Well written characters bring a story to life

Character is what makes storytelling unique. Any kind of literature can entertain, provoke or inform, but in dramatic fiction it is sympathy for a character that gives our writing insight into humanity itself.

So the focus of this article is exactly that: if character is key to the unique insights of dramatic fiction, then where in character do those insights lie? The better we understand the answer, the better we as writers can focus on developing and enriching those parts of character that turn the incidents we write about into story.

But writers design characters in many different ways. Some start with a seed idea: perhaps a quirk, a problem, or an attitude; others use archetypes like Child, Wise Old Woman, Hero or Trickster; some interview their characters; others fill long forms with background and personal detail. This article doesn’t try and tell you what process to use, or what kind of character to produce. Its sole purpose is to explore exactly what it is about character that brings a story to life, so you can use any insights however you like.

Before doing that though, our understanding of character is shaped by our experience of storytelling, and that has changed over the years. Different writers may see character differently, so let’s try and bring that together first with an historical perspective.

A history of story characters

The word “character” comes from the Greek word kharakter meaning “an engraved mark”, from which we get the figurative idea of “qualities engraved upon a soul”.

In his treatise The Poetics, the philosopher Aristotle described character as the agency that propels a story forward, and saw the critical elements of character as its personal qualities and individual thought. Fair enough, but how do those things connect?

The interplay of character and incident is critical to storytelling: characters create incidents, while incidents reveal the qualities and thought of their characters. As novelist Henry James said:

What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?

This is one of the most profound insights in all of fiction, because it means that in storytelling, incident and character depend on one another.

Character determines incident, incident illustrates character

To illustrate this, imagine that at the beach, a shark fin is spotted cutting the water. As other swimmers yell, scream and swim for shore, one swimmer swims toward the shark. Does that character have a death wish? Is it a bold adventurer? Or a curious marine biologist who recognises that the shark is harmless? We would have to follow the incident to find out. Whatever the reason, this incident illustrates who our character is, what it wants and what it can do; meanwhile the answers to those questions also determine what will happen when the character meets the shark. So Henry James is right: character determines incident illustrates character.

A graphic illustrating how character determines incident illustrates character.

Yet character portrayal is changing in storytelling itself. Back when Aristotle was studying plays, character qualities were entirely visible: actors wore masks and costumes and adopted postures to let the audience know what sort of characters they played, and if a character had an important thought, it would say so explicitly (e.g. “To win my true love, I will prove my bravery by fighting this shark.”) This trend continued through to the plays of Shakespeare say, where soliloquies tell the audience exactly what a character is thinking.

But with the development of psychology in the late 19th century, we began to understand that the human mind was more complicated than that: a person’s inside and outside could be very different—even contradictory—and parts could be hidden from the audience, lied about, or even hidden from the character itself.

Published in 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson’s story The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde explored what we would now call a dissociative identity disorder: a character who had a split personality with two competing sets of qualities and thoughts. Four years later, Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray explored a character whose interior was completely at odds with its exterior.

Realising that character interior could be its own subject of study, novelists were developing new techniques to study it. Instead of plot determining character as it did in Aristotle’s time, incidents began to reveal character—in some cases, having no other purpose (e.g. the Hemingway classic The Sun Also Rises sees troubled characters traveling to Pamplona to watch the bullfights—that’s the whole plot.) At the same time, writing techniques began to expose more of the character’s thoughts—like the Stream of Consciousness narrative popularised by James Joyce in (for example) Ulysses.

A modern character anatomy, then, must capture character in three senses:

  • as an agency that drives the incidents along;

  • as a set of qualities and thoughts worth exploring in their own right; and

  • as a self-examined individual on an inner journey of challenge and change.

That’s what we aim to do here.

Understanding character anatomy: 3 questions, 7 answers

This section presents seven keys to character anatomy. These are at once engines to drive incidents, qualities and thoughts you can study and reveal in your story, and a means to explore the character’s history and development. Here we explore what they are, why they matter, and how they fit. But first, let’s match them to our three facets of character:

  1. How do you drive incidents? In answer, we offer four “external” keys: Role, Agency, Attitude and Need.

  2. What is it like to be you? To answer, we offer two “internal” keys: Interior and Passion

  3. Why are you like this? For this, we offer one key: Backstory.

The diagram below shows how these fit together.

A diagram showing how role, attitude, agency, and need fit together.

Sitting at the edges of the diagram are the four “external” keys of Role, Agency, Attitude and Need, driving incident. Inside the character are two “internal” qualities of Interior and Passion, representing what it’s like to be the character. Gluing them together, justifying and unifying them is Backstory, which touches both the character’s inside and outside.

Now let’s look at them in detail.

How do characters drive a story?

Our four story-driving qualities are:

  1. Role (e.g. mother, detective, messenger, class clown): Role is a character’s public identity: an expression of its belonging and responsibilities. Role often drives a story by getting a character involved (e.g. a detective is called to investigate a murder), but may also contain authorities, privileges and responsibilities that can help or hinder a character, or distract it from something it needs. (E.g. even though her marriage is failng, the detective must work late.)

  2. Agency (e.g. strength, agility, persuasion, observation): Agency is a character’s capacity to solve problems, overcome obstacles, meet challenges, and get things done. Agency drives story along by helping a character achieve its goals, but can also hinder other characters from achieving theirs. Moreover, lack of agency (e.g. physical, psychological or social limitations) can also hamper a character from getting what it wants.

  3. Attitude (e.g. scruffy, elegant, belligerent, nervous): Attitude is a character’s personal appearance or demeanour: an expression of the qualities it brings to interactions with others, and is therefore a source of first impressions. Attitude helps differentiate characters with similar Roles or Agency (e.g. the Disney dwarves Grumpy and Sneezy), and can be used to complicate problems and raise stakes (e.g. suspecting a belligerent neighbour of murder, the hero sneaks into the sleeping neighbour’s house with her nervous friend, only for the friend to shriek when she encounters a spider’s web.)

  4. Need (e.g. air, food, health, shelter, love): Need is a basic character motivation: if needs aren’t met a character must remain miserable until they are. Created by incident, Need drives characters to take risks, start journeys, and have adventures.

By themselves, these four qualities are enough to launch plots (e.g: “with her marriage on the rocks, a taciturn detective investigates the worst murder of her career…”), create complications (“…only to find that the Mayor’s stepson is a suspect”), or design minor characters with walk-on roles to move the incidents along (e.g. messengers, porters, or doctors.)

Four qualities are enough to make characters quirky and memorable, but they will also lack flexibility, depth and nuance.

If we want to do better than that, a character needs internal qualities too.

What is it Like to be the character?

Our two keys representing thoughts and qualities are Interior and Passion:

  1. Interior (e.g. emotion, memory, thought, knowledge, belief, goal): is the character’s own story of itself. It’s the sense it makes out of its experience and the incidents around it, and is what the character would tell if it were writing in a secret diary. A character’s interior represents the character’s subjective narrative, even if that narrative is false. Interior also translates objective needs (e.g. loneliness) into subjective goals (e.g. the character wants a new dress neighbours will admire her.)

  2. Passion (e.g. for love, infatuation, duty, faith, wealth, power, lust, curiosity, revenge): is that quality driving a character to sacrifice for something more important than its own immediate needs. Passion can be selfless and noble (e.g. duty to community) or selfish and base (e.g. lust for gold); it might be empowering (e.g. love for a child) or crippling (e.g. a drug dependence); it could be conscious and examined (e.g. drive to win the Olympics), unconscious or even denied (e.g. a secret death wish.) Passion is important because it leads a character to strive and suffer, even when nothing is goading it.

Internal qualities let writers bring ambiguity, nuance and depth to a story, but also heroism, tragedy and growth, and give a story thematic dimensions. For example, in Barry B. Longyear’s multiple-awarded Science Fiction novella Enemy Mine (1979), when they are shot down, two enemy fighter pilots are stranded in a hostile environment, only to learn that they must cooperate to survive.

Looking at only their external qualities, each character has the Agency to cooperate; they need only change their Role from combatant to noncombatant and their Attitude from disagreeable to agreeable. Since they have common Need, shouldn’t that be easy?

But the entire story is about why that is not easy, and what makes it hard is entirely internal. Firstly, Passion: each hates the other, and is willing to suffer and risk death to kill the other. Secondly, Interior narrative: even if the other gives up its hatred in order to cooperate, each character is so full of stories of enemy treachery that they find it almost impossible to trust. So strong is their inner struggle with hate and suspicion that the novella won a two of the biggest awards in SF, was made into a movie of the same name (1985), and has appeared in multiple adaptations.

What separates minor characters from major characters is strong internals: do they have ruling Passions that make them suffer even when they’re safe and comfortable; do they have an Interior narrative that is unique, surprising, authentic and fascinating to hear about? If they do, then they can stand for things more important than themselves. In doing so, they reach toward us with ideas that we too, care about: ideas that authors can turn into insights and themes.

We’ve now covered six of the seven keys, and need only one to complete: the glue that holds a character together.

Why are the characters in a story the way they are?

We seek the answer in backstory:

  1. Backstory (e.g. biography, school reports, employment history, police records, memoir) is the author’s answer to the question, “Why is the character like this?” Held partly by the character’s interior (what it remembers, feels and tells itself), and partly by the characters and world around it (what is documented, what other characters remember), backstory is the glue that justifies the unusual, unifies and resolves contradictions, debunks delusions, redresses misconceptions and unlocks a character’s inner mysteries.

Backstory is powerful, because it supports and justifies anything distinctive and memorable about your character. For example, in his writing book How to Write a Damn Good Thriller, novelist James N. Frey urges that:

All damn good dramatic characters are larger than life, theatrical, determined to overcome the obstacles that are put in their path. They are an extreme of type, and have a ruling passion that defines who they are.

As Carl Sagan said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, and to justify an extreme of type and motivate a ruling passion can require substantial investment in backstory. For example, in Steig Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, character Lisbeth Salander is an extreme of type in Attitude (prickly, asocial and highly introverted), Agency (a world class computer hacker with an eidetic memory and a talent for disguises), and Passion (implacably vengeful toward abusive men.) To support this, Larsson constructs an extraordinary backstory built from Asperger syndrome, savant talent, systematic abuse by her guardian, and profound social injustice—a story strong enough to make readers believe in this unlikely character, and to have her described as one of the most compelling characters in recent popular fiction.

The point here: backstory is more than just exposition. It can be an immensely powerful tool for character design, drama and storytelling.

So now we have seven character keys for driving incident, exploring interior, and tracking change. The following sections offer ideas and prompts to help sharpen and lift those elements.

Character as a story agent

To be a good story agent, a character must struggle against misery. As editor Sol Stein says in How to Grow a Novel:

The engine of fiction is somebody wanting something and going out to get it. And if you let him get it right away, you’re killing the story. He can’t get it because a mountain or a man is in the way, nature and human nature in opposition to achievement. Without that opposition, fiction is a vehicle without an engine.

Some questions to consider:

  • Why does this character need this thing of all things, and why now?

  • How much will the character suffer if it doesn’t get it, and why should we care?

  • What’s in the way, how does it try and overcome these obstacles, and how much must it put at risk to do so?

  • Why are these obstacles much more than the character bargained for, and how much misery and sacrifice will this create?

Character as a study in qualities and thoughts

The writer has many choices in how to reveal the qualities and thoughts of a character, including:

  • How it looks;

  • What it possesses;

  • How it reacts;

  • What it says;

  • What other characters say;

  • Historical records about the character; and

  • What the narrator knows.

Because modern characters have insides that may be quite different from their outsides, it’s useful to separate text (what is said or done) from subtext (how and when it is said and done.) For example, this exchange from the TV series Deadwood between the hard-drinking Calamity Jane and her new-found friend Joanie Stubbs:

Joanie Stubbs: Would you like a drink?

Jane: Yes. But my opening position is no.

The text is that Jane would like a drink; the subtext is that she wrestles with her alcoholism. As literary agent Donald Maass writes in The Fire in Fiction:

Holding a reader’s attention every word of the way is a function not of the type of novel you’re writing, a good premise, tight writing, quick pace, showing not telling or any of the other conventionally understood and frequently taught principles of storytelling.

Keeping readers constantly in your grip comes from the steady application of something else altogether: Micro-tension. That is the tension that constantly keeps your reader wondering what will happen—not in the story, but in the next few seconds.

Some questions to help bring out the qualities and thoughts of your characters through micro-tension:

  • Write down a view that your character has which you don’t share. Write 500 or more passionate words justifying and defending that view. Don’t hold back!

  • Where do the attitudes, passions and beliefs of your characters disagree the most? How does this cause bafflement and frustration between them? What does each character make of that?

  • Where your character’s agency is especially strong or weak, who is most likely to notice, what do they make of it, and how does it make them feel?

  • Where are your characters aware of how they are seen, how does it cause frustration?

  • Where are they unaware of how they are seen, and how do they remain oblivious?

  • What does each character have to teach or learn from the other, and why haven’t they learned that yet?

  • Where are the inconsistencies between your characters’ needs, beliefs, passions and agency? How do they deny or justify these inconsistencies?

Character as an inner journey

Where a story has a plot, it typically takes a character on an external journey: through adversity and risk it tests a character’s agency and commitment. But what (if anything) does the character learn about itself along the way?

Perhaps that:

  • it has more Agency than it realises—or else, less;

  • it has Attitudes that thwart it—or else, help it in unexpected ways;

  • it is more than just its usual Role—or else, not even suited for that Role;

  • what its Interior says it wants isn’t what it actually Needs—or else it is, despite other characters saying it’s not;

  • there’s more to its Backstory than it realised—or else its Backstory is a sham; or that

  • some Passions are worth suffering for—or else they’re not.

And how do we know that a character has learned a lesson—that it has changed, and is not simply experimenting or paying lip-service?

A key way we know a character has changed is by how it resolves dilemmas.

A dilemma is a choice between two unfavourable alternatives, and key to a character’s inner conflict. Dilemmas entail sacrifice (whether chosen or forced), and when we see what a character sacrifices, we know what principles, values and beliefs a character favours.

When we compare what a character sacrifices (or refuses to sacrifice) in story to what it has sacrificed (or been forced to sacrifice) in backstory, we can see how the character has changed, and evaluate whether it is happy for that. If the story has a resolution or dénouement (not all stories do), any impacts from how a character changes (or refuses to change) may often be seen there.

Some questions that might help tracking the character’s inner journey include:

  • What sacrifices in a character’s backstory shape and define the character’s passions and beliefs? (Consider not just voluntary sacrifices, but failures, betrayals and coercion that might affect what the character believes in or stands for.)

  • How have these affected the character’s Agency? Role? Attitude? Passions? The way it interprets its Needs?

  • How are these revisited in the course of story? How are the choices and outcomes similar? Different?

  • How is a character’s happiness tied to the decisions made?

  • How do these reflect the subject and principle concerns of the story?

  • How are they captured by symbols, signs and portents meaningful to the character or the reader?

  • How does the character see pressure to change or remain steadfast on key decisions?

  • How does the character’s decision to change or remain steadfast resolve with the character’s happiness or abiding misery?

Why are characters important to a story?

Character is crucial to storytelling because it brings to the reader so much entertainment, appreciation and insight about humanity. We have seen that we can appreciate character as an agent of story, an object of dramatic study, and an individual on an inner journey. But to have a character deliver in every respect needs a solid grasp of its external handles, its inner nature, and its capacity to change.

This article has presented seven keys to a character’s anatomy and shown how they can support each of these facets of characterisation.

These keys can be used however you design a character, whether you start with some seed idea, forms, archetypes, interviews, or just explore the character through incident. How you create and use characters is up to you, but using these keys can help you build characters that will stand up to everything your story demands of them.

Further Reading