It’s a morbid joke among writers: we are so mean to our characters. And we love it. It’s the stuff of good stories. It’s the stuff of epic conflict. And yet, all this very important imaginative cruelty can sometimes trip us up on our way to writing dynamic characters who can, in turn, deal with this epic conflict in an equally epic and meaningful way.
A question I’m commonly asked in interviews is: Which of your characters would you like to be for a day?
Uhh, none of them?
Honestly, that’s kind of like asking the torture master to trade places with the condemned.
My characters may be awesome and do awesome things, but have you looked at the hell they have to go through to get there? Yeah, no thanks. They can have their heroism, and I’ll just stay right here in my comfy desk chair with my trusty cattle prod and keep right on poking.
Poor characters, right? Poor victimized, helpless little dupes. Right?
This is exactly the trap writers often fall into when trying to create dynamic conflict. They make their character a victim of his horrible circumstances—and, as a result, the character himself ends up lying there on the page: inert, pitiful, alternately whiny and long-suffering, and ultimately entirely incapable of driving his story’s conflict.
Yes, You Do Have to Be Mean to Your Characters
Now, before I proceed, let me just stop and stress something to the kind-hearted among us: yes, you really do have to mean to your characters.
Some writers revel in this (*raises hand*); others find their dislike of conflict in real life makes it difficult to create it on the page. Makes sense, after all. You create these people you love—people who are always extensions of yourself to some extent. Why would you want them to suffer?
Because you want to write an interesting story, that’s why.
Stories about what James Scott Bell calls “happy people in happy land” are numbingly boring. They aren’t stories, because nothing happens. There is no conflict because the characters aren’t encountering obstacles to their goals.
Those obstacles can be relatively slight inconveniences (red lights on the way to work), or they can be terrifying disasters (hurricanes, murders, imprisonments, betrayal, you name it). Both will move your story, and your choice of how cruel you will be to a character will always depend on the needs of the story.
But if you’re not pulling out the stops somewhere in your story, then you need to ask yourself if you’re really exploring your character’s potential. This doesn’t mean you have to introduce a serial killer into your cozy hamlet tale. But you do need to examine your character.
Find out what her weak spot is. What is she most afraid of? Usually this will tie back to the Ghost and Lie you’re using in her character arc. This is not just a general misfortune; this is something very specific to this character and her inner journey.
Are you exploiting that fear? Are you using it to bring your character to her knees?
If not, you’re almost certainly not being mean enough.
Hold That Thought: You Don’t Have to Be Mean to Your Characters
Now that we’ve established your characters most definitely need to suffer, let’s take a step back and look at this from a totally different angle.
You do not have to be mean to your characters.
In fact, it’s best if you stop thinking in terms of anyone in your story being mean to your character.
But… what about the evil bad guy who has the hero locked on the rack? He’s pretty mean.
True. But is it the evil bad guy’s fault your hero is on the rack?
Is your hero 100% innocent? Was he nabbed from the local village to be made a random example to the rebellious serfs? Is he a guiltless victim?
If the answers are yes, that undoubtedly makes him seem like a pretty good guy. But it also makes him a pretty boring and lifeless protagonist.
Here is the single most important thing to understand about your protagonist’s suffering: He must always be responsible.
What? You mean, he volunteered to be tortured?
Probably not. (However, do stop to think about how much more interesting that angle makes the above scene.) But he did do something that created the situation he’s in now.
- Maybe he’s a serf himself—and he chose to rebel, even knowing what the punishment would be should he be caught.
- Maybe he is innocent of the rebellion, but he chose to take blame in order to protect his guilty son.
- Maybe he knew there was a rebellion underway in the southern villages, but he chose to travel through in a desperate hope of getting medicine for his dying wife.
- Maybe he was just passing through, minding his own business, but when confronted with a random cruelty from the local lord’s guards, he chose to stand up for the poor peasant.
See what’s happening here? This is not a passive character. This is a character who is making choices.
Not only is he personally responsible for driving the plot, he’s also personally responsible for the consequences. His own choices—whether right or wrong—are what have put him in this fix. This raises infinitely more interesting thematic explorations than those you’d find if your hero were the entirely undeserved victim of someone else’s choices.
Catalytic, Not Catatonic: 5 Steps to Writing Dynamic Characters
Dynamism, by its very definition, is about forceful movement. In writing dynamic characters, you are writing characters who drive events. They are causes that create effects. In short, they are catalysts. What they are not is catatonic. They are not passive rag dolls, tossed around by random antagonistic forces.
The best news for you is that these catalytic characters are a blast to write. Consider five immediately applicable ways you can take your character from victim to overcomer.
1. Make Your Character Knock Down the First Domino
It’s true your antagonist controls the overall conflict (which is why it’s often best to begin your plotting by examining the antagonist’s goals, rather than the protagonist’s). This means your antagonist gets to make the first move on the chessboard. This does not mean, however, that the antagonist’s first move victimizes the protagonist.
Even if the antagonist’s move immediately affects the protagonist in an undesirable way, the protagonist must still actively make a choice that engages him in the rest of the plot. The antagonist may have knocked over the first overall domino. But the protagonist must knock over the first domino in his personal involvement in the conflict.
This usually happens at the Inciting Event, the turning point halfway through the First Act at the 12% mark. This is the Call to Adventure, where the protagonist first brushes the main conflict. Usually, he will start out by rejecting it in some way. He doesn’t want to engage with the conflict. Often, this very avoidance of his destiny puts him on the road to meeting it anyway. He makes a choice, for which he is responsible and which puts him on an inevitable collision course with the antagonist force.
In Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen chooses to take her sister’s place in the Reaping. Consider how vastly more interesting a story we have thanks to her having to choose to take part in the Hunger Games—instead of being randomly reaped herself.
2. Knock Your Character Down, Then Make Him Choose Again
Although your character’s initial choice to engage with the conflict will ultimately be the cause for everything that follows, you can’t stop there. Many authors will set up their character’s involvement with the antagonistic force by hitting the character as hard as they can, knocking her to her knees—and then leaving her there. Scene after scene occurs in which the character is buffeted by trial after trial. And she just takes it.
The patience of Job is not what we’re looking for in a protagonist. When your character gets knocked down, she can’t just stay down. She must make an active choice.
Even if that choice ends with her getting knocked down again (and, frankly, I hope it does—especially in the first half of the book), she must continue to move proactively through the story, choice after choice after choice. Her choices are what cause the next round of getting knocked down—until eventually, she starts learning how to make better choices and stops getting beat up so often.
In Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle, Sophie chooses (however reluctantly) to lie to the king about Howl, in an effort to get him excused from employment. The scene goes entirely sideways when she inadvertently shows her true beliefs about Howl’s goodness and capability. But the result of both her presence before the king and her inability to hide her growing love for Howl are both the result of her own choices.
3. Make Your Character Culpable
When your character gets himself stuck in a horrible situation despite having done only the right thing with the best of intentions, it can sometimes be hard to paint him as anything but a victim.
But what if he’s not so innocent after all? What if his own culpability for a downright wrong decision, either early in the book or somewhere in his past, means he actually deserves some of the horror he’s being hit with?
In their desire to make characters as likable and “good” as possible, authors often fail to explore this possibility. But nine times out of ten, dashing a little gray into your character’s choice will make both him and his conflict vastly more complex and interesting.
Consequences are the most interesting thing in fiction. The more deserved those consequences, the more interesting they become.
Erstwhile assassin Jason Bourne is a tremendously likable character. He’s obviously a good man, just as he has obviously been the victim of tremendous desecration to his body, mind, and soul. In many ways, he is not truly responsible for the murders he was brainwashed into performing. And yet… he made the choice to “commit himself to the program.” Even though he can no longer fully remember it, he knowingly chose to allow himself to become a lethal tool in the hands of men with (at the best) dubious ethics and motives. At the end of the day, it’s all his fault. He knows it. We know it. And his suffering is all the more poignant for it.
4. Let Your Character Make Both Good and Bad Choices
As your story progresses and your character makes choice after choice that knocks over domino after domino in your story’s plot, you will want to vary the types of choices she makes.
Just because she’s the smart, brave, righteous good guy doesn’t mean she should always make the right choice. Mix things up. Let her make some righteous decisions. Let her make some morally problematic decisions. Let her make some smart decisions, but also let her make some poorly informed decisions. As Geoff Johns says,
The characters that have greys are the more interesting characters. The hero who sometimes crosses the line and the villain who sometimes doesn’t are just much more interesting.
You need a balance of both in order to keep readers believing in your character’s goodness and intelligence—while still allowing them to explore the fascinating ramifications of her fallibility.
In Sergey and Marina Dyachenko’s fantasy fable The Scar, hubristic young nobleman Egert Soll makes bad decision after bad decision, starting with two ill-fated duels, one of which ends with his killing an innocent student and the other of which ends with his being scarred and cursed in recompense for his heedless cruelty to others.
5. Allow Your Character to Take Responsibility as Part of His Journey
Even though your character will be at least partially culpable for everything that happens to him, he won’t necessarily recognize this. In fact, he may very well rage against the heavens, declare himself a victim, and insist he doesn’t deserve anything that’s happening to him.
Although I would caution against laying on the self-pity too thick, you do want to let your character experience a progression of revelations, leading him to the ultimate choice of taking responsibility for his life in the Third Act.
Ultimately, all character arcs come down to this central Truth—we’re all responsible for our own lives—no matter what specific Lie your character is struggling with. As such, his ability to take responsibility for the consequences of his own actions needs to be an evolution.
In Jane Austen’s Emma, Emma Woodhouse comes to the Third Act revelation that her actions have been selfish and misguided—and have very likely cost her the love of the noble Mr. Knightley. This revelation is the central revelation of both the plot and her character arc. In its aftermath, she chooses to take responsibility for her actions, both proactively and retroactively.
Themes of responsibility and consequences are inherent in all stories. The more adamantly you claim them and force your character to face them, the stronger your story will become. Even better, you’ll learn how to begin writing dynamic characters who electrify readers.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How have you gone about writing dynamic characters in your story? What choices do they make that reap important consequences? Tell me in the comments!
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