (most) responsibilities so you can focus on just writing. This is my most intensive workshop, and I only allow 12 participants in. You can learn more or sign up here.