To all the writers who have ever been told “Your characters have to be three dimensional!” or “They should be well-rounded!” and just felt like saying: “What does that even MEAN?! What goes into a 3-dimensional character? Specifically? And how do you go about creating one?!”
Good news. There’s a way.
Great main characters – heroes, protagonists, deuteragonist, whatever you want to call them – have ten things in common. Ten things that are easily developed, once you know what to create within your character. So no one will ever be able to tell you “needs to be more three dimensional!” ever again. Ha.
1) Weaknesses: Main characters should be flawed, but I’m not saying this because it will make them more realistic (though it will) – I’m saying they need to be flawed because if they’re not, they shouldn’t be a main character. Story is another word for change, or more accurately, character growth. Not character as in “fictional person”, character meaning “heart and soul”. Story is someone’s character changing, for better or worse. Main characters at the beginning of the story are lacking something vital, some knowledge of themselves, some knowledge of how to live a better life, and this void is ruining their lives. They must overcome these weaknesses, if they’re going to become complete, and reach a happy ending. There are two types of weaknesses: Psychological and Moral. Psychological ones only hurt the main character. Moral ones cause the main character to hurt other people. Easy.
2) Goal: Characters exist because they want something. Desiring something, and the fight against opposition for that desire, is the lifeblood of story; and because character is story, it’s also desire that can breathe life into words on a page, and begin the process of creating a real person in a reader’s mind. It’s this ‘desire for something’ that sparks that first connection between reader and character. It makes us think “Well, now I have to find out if this person gets what they want.” This is a powerful link. (How many mediocre movies do we suffer through, when we could easily stop watching, because we’re still trapped by that question of “what happens?”) So if this is powerful enough to keep people watching an annoying movie, imagine how powerful it can be in an excellent story.
Like in Up, the goal is to get the house to Paradise Falls.
3) Want: If the main character wants something, they want it for a darn good reason. Usually, they think that attaining the goal will fill the void they can sense in their lives, the deficiency they can feel, but don’t know how to fix. And they’re almost always wrong. Getting the goal doesn’t help anything; which is why, while pursuing that goal, they discover a deeper need that will heal them. Which brings us to …
4) Need/Elixir: Main characters are missing something, a weakness in their innermost selves is causing them to live a less-than-wonderful life. Through story, these main characters can be healed. Once they discover what’s missing, and accept it, and change the way they live to include this truth they’ve uncovered … they’re healed. Learning this truth, whatever it is, forms the purpose of the story for the main character. The reader, and the character, think the story is about achieving that big tangible goal the premise talks about; really, underneath it all, the story is about someone achieving a big intangible truth, that will ultimately save their life and future. Often, this need is exactly what the character fears or professes to hate.
Like Finding Nemo, where Dory states exactly what Marlin needs to learn.
Not this kind of ghosts.
Ghosts are events in your character’s past which mark the source of their weaknesses and strengths. Because these happened, the character became who they are. All we need to know about backstory are these moments, because who the character became is all we care about. There’s really only one ghost you absolutely need: the source of their moral and psychological weakness. Something happened that knocked the character’s world off kilter, and everything from that moment onward has been tainted by what happened. This moment haunts them (hence the name), and holds them back from uncovering that need that will heal their weaknesses. Pixar are masters of this: the source of Carl being stuck in the past, curmudgeonly, unable of loving anyone new? Ellie dying; his ghost. In Finding Nemo, the source of Marlin being suffocating, protective to the point of being harmful, possessive, and fearful? His wife and 99% of his children being eaten in front of him; his ghost.
6) True Character: These are the strengths, values, convictions, fears, faults, beliefs, worldview, and outlook on life that make the main character who they truly are.
7) Characterization: This is everything on the surface of a main character. The way they look, talk, act, etc. All of this originates from those deeper elements of their being, the strengths, values, ghosts, weaknesses, needs, that make them who they truly are. So often, you can think of this as a facade they’re projecting, a way to shield the the truth about themselves, how they wish to be perceived. The story, and the other characters, are slowly going to see deeper than this characterization, revealing more and more of the reasons it is the way it is.
8) Arc: If the character is going to change from “Incomplete Person” to “Complete Person” there’s going to be a journey they go on to make that possible. The external story, the pursuit of that big tangible goal the premise is about, is causing an inner journey to take place. What they have to do in pursuit of that external goal will apply pressure to those weaknesses, and pressure causes change. This process has seven steps, but if I write it all here this post is going to be obscenely long. So I might wait and give this its own post.
9) Changed Person: Who is the character going to be at the end of this story? They better be different, or else the story didn’t work. How do they show how different they’ve become? What is the moral choice they make, that spins their trajectory from “the future doesn’t look so great” to “happily ever after”? This should be known right away, maybe even before anything else is settled about the character. This gives a distinct end goal, a way to work backwards, a destination in mind that you can navigate towards.
10) Fascination and Illumination: The surface characterization, and the brief glimpses of the true character underneath create curiosity in the reader/audience. What the character says, and the implied subtext beneath the dialogue, creates a puzzle the audience wants to solve. Actions they take work the same way; if the writer indicates there’s deeper motivation behind why a character behaves in the way they do, we buy into solving that mystery right away. We can’t help it. “Who are you really? Why are you the way you are? And how is that going to effect the story?” These are all the unspoken, almost not consciously acknowledged, questions that fascinating characters provoke. Searching out meaning, connecting the dots to find the truth – we can’t resist this. We’re not fascinated by tons of backstory and exposition about a character; we’re fascinated by story, by mystery, by the technique of withholding information and having to interpret and hunt out the truth on our own. So gradually, the story and the characters will force that character to reveal a little more, and a little more, until we have a complete picture of who this person is. Crucial that this information isn’t told up front. Gradually illuminate it. It’s just like getting to know a real person.
So how does this work in a real character? Let’s take a look at Flynn Rider/Eugene Fitzherbert, because almost everybody has seen that movie.
Moral Weaknesses: He’s selfish. He’s a little greedy. He’s a little rude. He uses his charisma and bravado to keep people at a distance from the real him.
Psychological Weaknesses: Insecurity, fear of vulnerability, feels like the real him (Eugene) would be unwanted, unlovable, and have nothing – just like when he was an orphaned kid. Also, he doesn’t know who he wants to be, what he wants to live for.
Goal: Flynn wants to get that crown. So he has to get Blondie to see the floating lights, so she’ll give it back to him, and then they can part ways as unlikely friends.
Want: Why does he want the crown? What does it mean for him? He actually states it (reluctantly) in song: “I have dreams like you, no really. Just much less touchy feely. They mainly happen somewhere warm and sunny. On an island that I own, tanned and rested and alone. Surrounded by enormous piles of money.” He senses there’s something off in his life, something is missing. But he mistakenly believes this missing piece is money, which will allow him to buy a lonely island, where he can live out his days as Flynn and no one will ever know Eugene.
Need: “All those days chasing down a daydream. All those years living in a blur. All that time never truly seeing, things the way they were. Now she’s here, shining in the starlight. Now she’s here, suddenly I know. If she’s here, it’s crystal clear, I’m where I’m meant to go.” He wants a crown … he needs to fall in love with Rapunzel. He needs to love something more than himself, and find out that love isn’t something to fear and push away. He needs to abandon the 'Tales of Flynnagin Rider’ ambition, and get a more worthwhile, new dream.
Ghost: The source of all of his weaknesses can be linked to his “little bit of a downer” childhood as an orphan. Interestingly, he isn’t aware of another facet of that ghost, and Rapunzel points it out to him. “Was he a thief too?” she asks. He looks taken aback, before answering “Uh, no.” Something’s gone wrong. The choices he’s making are not living up to that original role model.
Characterization: Flynn’s charming, funny, smart, charismatic, and arrogant (in a somehow charming sort of way). He’s also rude, contemptuous, and sarcastic. All traits that help him keep up that 'swashbuckling rogue’ facade, and push people away from the real him.
True Character: Underneath all that, he’s a Disney prince. That pretty much sums it up.
Changed Person: “Started going by Eugene again, stopped thieving, and basically turned it all around.” He started the story as the guarded and evasive Flynn, he ends as the selfless and thoroughly-in-love Eugene.
Fascination and Illumination: Imagine if everything about Flynn had been told, right up front. We know he’s an orphan, we know he’s upheld a fake reputation, we know he’s a kind and loving guy underneath it all, we even know about his “tales of Flynnagin” childhood dream. You know what happens? We like him … but we’re not interested in him. There’s nothing we need to find out. There’s no curiosity. And if there’s no curiosity, and nothing being illuminated, your story’s not going anywhere. So instead, we find out – alongside Rapunzel – more about Flynn as the story progresses. And that is how it should be.
Developing characters in this way, I’ve found, really reduces worries about how “well-rounded” and three dimensional I’ve made them. They feel real to me. And besides helping me create characters, this ten element technique has also let me analyze characters I like, which is strangely fun. It’s a great way to figure out why a character works, what causes them to be so effective, and how you can go about creating them yourself.
Yeah, I’m a bit of a nerd.
But if you want, try it out. Develop a character. Analyze a character. You might find it as useful/fun as I do.
has written like 1 super cliche fic, doesn't space paragraphs, everyone secretly hates them but doesn't want to be rude
the high schooler:
only writes high school aus, is actually a middle schooler, writes 3 chapters then gives up and writes a new fic, wants to be more creative but nahhhh
CRACK FICS, just writes weird shit, usually only writes one shots but when they do go for chaptered it's super creative and well done, likes body swap a lot, always uses overdone memes
their stuff is short and sweet, always G rated, but they secretly have ten million kinks
can literally only write group chat fics, not creative enough for anything else
wrote only one fic ever but it was super long and it's the most popular in the fandom
the smut addict:
only writes smut, probably really kinky, seriously though you haven't even heard of half of these, this is messed up
writes such average fics that you forget them, but they're actually really creative
chapter 2??? what chapter 2???
writes self insert fics for one direction, uses wattpad, probably 9 years old, always adds vampires, generally hated
If we’re being honest, one character is always the most fun to develop when you’re writing a new story. It must be the main character, right? The person you’re going to follow throughout the story, the one that means the most to you?
Nope. It’s the villain.
Villains are just FUN. You get to creep into the darkest corners of your writer brain and conjure up the most unashamedly detestable human being you possibly can.
This is how we look when we begin creating a villain.
But sometimes, it can be difficult to to make sure they’re fully believable humans. So here are the nine elements that have helped me out when developing these terrible people …
1) Hero’s Shadow:
The relationship between the main character and the villain is the most important one in the story, because it is the source of all conflict. Without the villain causing trouble, the main character wouldn’t have the chance to be a hero. Without that trouble, the main character’s weaknesses wouldn’t be pressured, which means they couldn’t change. The villain is a condensed and magnified embodiment of the inner weakness that the hero is battling. They’re the SHADOW of hero, the example of what will happen if the main character goes down the wrong path. Both are facing the same problem in different ways. For example Darth Vader and Luke.
2) Conflict Strategy:
In the pursuit of stopping the hero from achieving their goal, the villain is going to attack them on 1) a personal relationship level 2) a societal level and 3) an inner level. They’re going to attack the people around them, they’re going to cause consequences for the community surrounding them, they’re going to get into their head and plague them. Because the hallmark of a villain is that they’re the person who’s perfectly suited to attack the hero’s greatest weakness. Villains should have a distinct set of tactics to destroy the main character, on at least two levels.
This one’s expected. Of course a villain has flaws, it’s in the job description. But flaws do not equate to ‘He kicks turtles every morning before breakfast’ or 'His favorite hobby is butterfly stomping’ or, more within the realm of possibility, “He wants to kill the hero”. These are evil actions, NOT flaws. A lot of villains, particularly in movies, will be given horrible things to do without any explanation for WHY they do them. And it’s pretty easy to give them reasons: just give them human weaknesses! That’s it. Whether the actions they take are as small as theft or as big as blowing up a planet, these actions stem from recognizable HUMAN FLAWS. So like a main character, a villain needs mental and moral flaws.
Yup, even Maleficent has human flaws. And she’s a dragon part of the time.
4) Counter Goal:
All characters exist because they want something. And what do villains want? To get whatever the main character wants (for very different reasons), to stop them from reaching their goal, or another goal that directly conflicts with the hero’s goal. As long as that big tangible thing they want locks hero and villain in battle, you’re good. Think 101 Dalmatians: Cruella and the good guys are fighting over the puppies.
5) Surface Motivations:
Why is it that villains always have a team of followers? Because villains never outright state their true motivations. They always have a cover story, and that cover will paint them as righteous. Villains want to look like the good guy. So their real Hidden Motivations are defended by twisting perceptions of Good & Evil, by portraying evil acts in a positive light, by indulging their followers selfish emotions and desire to feel like “one of the good guys. "
Take Gothel for example: she’s a loving mother who wants to protect her daughter from all the world’s darkness. (Sure you do, Flynn stabber.)
Surface Motivations never stand up to logical scrutiny and a functioning moral compass, but giving your bad guy a compelling argument against your good side always makes things more interesting, which brings us to …
6) Counter Statement:
The main character needs to learn some kind of truth that will enable them to fix their lives, overcome their weaknesses, banish their ghosts. It’s whatever statement about "how to live a better life” you want to prove with your story. Your villain has other ideas. They don’t agree with that statement, have other beliefs about living life well, and represent an argument against it. For example, Voldemort: “there is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it."
Although your argument isn’t very convincing, Voldy. I mean, you’re living in the back of some guy’s head.
This is everything on the surface of the villain. The way they speak, the way they look, the way they act, their role in life, their status and power. This is the facade they project for the world to see, a calculated effort to control how they are perceived. This is closely connected to that surface want, because that surface is what they wish people to believe about them. Over time, the reader and the other characters are going to be able to see through this mask and see what it conceals. My favorite Disney example of this is Mother Gothel: on the surface she’s this bubbly mom who loves Rapunzel and wants to protect her from the harshness of the world.
You can think of this as the text …
8) Hidden Motivation:
And this is the subtext. That surface motivation they want the world to believe is a mask concealing their true motivation, which is always rooted in their flaws, selfishness, and skewed beliefs.
9) Ghosts, Justification, Self-Obsession:
These three are closely related, so they get counted together. Like main characters, villains have GHOSTS: events from their backstories that knocked their worldviews out of alignment, that marked the beginning of their weaknesses, that haunt them still. Because these happened, the originally benign person allowed themselves to turn into someone who could occupy the job of "villain” in a story. Usually, these events are genuine misfortunes and are worthy of sympathy, just like the ghosts of a main character. Think of Voldemort growing up in an orphanage talking to snakes.
BUT! When it comes to ghosts, the major difference between a hero and a villain is HOW THEY DEAL with these unpleasant past events. Both have suffered, but react to suffering in very different ways. A villain will be consumed by these events, obsessed with the real (or imagined) persecution or disadvantage they’ve endured, convinced that all personal responsibility is nullified by their status of injured party. Past tragedies become a talisman that grants immunity from decency.
This scene from A Series of Unfortunate Events sums it up. An adult makes an excuse for a terrible person by saying he had a terrible childhood. And Klaus replies:
Yes, maybe they’ve both lived through tragedy. But THE KIDS aren’t hurting others because of it.
Because villains, who are constantly victimizing heroes, are completely convinced that THEY are the true victims here. No matter what they do, no matter what they are, they blame everything on that ghost, whether it was another person, society, or circumstances. And later they blame the hero, who they see as the REAL villain. For example, Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame:
“It’s not my fault, I’m not to blame”
So! WHY are villains like this?
SELF-OBSESSION! Yup, villains spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about themselves and their plights and their plots. Think of any villain and it’s not hard to see the inherent narcissism behind everything they do. Like willingness to take action is the nonnegotiable trait of a main character, self-obsession is the trait that all villains seem to share.
So! Developing villains in this way has worked out for me so far. If it looks like it might be helpful for you, give it a try.
And in the spirit of creating someone to torment our main characters and ruin their lives, here’s one more maniacal laugh for the road:
I don’t understand why people think fanfiction writers aren’t real writers.
I mean, have you ever read a fanfiction? Have you read how wonderfully their descriptions are? How well they know the characters?
I am a full-time writer and I write my own stories but I’m far below the average Fanfic writers when it comes to writing scenes and describing emotions.
If a writer writes a retelling of old work/fairy tale, they’re applauded and praised but that’s what Fanfic writers are doing. Retelling a story in a completely unique way with old set of characters.
It just annoys me. But shout out to all the fabulous Fanfic writers out there (yes, even though you write fanfics about my anti-ships). Thank you for your selfless contribution to our fandoms (and fantasies which we know won’t ever happen).
Fandoms and the world of storytelling are incomplete without you all.
I have nothing but utmost respect and love for you. 💗
You know that moment as a writer, when you’ve been charging through the story, high on how fantastic it is, and then suddenly…it all STOPS. The next scene doesn’t form in your head. You’ve got nothing.
Behind your characters, a string of bright and captivating scenes mark the trail of that rocket of inspiration; ahead of your characters, a foggy expanse, stretching to who-knows-where, a few shapeless blobs that should be scenes floating in the nothingness.The rocket is dead, and not refueling any time soon.
Well, to everybody who’s suffered this, or is currently suffering it, there’s a way to navigate through that fog. A map. Directions and a destination.
Or, more specifically, events that form the underlying structure of the story.
This post is going to focus on one facet of story structure: character arc. Structure is something people subconsciously recognize and expect, and if the story doesn’t match those expectations, they feel cheated (though usually can’t explain why). Every good story follows a structure. So if you know structure, you’ll always know where to go next, and won’t get lost in the fog.
So here are the 8 steps of a character arc:
1) Hero: Strength, Weakness, and Need
This happens in the setup of the story, when the main character’s ordinary world is being introduced. First, the main character’s strengths must be displayed; we must be given a reason to like them, or if not exactly “like” them, empathize with them, and be fascinated by them. The reader needs to bond with the character, feel concerned about how it all turns out for them. Or in other words, feel that the main character is worth experiencing the story. There are easy traits that do this: courage, love, humor, being in danger, being unfairly treated, being highly skilled at something, having a powerful noble goal. (Courage is the one they all need. If the character doesn’t have the gumption to actively pursue what they want, they are automatically a background character.)
After this, still in the beginning of your story, let the character exhibit what needs to change. Show their weaknesses of character and self awareness. And lastly, hint at what they NEED to learn. Sometimes this is even stated to the character, and they don’t understand it, refuse to believe it, or condemn it. Like “A Christmas Carol”, when Scrooge’s nephew says his speech about Christmas and how wonderful it is, and Scrooge replies “Bah Humbug!"
2) Desire: This is the moment when the character knows what they need to pursue, in order to obtain what they inwardly want. It is not the inciting incident or catalyst, the event in a story that disrupts the ordinary world and calls the hero on an adventure. This is a separate step entirely, occurring after that catalyst has shattered life as the main character knows it. They believe obtaining this goal will calm whatever inner turmoil or conflict they’re battling. And always, they’re not quite right. Think of Mr Fredricksen: His goal is to get the house – a symbolic representation of Ellie and the life he shared with her – to Paradise Falls, which he believes will heal his grief and guilt. It won’t. Once he obtains it, the achievement feels hollow. But I’m getting ahead of myself. So on we go!
3) Plan: Once in Act Two, the character is going to scramble for a plan of action. The inner want has solidified into a tangible goal, but they need a strategy to achieve it. This also spells out for the reader what to expect in that second act.
4) Conflict: What’s going to try stopping them? A hero with a goal is one thing, but to make it a story we need something that stands in the way. An obstacle. A force of opposition. If we didn’t have obstacles, books would be as interesting as "Harry Potter and the Trip to the Grocery Store.” (Although honestly, I’d probably read that.) After the catalyst has changed everything, after the character crosses the threshold into Act Two, everything from here on out will be laden with conflict. This is usually when enemies, or more accurately forces of opposition, begin to appear. Everything is accumulating to complicate the main character’s pathway to achieving what they want. The forces of opposition come from not only the villains, but from the actions that have to be taken to achieve the desire. Whatever this action is, it’s exactly what the main character is not suited to do, an action that pressures their flaws, exposes them to exactly what they need to become but can’t right now.
Like Stitch being forced to be the family dog. He’s not suited to this task.
5) Battle: The forces of opposition are amping up, growing stronger, fighting with greater intensity. The main character is taking the punches and working around them, relentlessly plowing forward. Hero and allies are usually punching back too.
6) Midpoint: This is the event where they first encounter what they need to learn, what they need to become. Something happens that forces them to behave in this new, life-saving way. But once they’ve seen it, they don’t know what to do with this knowledge.
7) Dark Night, Revelation, Choice: This is always the darkest point in the story, where all seems lost, and death – of a literal or spiritual nature – is in the air. And in this moment, something usually happens that makes the main character wake up to what is wrong, and what they need. More often than not, this revelation will arrive from the “love story” or relationship of the plot, and will be the thing that helps them pull themselves out of despair and see the light. And once this is uncovered, once the revelation of the truth about themselves is recognized, they are faced with a choice. Of course, they’ve been faced with choices in every beat of every scene, but this is the big choice that is going to determine if their story has a happy ending or a tragic one. The choice is this: “You are being faced the truth that you need to heal. Are you going to choose what you need, let your old self die, and become someone better?” And always, always, always this is a hard choice. The revelation must be significant to them. And it’s never easy. It can’t be. We don’t write stories about heroes who make easy choices. Villains have it easy. Are you going to adopt this new way of living, adopt this truth, and let your old self die? Or are you going to stay the way you are (which feels safer and is much less challenging) but end up stuck in a sort of living death? Most of the time, of course, they choose the right thing.
This moment is usually always the saddest scene in the thing. Like this scene with Stitch.
8) New Life: This is their changed life. After experiencing the trials of the story, after realizing what they need and choosing to be reborn, they are going to be different people – and are going to live a different life. This is what follows the statement “And every day after …” What has changed? Show the audience how things are different, how things are better, because they want to see that. This is the resolution, the wrapping up of everything we’ve been through with the main character, and having this in the story is often what gives that feeling of satisfaction after seeing a really well-told story.
So! To show off how this works, I’ve chosen the character arc of Carl from Up.
1) Hero: Strengths, Weakness, Need
Strengths: Reasons to like Carl are packed into that heartbreaking opening sequence. By the end of it, we love him, love Ellie, and are crying our eyes out.
Weaknesses: Now Carl is curmudgeonly, grumpy, cold, and won’t pay attention to a living soul. He’s also plagued by grief, regret, guilt, and loneliness. (Which we are all 100% okay with, because we already like him.)
Need: He needs Russel. The statement of what he needs to learn isn’t outright said (as it will be later) but Russel represents it.
Step Two: The catalyst was when a truck knocked down Ellie’s mailbox, Carl hit a construction worker in the head with his cane, and for this a judge declares him a public menace and orders him to go to Shady Oaks Retirement Village. The DESIRE is this moment.
Carl escapes in a flying house, thousands of balloons lifting him skyward. He even says the desire of the whole story out loud, “So long boys! I’ll send you a postcard from Paradise Falls!” The tangible goal is “live out the rest of his days in his and Ellie’s house, on the edge of Paradise Falls, South America.” (“It’s like America … but South.”)
Step Three: The plan and the conflict overlap, as they are wont to do. We have a scene where Carl is unfurling sails, setting a compass, and settling back in his chair for a smooth journey. But later on, after some conflict has arrived, we have Russel figuring out how to actually make it there. And after even more conflict has arrived, we have him telling Russel “We’re going to walk to the falls quickly and quietly, with no rap music or flash-dancing.”
Step Four: The moment he settles back into his armchair, high above the city, and here’s a knock on the front door, nothing is going to be easy for Carl. First, we have opposition in the form of Russel. Then we have a storm. Then the house lands miles away from the Falls, so they’ll have to walk it. Then we have Kevin, the giant bird. Then we have Dug. Which means they’re also being chased by a legion of talking dogs. Which brings us to Muntz, the main villain, and Carl’s shadow – the representation of Carl’s flaws, and the consequences of refusing to let go of the past.
Step Five: This is the trek to the Falls. It’s also the battle with every complication that arises. And it’s also exactly what Carl is not suited to do. He’s a curmudgeonly old guy, bent on living out the rest of his life alone. Well, the story says “Nope, Carl, that’s not how it’s going to be” and promptly gives him a surrogate grandson to take care of, a dog who adores him, and even a giant mythical bird. And he has to lead them all, if he’s going to get to the Falls.
Step Six: The moment when Russel invades Carl’s heart. Which is what he needs, but he doesn’t understand. (I have the scene beated out in the previous post.)
Step Seven: Finally, he gives in to the worst of himself and chooses his goal of living in his broken house on the edge of Paradise Falls. But somehow this doesn’t feel like victory. He’s still alone, next to Ellie’s empty chair, and she is still beyond his reach.
He picks up her adventure book, and leafs through the photographs, missing her; he pauses on the page scrawled with the words “Stuff I’m Going To Do”, lets his hand rest on it, grief and regret overwhelming him. He begins to close the book, and the page shifts … revealing the edge of another picture. Surprised, he turns the page. It’s their wedding picture.
Ellie added picture after picture of their happy marriage, the whole wonderful life they shared, all the things she did. And on the bottom of the last page is her last message to him: “Thanks for the adventure! Now go have a new one! Love, Ellie.” Exactly what Carl needs. He doesn’t need to be guilty, he doesn’t need to regret the past. The past was beautiful, and she will never truly leave him.
Choice: So, Carl can make the choice to throw everything out of the house to go save Russel.
New Life: Sitting on a curb, eating ice cream with Russel.
In the credits, we see a whole new life – or new adventure – with Carl, Russel, Dug, and even a bunch of new puppies.
So, it’s actually pretty simple. And once again, it’s fun to develop your own stories like this, but it’s surprisingly fun to analyze movies and books with it too. It improves your storytelling ability, I’ve found. Practice makes perfect.
I hope this post helps somebody out. It’ll make the ten times I cried while writing it, while watching scenes from Up, worth it.
Fanfiction authors are people who write as a hobby. They’re not paid, they do it on their own time, and they do it for fun. Some authors use fanfiction as a way to improve their writing, but unless they ask for critiquing comments, don’t be that person - even if you have good intentions. You don’t see the damage that you do, but damage is done.
The best way to encourage fanfiction authors to keep doing what they’re doing is to let them know what you liked about their work. I’ve seen too many fic authors get discouraged in their writing because of people who leave less than favorable comments on their work. Leave the critical comments for people who get paid to write.
Again, I’m not asking you to lie to spare the authors feelings, I’m asking you to just refrain from leaving a negative comment.
You know that moment when you find an old notebook, and you start reading the story you were writing years ago, and after about one page…
And then after a few more paragraphs …
This has happened to me several times. On every occasion I want to curl up in a small box and wait until everyone forgets I was ever a writer. And every time, no matter which old story it is, what sends me crawling into that box is the same thing: the main character. Even after I had learned to incorporate empathetic qualities into my heroes (as listed in the last post), my protagonists were still deeply annoying – if not more unbearable than before.
Why? What made them this way? They had winningly empathetic traits! Were they terrible people still? No, and that was the problem. They were perfect. Smart. Noble. Brave. They had dazzling martial arts skills. They loved people and people loved them. They were Chosen in some way and destined for greatness. Angst-plagued though, of course. They were tragic little heroes, misunderstood and abused, driven by the desire to vanquish all who caused them suffering.
I could’ve composed a Gaston-like song enumerating their virtues and sorrows.
And the only thing that would’ve made them more punchable is if they did use antlers in all of their decorating.
Characters can’t be completely likable. Yes, they must possess strengths that win the reader’s empathy,but without an equal amount of flaws … they can’t function. If they’re not flawed, they shouldn’t be the main character. Story is about someone changing, for better or worse. Under the surface, all good stories are about this process of human growth or decline. So if a hero is perfect from the beginning, there’s nowhere they need to go. And consequently, there’s no reason for a reader to follow.
The inclination to follow a story is begun with interest in the premise, of course – but it is locked in when empathy occurs, when we begin to care – the moment the reader transposes their own external and internal lives onto a character’s life. A process which starts when a reader recognizes a shared something between themselves and the hero. Sometimes, this is a goal or strength or situation. And sometimes, it’s a flaw. We meet a character that is weak in the same way we are, and a strong internal connection is born between the reader’s life and the life on the page. On a deep level we’re thinking “This person is like me. What happens to them? How do they deal with it?” And because of this connection based on what is lacking in our lives, we want to live the story, see how it ends, and find out how the main character – who is just like us – reached that ending. Because it’s our lives we’re reading about, and if we play it out in advance, maybe we can reach a positive ending too.
So! In what way should a main character be FLAWED?
1) Weak in a way that only hurts themselves.
Let’s call these MIND.
2) Flawed in a way that hurts others.
Let’s call these MORAL.
The most realistic – and most compelling – characters have both types.
And if a character has these flaws, the story must be steering them towards what they NEED to overcome them. The main character needs to learn something, a truth, a new way to live. This is the theme of the story. Theme is a statement the story seeks to prove, to the main character and the reader, about how to live a better life. It’s the solution to whatever moral and mental conundrum they’re facing. So …
3) The SOLUTION to their moral and mental weaknesses.
How does that work? To illustrate, let’s look at Stitch and Alexander Hamilton. (What a combination.)
Moral: He’s destructive. Violent. Rude. Vindictive.
Manipulative. Enjoys the suffering of his enemies.
And in general, pushes everyone and everything away.
Mind: Despite his violent ways, he yearns to belong, and senses that he can’t.
He believes he’s alone, he’s unlovable, he’s monstrous, he’s never had a family and never will – he’s lost, like the Ugly Duckling. He’s missing a family he’s never had.
Solution: He just needs to start treating people like family to be accepted into one.
Moral: He’s selfish. (“Be careful with that one love, he will do what it takes to survive.”) He’s arrogant. He’s self-centered. (Think of the entirety of Burn.) And in his obsessive journey to succeed, he pushes everyone out of his path.
Mind: He has a fixation on death, on time running out, which drives his manic desire to achieve. (“I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory.) He’s insecure. ("Graduate in two and join the revolution. He looked at me like I was stupid. I’m not stupid.”)
Solution: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story? Eliza tells his story. Hamilton’s goal throughout the story is a legacy; he strives to achieve this immortality in any way possible, even if it means neglecting his loved ones, or even ruining their lives. He needs to learn that his loved ones are enough. Eliza is enough. And through her, he will live on.
What would have happened if they weren’t flawed? The stories would have been boring. What would have happened if their flaws had been treated like attributes that didn’t have to change? The stories would have ceased to be. Progress couldn’t happen, because by accepting the status quo of their mental and moral states, we’re refusing the call to adventure outright. They’d just exist in the same state they were in the setup, stagnant, somewhat lifeless. Flawed characters must motor towards that NEED, or solution, that will save their lives.
(I realize this “need” element is rather vague, so it’ll get its own post.)
But in conclusion, this balance of strengths and flaws – and how this fictional person deals with the adventure they’re thrown into – is what makes a main character compelling, empathetic, and real.
So when I unearth a notebook years in the future, containing one of stories I’m writing now, maybe the main character won’t make me feel like this:
Maybe it’ll even be like this:
And best of all, maybe one of those characters will make a reader somewhere feel understood and helped and not alone. Wow. That would be amazing.
Well, there’s my writing motivation for today. I’m going to go make my main character more of a lovable jerk.