Character is a well understood concept in writing. I could go into depth in descriptions of the character archetypes from Greek myth – protagonist, antagonist, contagonist and deuteragonist. Or hold forth at length about the 8 archetypes described by the folks behind the Dramatica story analysis toolset and methodology. But I don’t want to rehash those concepts. If you don’t yet know the difference between an protagonist (hero of the story), contagonist (obstacle & teacher), antagonist (opponent of the hero) and deuteragonist (typically the hero’s sidekick or romantic interest) or archetypes like “Wise Teacher”, “Emotional Counsellor”, “Guardian”, “Skeptic”, and so forth, then I suggest you go forth and understand these before discussing character in depth.
What will we discuss in this chapter, then?
Let’s start by stating our terms of reference in what we don’t mean by character in this discussion.
- Character is not the protagonist/hero in this context. Their role in the story is irrelevant to this discussion, as this applies to all characters.
- Character is not any of these archetypes in a specific You can apply this same analysis to any character within a story milieu.
- Character is not an archetype in a generic In this discussion we will not be talking about the roles specific characters play in driving stories forward.
- Character analysis in this context excludes disengaged extras who play no role in a story except as stage dressing. If such a character interacts with other characters, they are no longer disengaged.
What do we consider to be a character then?
A character is an entity within the story that has a material bearing on the outcome of the story. In the context of the 5Cs, a story could be a “shot”, a scene, a sequence, a vignette, an act, a narrative arc, an episode, a series, a three or seven act movie, a novel, a series of novels, etc. The scope of the story defines the relevance of a character in it. But every character that is involved in an interaction with other characters, or with their context, is deserving of this analysis – even if not in the same depth as the protagonist, antagonist, etc.
With a character in mind, we can now build out the scaffolding required to make that character meaningful in our story.
All characters should have some form of motivation; a reason for finding their way into a story. Whether that is a baker trying to sell tasty treats to the protagonist, or the protagonist combating their fears and weaknesses to find the strength to do heroic things, characters need to have a reason to exist in the world. If characters are to be engaged, they must have a reason for doing so.
Motivations can be simple or complex. They can be standalone or layered upon each other like a multi-story apartment block, or a combination of both – something more like a university campus. The amount of time that you – as a writer – need to spend on a given character’s motivations is going to be proportional to their importance to the overall story. There’s no point writing out a 5000-word essay on the existential crises of the baker mentioned above. The scope of a character’s motivations should be sufficient to derive the following additional information:
If a character is sufficiently important to the story, it may be appropriate to flesh out the following traits:
Let’s dive a little deeper into these.
A character’s values are the engine room of their motivations. The baker above? Their motivation is to sell goods at a profit. But what are their values? If they are a family man, they might have a value of providing for their family. If they are a gay bachelor, the profit from our hero buying their pies might be that they get to go out to a club after shutting down the bakery for drinks with friends. Or perhaps if they are socially conscious, they might have more altruistic uses for their money, like giving money to charity or poor people.
Values can typically be phrased in a relatively short statement. “Meat is murder” might sum up a core vegan value. “No man left behind” would be a typical US Marine value. The best value statements are generally going to be pithy, pointed and succinct. Through that succinctness comes the kind of clarity required to deliver actionable insights into the kinds of conflicts and choices that a character will be faced with. Complicated value statements that draw on deep psychological background information will be much harder to use effectively. Keep in mind here that the end goal is not to paint a masterpiece, but to provide just enough information to fuel the engine room of your story.
A character’s beliefs are the stone a character is constructed from. You can build a prison wall with beliefs. A comfortable home. A highly defensible castle. Or you can build a launch-ramp into the unknown. Beliefs act as boundaries for behaviour, as springboards for ambition, and as banana skins on which a character can trip if it is not 100% consistent with reality.
So that’s what beliefs do. The dependency of a given belief can be characterised as:
- Foundational (i.e. other beliefs are based on them)
- Derivative (i.e. based on other beliefs)
- Standalone (i.e. No dependency on/basis for other beliefs)
The character’s experience of a given belief can be characterised as:
- Primal (i.e. The belief is visceral, and often finds physical expression)
- Intellectual (i.e. The belief is abstract in nature and while it might not influence instinctive behaviour, it might influence considered behaviour)
- Nascent (i.e. The belief is a result of unconscious conditioning, and is not recognised as a belief by the conscious mind without specific introspection)
- Emergent (i.e. The belief is a result of synthesising experiential input and/or other beliefs into a new one, which may not yet influence behaviour – but could in the future)
- Dissonant (i.e. The belief is established and has probably influenced past behaviour, but it being undermined by emergent beliefs or conflicts with values that have become more important to the character)
The most important thing to realise about beliefs is that they inform cognition and reactionary behaviour. They may also inform considered behaviour, but only if they are the right kind of belief. Beliefs are a part of the character’s model of the world and their place in it. Humans can quite comfortably live with beliefs that conflict with their values provided their application is partitioned by some form of semantic differentiator.
Flaws are fundamental to creating drama in story-telling. A flawless individual is incapable of growth – the only path they can traverse and remain interesting is dissolution – to become flawed – and through that, strive for redemption. The discussion of a character’s flaws is a good place to introduce this concept which I believe is axiomatic to telling interesting stories:
No character thinks of themselves as evil.
No antagonist thinks of themselves as an evil-doer. They always have a system of beliefs and values that provides a rationale for flawed behaviour no matter how evil their actions may seem. This does not forgive the outcomes of those actions, but it’s important to understand them because these flaws in their cognition also have downsides that make them vulnerable. Some of the most interesting protagonist vs antagonist climaxes are those where the protagonist has learned a lesson that the antagonist has not, and the antagonist’s failure in that respect then leads to a moment of self-destruction – or possibly self-realisation, rather than being destroyed at the protagonist’s hand.
With that preamble completed, let’s examine the function of character flaws.
- Flaws give characters a challenge to overcome. If the flaw is something that an audience can relate to, then all the better – as the hero’s quest becomes an internal one. If that flaw is what prevents the character from overcoming an external challenge, then that flaw is doubly meaningful, as it creates a sense of heightened tension. They are fighting not just the external obstacle but their own worst traits. That amplified difficulty is immensely relatable.
- Flaws act as colours on the story-teller’s palette. They provide the light and shade; and the garish block colours that make the internal clash of values and beliefs immediate, visceral and believable to an audience.
- Flaws must be fully realised before they can be overcome. Flaws are what make characters struggle. Because most of us struggle in one way or another in our own lives, that sense of struggle brings a sense of relatability to the character.
- Flaws can act as complications not only for the character that owns them, but as complications for other characters. Rephrasing this: One character’s internal flaw can become an interesting point of external conflict with another character’s internal flaws. As an example, an overly brash character who proceeds to action without appropriate consideration potentially creates a conflict with a more reserved character who can see ahead of time what the likely consequences of the first character’s actions will be. The challenge for the second character in that situation is to find the courage to speak up and prevent the first character from causing an external problem that both will need to overcome.
- Flaws can be used explicitly to create tension between characters. In the example above, the more reserved character could speak up before the first character acts. That immediately resolves the tension regarding the outcome. However, as a story-teller, tension is an important mechanic for driving audience engagement. If the audience is continually wondering what could go wrong next, they will continue watching – whether out of schadenfreude or genuine interest. So the more interesting path for the story-teller is to have the first character create obstacle after obstacle for them both to overcome, while the second character gets more and more agitated and closer to overcoming their This generates an increasingly fraught “will they or won’t they” question in the mind of the audience, which keeps them in their seat until that question is answered.
The combination of a character’s motivations, beliefs, values and flaws add up to something fundamental that is greater than the sum of its parts. That is the character’s identity. Whilst there are many people who criticise the concept of identity politics, the truth is we are all fundamentally committed to our internal sense of identity – or who we are as distinct, autonomous individuals.
Motivations, beliefs and values can often find themselves being core to an individual character’s sense of self. However, not all of them will. Identity is specifically important at the beginning of a story, as it can be a way of conveying some of those components implicitly without having to go into detail. Alternatively, withholding identity can be a means of building tension and keeping an audience engaged while the fuller picture of the character’s identity is constructed piece by piece. However, by the time a character reaches the climax in their emotional arc, it is crucial that we understand the identity of that character. We must present the audience with a fully realised self that not only understands who they are, but how they went about becoming that.
This is a hugely important point to understand. Identity can be emergent, fleeting, heroic or dissolute. But at the point where the character is faced with a do or do not decision with catastrophic consequences of failure, their identity must be completely realised in the mind of the audience. Depending on the outcome of that final test of character, the character can then revert to being dissolute, uncertain, concealed or inconsistent – especially if they fail. However, full realisation at the point of greatest threat is the ultimate journey all characters take as their individual story comes to a head.
We have discussed several concepts here relating to the enumeration of character. Character is the most foundational aspect of creating engaging stories. By creating characters whose flaws, values, beliefs, motivations and identity an audience can relate to in some way – even if that is only an abstract understanding – we create a sense of buy-in from those whose attention we wish to keep while we elaborate on the later phases of the 5Cs cycle. Audiences want to be entertained, so the story-teller has the advantage. However, presenting characters that are one-dimensional, have no specific drive to improve themselves or their situation, no goals, no real reason to be introduced in the first place – these things can quickly lose an audience’s attention.
Nobody is saying that a character must be delivered to the audience’s minds fully formed. But nobody is saying the opposite either. There is a tension in unveiling a character’s identity over time. But there is also a trade-off in doing so – audiences will not commit their time to characters they don’t feel they can relate to. This means that identity is something that can be constructed in several iterations of the 5Cs cycle, with each successive revelation delivering a more nuanced version of the character that will not only be relatable to the audience; but intrigue them. There is a delicate balance to be maintained there. One can’t change a character’s identity too radically within the context of a story arc – otherwise the audience will feel like their expectations and interest are being cynically manipulated. But a character that is peeled back layer by layer showing the consistent core that will overcome the obstacles before it? That is narrative gold.
In the next chapter we will discuss Context. Context is innate to character, but separate to it, so we will discuss it separately. Characters need a context to find meaning. But establishing a character in a context without showing the character’s heart – at least introducing their identity – will overwhelm the audience and drown them in exposition.