This post will be a short one, but I felt self-concept is a key building block when starting out with character arc. The self-concept of your character (this can also feed into character conflict, which will be covered in our next post) is how your character views him/herself.
How does s/he think of themselves? This is not who s/he is, or how others perceive them, but rather how s/he perceives him/herself… It’s not the whole truth, it’s their self truth.
Your heroine might be an exceptionally capable, efficient boss in a high-powered executive role – while she might actually see herself as the Plane Jane/Ugly Duckling who believes she can’t be successful in the looks department, so must work doubly hard to prove her smarts… or perhaps she feels her life is out of control, despite her control and efficiency that others see.
Or your hero might be an undercover agent who believes that as he has no personal connections and he’s always playing a ‘role’ that others don’t really see him for who he is, he’s invisible, and perhaps – less than human. Or that he’s just a mouse running in the wheel, with no real impact on the world around him – there’s always another criminal to take the place of the criminal he’s just caught, so he’s less than effective , while others may instead see the capability and justice he delivers, in the lives that he saves – or the lives that he ends.
With the self-concept comes great potential for growth (character arc). If our heroine feels out of control and less than attractive, one arc that shows real development would be her gaining that control, and realising her self-worth, that beauty is relative, that she doesn’t need to continually try to prove something, she can be content, proud, etc.
Our hero could realise that what he does is important, that he is important, that there is a ripple effect with his actions, and that people do see him, see what he does, and appreciate it – particularly those effected by the criminals he brings to justice.
With the self-concept comes great opportunity for challenge, for raising the stakes, for creating conflict. For example, our heroine who is extremely efficient, yet feels out of control; what’s the worst thing that could happen? She could actually find herself in a situation where she has no control whatsoever. And then? Perhaps she could actually lose control of herself – she could cry, she could rant, she could hit.. Things she would never have thought herself capable of, and possibly dreaded.
Our hero feels invisible and inconsequential – what’s the worst that could happen? What if his cover is blown, and the criminals see him for who he really is? Or that someone’s life depends on him and he has to strive, has to succeed, it becomes vital for him to be effective, to be powerful, and to have some impact with his actions.
For ways to outline and plot your character’s self-concept, feel free to download the Character Self-Concept Worksheet.
Someone once said – put your character up a tree and throw rocks at them. That’s what challenging your character’s self-concept is like – each time you throw that proverbial rock that hits the character at their core self-concept, they hurt, they heal, they recover – or they dodge. And maybe get hit by the next one. Either way, your character is forced to act and react, and consequently change. So, to add extra dimensions to your character, challenge his/her self-concept. Put them up that tree. Throw rocks. Then set fire to that tree – put your character through that emotional ringer.
Get writing, and good luck!
There are two drivers for novels; character and plot. Character-driven stories are those where the character’s actions and reactions drive the story forward and fuel turning points and happenings. Plot driven stories are where the focus is on the actual incidents and happenings that propel the story forward. Creating dynamic characters using a basic practice is what we are focusing on with this article.
The Four W’s
When it comes to fleshing out character, one of the basic ways to do it (and I still think it’s the best way) is to nut out the four W’s of that character. For a very good resource on character development, try Debra Dixon’s book on the craft of writing, Goal, Motivation & Conflict – it holds the best instructions and explanations for creating your characters. It’s well worth the investment!
Who is your character? Deciding on a name is often like sticking a note to a corkboard with a pin, it anchors the important information in place. Once you have a name, think of a descriptor that accurately portrays the traits and/or roles of this character. For example: John McClane from Die Hard could be described as your rogue cop. William Wallace from Braveheart could be described as your determined warrior. Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada could be described as your disdainful autocrat. I’m going to create a character for the purpose of this post. His name is…Max. Max Brooks. Max Brooks, protective father.
What does this character really want? World Peace? The antidote to the poison they’ve been injected with? That job promotion? A secure home for his/her child? Mr. Right? What objective is your character working toward? I usually break down the ‘what’ of a character even further into two categories – want and need.
- Want: The clear objective that your character defines on their own. Sometimes this is also called an external goal. It’s something tangible, and like any form of goal-setting in the ‘real’ world, there is success when the objective is reached, or failure if the objective is lost. It can be self-serving (job promotion/antidote), or self-sacrificing (world peace/safe home for family) – either way, it’s something that the character can get – or not.
- Need: The deeper yearning that drives your character. Maybe it’s complicated, like finally getting the approval from your mother, or simple; proving your independence to yourself. Either way, these are emotional, subjective needs that will signal growth and development for your character if/when these needs are met. You can have multiple wants and needs, but for today, I’m going to use just one. So, using my character Max as an example: Max wants: the antidote to a poison he’s been injected with. Max needs: To provide a safe, secure home life for his son
Why does your character want what s/he wants? This is the part that creates the most fun for me as a writer. This is where you create a backstory for your character, and where you give your character the motivation for their actions and reactions. Again, answering this question for both internal (subjective) and external (objective) goals creates believable motivation for those goals. It’s also where we channel Tom Jones – Why, Why, Why, Delilah…? Again, using our hero: Max wants an antidote to the poison – why? To save his own life. Why? His wife is dead, and he’s the only living relative for his son, Chad. He needs to be there for Chad. Why? Because he never had a father figure, growing up. His mother struggled to provide a safe roof over their heads, they ended up living on the street for a while, and he saw things, experienced things that he doesn’t want his son to see or experience. He wants to see his son grow into a healthy adult. He needs to save his own life, and in doing so he saves his son’s life.
See? It’s kind of like twenty questions, only you get to make up the answers. By continually asking why you create a more compelling, in-depth character.
There has to be some problem or issue, some roadblock that prevents your character from getting what they want – otherwise your novel is a dead-boring read. If the outcome is a foregone conclusion, why bother reading the rest of the story. Boy meets girl, and they live happily ever after – zzzzzzz. Where’s the excitement? The tension? What makes the reader sit up at night and wonder – oh, heck, what’s going to happen next? Will they or won’t they? What is the complication, the conflict your character faces that stops them from achieving their goal? Again, conflict on an external (objective) and an internal (subjective) level adds not only dimension to your character, but suspense for the reader. Our hero, Max, can’t get the antidote because the person who injected him with the poison has it, and has now disappeared. Yikes! By not getting the antidote and saving his own life, his inner need to provide a safe, secure home for his son will not be met. He’ll die…or will he?
We’ve also introduced high stakes – life or death… but we’ll cover stakes (and how to raise them) in a later post.
So, in a nutshell:
Who is your character, what does s/he want, why does s/he want that, and why doesn’t s/he achieve that right now?
We’ll be covering these elements in greater detail over the coming weeks. In the meantime, good luck and get writing!