Bourne Ultimatum Matt Damon Albert Finney

The Secret to Writing Dynamic Characters: It’s Always Their Fault

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.

For Example:

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.

Hunger Games Tribute

Katniss is a dynamic character, because she is not a passive victim of her circumstances. She actively chooses to take part in the Hunger Games, in order to prevent her younger sister Primrose from being “reaped.” (The Hunger Games (2012), Lionsgate.)

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.

For Example:

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.

Howl's Moving Castle Sophie and King

In Howl’s Moving Castle, Sophie reluctantly talks to the king on Howl’s behalf. However, despite her reluctance, she remains a dynamic character because her action is still entirely her own choice and the results are the consequences of her own actions. (Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), Studio Ghibli.)

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.

For Example:

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.

Bourne Ultimatum Matt Damon Albert Finney

Even though Jason Bourne is undeniably a victim in some ways, he remains a powerful and dynamic character in large part because he is ultimately responsible for having chosen to be turned into an assassin. (The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), Universal Pictures.)

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.

For Example:

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.

Scar Sergey Marina Dyachenko

In The Scar, protagonist Egert Soll brings a wretched fate down on his own head thanks to his own misguided choices and decisions.

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.

For Example:

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.

Emma Jane Austen BBC 2009 Romola Garai

Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse only gradually comes to realize how her choices have affected others—and herself—over the course of the story and her own personal evolution. (Emma (2009), BBC One.)

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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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Great article! I’m especially encouraged by your thoughts on allowing characters to make bad decisions. I’m in the editing stage of my book now, and I keep thinking, “if only my character hadn’t done that, none of the bad stuff would have happened.” And a couple of time the characters do colossally stupid things. I’ve been viewing those as potential plot holes, but you’ve given me permission to view them as necessary character flaws. So thanks for that!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I would caution against letting characters do outright stupid things for stupid reasons. They can do things that are less than wise, but most of the time, they’re going to need to go into the situation knowing the consequences and having a super-good reason for choosing it anyway. Which just makes it all more interesting anyway!

  2. Lovely thought process and good follow up from the last post.

    I love the words you used to describe writing a dynamic character.

    Good & Bad choices

    Making good *and* bad, or questionable choices are definitely more interesting than a Dudley-do-right type character. Everyone’s made bad choice in hindsight then had to take responsibility for it. Dilemmas, dilemmas, dilemmas. Sometimes the right choice isn’t so clear. Especially with antagonistic forces working in every direction. Pepole under pressure make bad choices all the time.

    I also love the matter of consequences. Inadvertently putting themselves into a pickle and having to get out of it. You said:

    “Consequences are the most interesting thing in fiction. The more deserved those consequences, the more interesting they become.”

    That’s awesome. When someone is forced to act upon a dilemma and then face the consequences, THAT’S INTERESTING. Love it. I just watched Avengers Civil War last night and it laced with dilemma, consequence, and culpability. EPIC to the tenth degree! Can’t wait for your next post on it. I’m very curious about your assessment. I have a lot to say about too!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Culpability” is one of my favorite words when it comes to characters. A “culpable character” is just instantly more interesting–even when you don’t know anything more about him than that.

  3. Jim Griffith says

    K.M., this was a well-written article, that has helped me understand I was doing the correct things with my characters. I do not consider myself a professional author with lots of schooling in grammar, I have to work hard at it, but instead write from my gut, and 55 years of reading. It turns out, Dynamic Characters are what I have been doing, not realizing what to call them. The character in the book I am doing final editing on, is the most dynamic so far.

    Adrian Gannet, working on the San Francisco docks since he was a teenager as a stevedore, growing into a hard- muscled , massive frame, using his fists on those not following orders as he became older, created an internal pit, void of emotion, yet still a nice guy on the outside for normal purposes. Working his way to First Mate, and holding Masters Paper, his internal void, and his external people skills where hard to separate, yet he tried hard to be that person of normality. Make him just a bit mad, and the dark thing inside cold not be held back for long. When the captain of his ship caused the possible loss of his Masters Papers. something he’d worked hard for all his life, the inner and outer of Adrian Gannet became a mix of dangerous unpredictability.

  4. I like the Jason Bourne analogy.

  5. Tom Youngjohn says

    Everything I learn about the craft of fiction, including this lesson, has a critical thread demanding the relevance of all the other threads in the tapestry that is the final product.

  6. Oo, yes, having a character’s actions inadvertently cause more problems for them is fantastic fun. I shall have to look over my current WIP and see if I have missed any opportunities to have my protagonist actions come back to bite him.

    Oh! Also, this post has decided me on a great brainstorm about a story of mine; its a retelling of Tristan and Isolde with Tristan as the protagonist, and it occured to me that having the love potion end up on the ship because Tristan himself asked for it (to make sure his boastful promise to bring back the perfect wife to King Mark isn’t endangered by Isolde’s strong will) was far more interesting than it being her mother who snuck it aboard unknown to either of them. Having him in essence cause them to accidently drink the potion will not only have very real repercussions in the overall story, but in Tristan’s internal arc as well. Bwahahahahaha! Thank you so much!

    On the subject of Tristan and Isolde, I think one of the reasons the original story annoyed me so much was exactly what you talk of in this post: in the original, Tristan and Isolde are these great, active, fascinating characters, until they drink the potion. Then it’s like they’ve been replaced by zombies. They stop making choices, or at least considering anything but their “love”, and just let the potion carry them along, letting whatever happens happen. The only time Tristan actually chooses something after he is under the potion’s thrall is when he decides to marry Isolde of the White Hands (different Isolde; she is a lady in Brittany) , but even that choice was suggested by others and almost forced on him by friendship. *sigh* I think that is why I hated the second half of the story so much, because the characters I had come to love in the first half, characters who were strong and ready to take action in pursuit of their goals, became nothing but insipid little victims to the potion. It was not the Tristan and Isolde I knew anymore, and it made me mad enough to want to rewrite the tale so that both of them could be the characters I fell in love with and actually deal with the potions ramifications instead of giving in like two ninnys.

  7. I know for a fact I’m not “mean” enough to my characters. I also know I need to work on that more.

    Also, your recent posts make me want to throw out my current WIP all together and start over from scratch 🙂

  8. This gives me a lot to think about! Looking at my WIP, I think my protagonist is more or less getting tossed around by different forces (at least at the start), not making too many choices of her own. This will have to be remedied. Thanks for the article!

  9. Andrewiswriting says

    It’s one of the things I didn’t like about Harry Potter. The Why Me? trope was old when The Belgariad did it.

    My protagonist chooses, actively, and with his eyes open. There are consequences, and he comes to understand the gravity of his choices, and what they mean for his friends. But he still chooses.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Although I tend to think Rowling performed an excellent twist on the old chosen one trope, this is exactly why prophecies are so often a dead end in fiction. We find the idea of destiny exciting on its surface, but when it robs the character of free will, we lose more than we gain.

  10. Sorry, haven’t made it much passed ‘Catalytic not Catatonic but up to/through point 1… I kept thinking how perfectly it picked up from the last post… for me, anyway.

    As I sat thinking about the scene filled with autumn leaves/post-its I realized that I’d made them (the characters), as I put it, static (sitting quietly in their folders, assigned their role)… but it didn’t sound right as they couldn’t be static, they moved ‘on stage’, said their lines then left; did what they were supposed to do, assigned to do. So, when I reached catatonic (no jokes please) it fit perfectly.

    With your last post about choosing the right antagonist, disrupting everything in the process, I was reminded of the mobile illustration and the dynamic motion/interaction of the parts… you put one piece in motion, it affects everything else… even only if slightly.

    I have to say that I was hesitant to read another post before going out to buy a lot of paperweights, but after only reading as far in as I have, I think I’ll go invest in a leaf blower instead. Keep things moving, dancing in the cool autumn air. 😉

    • If you could please clear up a point; you said Emma both proactively and retroactively took responsibility…. The proactive I get, the retroactive, not so much. Did she try and correct past wrongs or simply apologize to those wronged? (I had to stop watching halfway through the series… the character was a bit too much)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Well, at least you can use that leaf blower on your yard right now too. 😉

      Honestly, I think you hit the nail on the head when you said everything affects everything. This is true within any specific story, but also just for the writing process as a whole. It’s all interwoven, which is what makes it both so difficult and so satisfying.

      • 🙂 that and paperweights would just damage the mover blade! although if ever I want to mulch my story….

        I’ve been noticing the interweaving and specifically the difficulty in it, how does this over here affect that over there… and really glad to hear you comment on the difficulty because first time through it’s hard to know if the difficulty is inherent to writing or my just making it too complicated. Just glad I saved the loom… appreciated the extinguisher 😉

        Just another quick clarification if I could, I was also reading through the comments on ‘Choosing the Right Antagonist’ and saw where you used static on par with a flat character arc. So, while I confused it with motion, the characters’ role, you applied it to the characters’ character… that being static, unchanging…

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Sorry for the confusion. What I call the “flat arc” is sometimes called the “static arc.” It basically just means a character who does not change his mindset regarding the primary Lie/Truth over the course of the story, but rather changes the world *around* him. So the story is anything but static, and the character himself will still be challenged in his beliefs. The difference is just that he comes back to center instead of altering his views.

  11. I have my characters making good and bad choices and suffering consequences, but one thing I have less confidence in is how long do those consequences linger?

    The girlfriend catches her guy having what seems to be an intimate conversation with another girl. They’re smiling, she’s touching his arm…I have all the foreshadowing and action/reaction leading up to that point where she’s hurt and asks, “Don’t I do enough to make you happy?” (even if she misread the situation.)

    Now I have to figure out how long is she hurt and angry. How long does it take them to mend the relationship? A bit of it may never go away.

    And that’s just outlining work.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      How long does it make sense in the story? Consequences should be commensurately big according to their purpose in the story. If they matter to the plot, they will create ripples that create more consequences that create more consequences. It’s a never-ending plot line.

  12. To me, the key is trusting – knowing – that our characters are tough enough to withstand whatever dung we writers fling at them.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Truth. There’s a line from a Christian song that I wanted to quote in this post but couldn’t find a spot for. The song is sung from the perspective of God toward us, but it works just as well from the perspective of the author toward his character:

      “Paint me heartless; call me cruel, that’s how I appear to be
      Every time I lead to the crucifixion tree
      For to be the overcomer that I want you to become
      Means I’m gonna have to give you things to overcome.”
      (“Stand Your Ground,” Joe King)

      • The other day I was flipping through a magazine and saw a picture of a 40’s/50’s era electric fan and the thought came to mind… pulled it from the magazine and now I know why… after all, there’s a reason it became a figure of speech.

        Also, like that you can read the last line of the lyrics two ways…

  13. Ooohmaagaa, YES! Now I realize the ‘why’ behind my multiple revisits of discontent to the first two chapters of my main WIP.
    *smack forehead with open palm

    The conflict was always there. The character’s sentient choice to react was not… for better or worse, good or bad. Time to go back and shake things up a bit! Thank you for this enlightening post as always, Katie!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      To me, this little tweak is always something that electrifies my perception of my story. As soon as I start looking for consequences of a character’s actions, the whole story just falls into place in delicious ways.

  14. Lots of really good stuff here, and I agree with … well, probably about 98% of it. But let me pick a nit.

    You said:


    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.”

    And while I think the story choice is right for the character, and if I was writing probably would’ve done the same thing … now that you got me thinking about it, I’m not sure Katniss’s choice really had any effect on the rest of the story AT ALL.

    For one thing, being the oldest sibling, I don’t think that’s necessarily a hard choice for the oldest to make, especially with the younger is so much weaker and the older has already shown some skill that’ll be useful. I suspect probably 90% of oldest siblings, faced with that choice, would make the same decision. So … good for the character. But…

    In the rest of the story, if instead Katniss had heard her name called and had been reaped, nothing would have changed.

    She would have met the same characters, done the same training, gone through the Games and — as far as we can tell from what’s in the book — would have made the same decisions.

    In fact, a character stepping up to spare a weaker one — even if it is against what would be best for herself, actually *especially* if it would — is more a trope of our storytelling.

    It might actually show a greater character arc if her name was called in the reaping and she tried to get out of it, or sneak – or run – away. If we’d seen her miss all the small game while hunting and not be able to provide a meal for the family, then get caught by soldiers and dragged off to the Hunger Games, but in the pre-game training improves her skills to a higher level — that’d actually be more of an arc.

    Now, it might not sell as well. And I’m not too sure readers — or editors — would stand for it. But in a way, because in our storytelling environment, it would be more surprising … it might actually make for a better story.

    After all, she’d still be the reluctant hero — eventually.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s true the story itself didn’t change–which it certainly would have with some decisions. But I would argue this actually, in itself, proves how this tiny little tweak changes a story for the better even when all that changes is a slight perception of the character. Whether the character’s choice was obvious or inevitable (i.e., a sister’s love) isn’t what’s important so much as the fact that it *is* a choice, however unavoidable.

  15. Thank you for this article. I’ve just picked up my pen/keyboard again after years of not writing a word. I’ve started out in the safe haven of fan fiction, but am gearing up to writing a short novel.
    I had this conversation with a friend about how we hurt our characters. While I know this is necessary for the development of the story and character arcs, it does make me feel like a closeted serial killer. It bothers me sometimes that I’m even able to think about hurting others.
    What you say about back story is something I recognize. I do start out with the baddies. And I have tons of back story that I’m probably never going to use, but getting the correct time lines and relationships between the characters before even putting down the first word of the story, makes everything much easier.

    I’m going to save this article in the toolbox I’m ‘building’ on my pc. I’m Dutch so English isn’t my first language and the thesaurus has been a great friend to me.

    Thank you so much

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If it helps, think of it not so much as “hurting your characters” but instead as “trying them by fire” so they will grow into stronger and better people. 🙂

      • So I’m actually providing a service to them. Haha
        I accidently shot a character and no matter how hard I tried to remove it, the scene stayed on the screen. So I just rolled with it and followed my gut. The reviews I got were hilarious! What came as a surprise to me came as a shocker to them. So I guess I did something right. And the story did need that little extra.

  16. Right now I’m working on a scene where my main character expects major consequences for messing up… and there aren’t any. He is forgiven completely. The consequence of being forgiven is that he comes to trust the character he wronged and gets his first inkling (though only on a subconscious level) that the guy really does love him like a son. So, consequences but not bad consequences, if that makes sense. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The fact that you’re building it up and making the character feel afraid or guilty or whatever is actually a consequence in itself–and a good way to create a purposeful reversal.

  17. Are there any ways to write scenes where StarGirl makes a choice that could probably be risky to herself as well as her friends?

  18. I guess I could do that, but StarGirl would probably not intend to hurt her friends or family, but might end up doing it in the process though unintentionally which would mean that she was put in a situation by the antagonist that didn’t make things easy for her already, but she unintentional made things worse.

  19. Hannah Killian says

    Hmm. . .I wonder how this will work in my story.

  20. Love that you mixed examples from Howl’s Moving Castle with Jason Bourne. Thanks for an excellent article. I’ve been struggling with a story plot in which my H/h came across as victims of others’ actions. I couldn’t quite pinpoint why it was a yawn fest, until reading this post. I’d already (metaphorically) torn up the MS and started over, experimenting with being mean to them. Such perfect timing that someone in the Twitterverse shared this link, great tips, thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Glad the post came in handy! Being mean to a character is always a great way to explore options for getting out of writer’s block. Never know what interesting new angles will present themselves.

  21. Max Woldhek says

    Thanks for this post. 😀

    I’m rewriting my first book now, and the inciting event is the main character making a big discovery. At first I had her superiors assign her to investigate this important matter despite her misgivings, but after reading this, I changed it to her volunteering. She’s only got herself to blame now when stuff goes pear-shaped. 😀

  22. I have ALWAYS had trouble with being mean to my characters. I really fall into that category of having a hard time throwing them into conflict. THIS HELPS SO MUCH. Just switching my mindset from ‘me being mean to my characters’ to ‘characters dealing with the consequences of their actions’ suddenly erases all my qualms, because I *love* those kinds of characters. <3

    Thanks so much for posting; this makes an unbelievable amount of difference for me!

  23. Great Advice!

  24. How about this?
    My protagonist’s weak spot is his desire to prove he’s trustworthy and loyal. (This desire stems from his violent alcoholic past and damage he’s done to his closest friends from childhood.) His other major flaw is that he can’t forgive himself. (regardless of serving the sentence for his crime and being granted Forgiveness.)

    These flaws take him down very dark paths when a ruthless commander manipulates him (and the governing authorities) to justify things like killing innocent workers and children from the “enemy”.
    This also places the protagonist in direct conflict with himself:
    Desire to be trusted: goal met.
    Need to forgive himself: Oh crap.

    As I see his backstory and story arc, he weaves between both a “bad guy” believing he’s doing the best for his colony and a “good guy” who is doing more than saving just his own colony. His arc goes on a corruption path until he finds himself the sole survivor of a battle suffering near fatal injury, followed by finding a child on the way to end his life.
    That point forward his arc changes to a positive one. He seeks redemption, aware that he’s going to Hell if he is to die without seeking this path.

    At his best he’s charming, playful, sensitive, and with a strong desire to be very helpful and be a part of the greater community. He *wants* to do the right thing and gains joy from helping others develop their strengths, skills, and magic.
    At his worst he suffers PTSD like symptoms, short tempered, stubborn, and arrogant. (he’s a top ranking soldier in his colony’s army. If he feels you stepped out of line, he makes it his point to quickly remind you of his status.)
    I’m thinking he’s perhaps an ENFJ or an ESFJ (?) though I find it really hard to gage those things.
    He’s intuitive, but his training and battlefield experience has forced him to focus on his surroundings and the present moment over daydreaming. His honest desire to help others out of personal joy he feels makes me think he’s more ENF than ESF.

    That said it scares me to write this character, but I find it compelling and enjoyable at the same time.
    Throwing a child into his life makes me smile when I have the child ask him to do things like play tag, go down a slide (and get stuck), sit on his snout, or tickle him. (the character is VERY ticklish in spots.)

    It also makes me feel good for having characters who either hate him or have difficulty coming to grips with his past.

  25. I’ve been lurking on the site for a while, but this is my favorite post I’ve found here. It’s not a rule or necessity, but it makes for a heck of a good story! I like to start a story with the MC making a choice in the first scene that ripples through the book and possibly even produces the final conflict. It doesn’t have to be a big choice (In Gaiman’s “Fortunately, the Milk” an adventure starts with choosing to have cereal) but that’s where the story truthfully begins.
    Another example is Disney’s The Incredibles. The Good Guy makes a series of Good Choices in the opening sequence that end up misfiring and creating not only his story arc, but the villain’s as well, it is revealed.
    Please no more stories of MCs happening upon Potent Artifacts, unless you give me a fresh reason why THIS character was the one who stumbled his way into the situation.

  26. James Ross says

    Oh, my goodness it feels like my understanding of what you are saying hit a critical mass with this title! I no longer need to work to remember the ideas like The Lie and The Ghost because those are lesser included factors. They are legs and this title is the tabletop, so if I pick up the top I have them too.

    Like my character’s error was his interest in politics and insurrection as shown up in his youthful choice of what illegal downloads to enjoy. Now he is a Jason Bourne figure in The Holy Terran Empire, excepting that his job was to select future citizens to be reprogrammed prior to conquest.

  27. While reading this – I remember the character study I did on Sansa Stark – she begins with the thing she wants – to be as far away from the North as she could be, which lead her into the lie she believed – she had to make a lord/prince happy so they would take her away.

    When she acted on those things – like lying about the attack on Joffrey to make him happy, she became one of his ‘playthings’ that he tortured, and with Lord Balish, she was then given to Ramsey Bolton. . .

    Once she accepted she was responsible for those things, she was able to accept the truth she needed – to be a person loyal to the North – leading to her eventual Queenship.

    She was responsible for her own suffering and she recognized it – and then did better.


  1. […] David King advises to give your characters roots, Becca Puglisi explores what’s in a character’s name, and K.M. Weiland shares the secret to writing dynamic characters. […]

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