Necessary Ingredients of a Great Character

The next chapter in  Larry Brooks‘s book, Story Engineering, is on character. It’s the second of six core competencies he discusses, and it’s a bit more up my alley than that last one (Concept – what a troublemaker that one was). Building memorable and believable characters takes practice and work. Mr. Brooks has some hints that I’ll share with you.

He begins with a list of seven necessary ingredients.

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(photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net)

1. Surface affectations and personality. This is what the others see in your character: appearance, habits, ticks, etc. It’s also how your character feels, how he deals with his world, what his personality traits entail. I did an awesome series two years ago about different personalities and what they’re like. Feel free to review.

2. Backstory. This includes what happened in the character’s past that shapes how he/she behaves and thinks at the time the story happens.

3. Character arc. This includes how the character grows and changes as a result of the conflicts faced in the story. Or how he manages to stay the same despite the wonderful character-building conflicts you put him through.

4. Inner demons and conflicts. This is part of the character arc. The inner problems your character faces should hinder him from coming to any solutions about his outward problems. These demons and conflicts hold the character back from achieving his main goal.

5. Worldview. Some people skip this when creating character, but I think it’s vital. Worldview is the system of belief and/or the religious moral compass that drives your character. Everyone believes in something greater than themselves, be it God, science, self, or other. Your character should, too.

6. Goals and motivations. These drive your character to do what he does when under pressure. Part of it is worldview, inner demons, and backstory, but part of it is pure self: what does your character really want, and how will he get it. Note: what he really wants SHOULD change as the story progresses and he conquers his inner demons.

7. Decisions, actions, and behaviors. These stem from everything above: how your character will act and make decisions based on the circumstances he finds himself in.

I find it easiest to build a well-rounded character when I know what the ending of the story will be. For instance, in my book CASSANDRA’S CURSE, I knew that Cassie would need to drive sixty miles north to save the life of a police detective she’s never met before, and in the process of saving this man, put herself in grave peril. With that ending in mind, I asked, “What would make it difficult for Cassie to achieve this goal?” I came up with a boatload of problems that she’d have to overcome. She can’t drive because of a medical condition (seizures). She’s agoraphobic, and therefore afraid to leave her home. She’s xenophobic, or afraid of strangers. She knows she’s being hunted by the killer, so leaving her safe zone (home) puts her at risk. All these factors came together when I gave her a backstory that believably left her with seizures, agoraphobia, and xenophobia. By making the backstory believable, and by having her react to these inner demons throughout the story (and fail every time she tries to overcome one), it brought about an ending that was emotive, believable, scary, and down-right clever, if you ask me. 

If your story lacks a great character, the story won’t work. More on character in my next post.

-Sonja
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