How to Be a Gutsy Writer: Stay True to Your Characters

How to Be a Gutsy Writer: Stay True to Your Characters

Stay True to Your CharactersPart 13 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel

Sometimes the greatest act of courage any person can perform is simply that of being honest. This is arguably more valid for writers than for just about anyone—and it is nowhere more valid than in being willing to stay true to your characters.

Here’s the thing about characters. They’re humans, right? Which means (spoiler!) they’re a composite of traits: neither good nor bad, right nor wrong, likable or unlikable. They’re a little bit of everything.

As writers, this realization can sometimes put us on shaky ground. We want to write characters who are both real and likable. But in allowing our characters to be real, sometimes this means letting them make choices and performs deeds that really aren’t all that likable.

That can be scary. What if, in being honest about your characters, you end up creating someone readers won’t like? Or, worse, what if the character ends up reflecting upon you in a way readers might not like so much?

Well, here’s the good news: as real as these fears may be, they’re largely unfounded. Readers like “true” characters far more than they do likable characters—and Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War shows us why.

Why Captain America: Civil War Is the Marvel Movie We’ve All Been Waiting For

Marvel has bent expectations right from the start with their interwoven cinematic universe of heroes who bounce in and out of each other’s movies. In the third, and probably final, Captain America movie, Marvel pushed this concept to the max (yes, even maxier than with Avengers). Civil War brings together almost the entire team so far (with the notable exception of Thor and Bruce Banner) into a storyline that does what the series as a whole arguably does best: interpersonal conflict.

From the moment the Civil War storyline was announced, I was stoked. It’s such a ripe opportunity for exploring characters, convictions, and painful relationships—all of which the Marvel series has in spades. Although it’s certainly not a perfect movie, the Russo brothers directorial team once again proved themselves capable of streamlining a vast amount of characters and subplots into a story that was ultimately always going to be about the face-off between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark.

Captain America Civil War Shield Flare

Captain America: Civil War (2016), Marvel Studios.

I’m a Team Cap girl all the way, but I came out the theater (three times) finding myself chewing over the presentation of Tony more than any other character. When I then went back to re-watch Iron Man (which kickstarted the whole idea for this blog series), the overarching story came full circle in a way that made me feel Civil War is a culmination of the entire journey so far, the movie we’ve been waiting for ever since Marvel blasted onto the scene to the riffs of Black Sabbath.

Almost entirely, this is due to the fact Marvel was willing to be achingly honest about its beloved but incredibly flawed characters.

There really isn’t much I don’t like about this movie, save that it inevitably wobbles under its huge burden of plot and subplots toward the end and feels a little anticlimactic in a few places. It isn’t perfect, but what works for me works so well I really don’t care.

It’s hard for me to come up with a good highlight reel this week, just because, you know… everything. But here are few shout outs:

  • Best. Motorcycle. Stunt. Ever.
Captain America Civil War Bucky Barnes Motorcycle Stunt

Captain America: Civil War (2016), Marvel Studios.

  • Beautifully pertinent and burningly intense subplot via the Black Panther.

Captain America: Civil War (2016), Marvel Studios.

  • Spidey. Spidey. And Spidey. (As soon as “QUEENS” blared onto the screen, I hurt my face grinning.)

Captain America: Civil War (2016), Marvel Studios.

  • And at last: sensible shoes for Black Widow.

Captain America: Civil War (2016), Marvel Studios.

4 Ways to Stay True to Your Characters

In trying to walk that sometimes delicate line between likable and realistic heroes, you might find yourself writing your way around honesty without even realizing it. Sometimes it’s hard being hard on our characters—because it also means being hard on ourselves.

We often want our characters to conquer, to be happy, to be worthy. They’re vicarious extensions of ourselves after all. But the irony is that when we whitewash our characters, we inevitably end up with weaker stories.

Here are four questions to ask yourself in order to double check that you’re staying true to your characters, your story, and, ultimately, yourself.

1. Who Are Your Characters?

Sometimes you will deliberately set out to write a certain kind of character. Other times, you’ll discover the character while you write him. Either way, it can be easy to lose the forest for the trees and miss out the “big picture” character you’re creating.

Sure, he’s funny, does the right thing, and generally fills out his hero shoes. But is that all he is? Western author and Wordplayer Brad Dennison describes the protagonist of his McCabe series as:

Johnny McCabe, the main character, is a gunfighter who has a moderate case PTSD from being shot at too many times. He doesn’t oil the door hinges in his house, because he wants them to squeak when they open. At night, if he hears a door hinge squeak, he knows the door is being opened. If he hears that, or even the house creaking, he’s instantly awake. He keeps a gun within reach at all times.

This isn’t heroism; it isn’t intended as heroism. It’s a traumatized man dealing with a hard past. And Brad is honest enough about his character to look past the surface trappings of the genre to recognize that and write it forthrightly.

How to Discover the Character You’re Really Writing

  • Step back and really examine your character. You may already know everything there is to know about him. But it’s also possible you’ll realize a few things you haven’t noticed before.
  • Look at his obvious flaws. What is their root cause?
  • Look at his obvious virtues. What is really motivating him? Ideally, your character should never be engaging with your main conflict (or, for my money, any conflict) for purely selfless reasons. So what’s his selfish reason for the good stuff he does? Now, you’re discovering who this character really is.
  • Once you’ve exhausted your own awareness of your story, call in backup. Ask some of your readers: What is their take on your character? Chances are excellent you’ll learn some things about your own character you never considered before.

How Civil War Was Honest About Who Its Characters Really Are

Any conflict of moral values gives you a tremendous opportunity to drill deep into the heart of the characters. The stakes go up even more when these characters are both “good guys” and the author bears zero responsibility for villainizing either one of them.

In Cap and Tony, we have arguably the two most popular characters in the entire series. Most viewers love both characters and, deep down, want to cheer for both characters. But both characters can’t both be right. They can’t both win.

Cap is a stubborn anti-authoritarian (which is an awesome bit of irony coming from an ultra-conservative, ultra-traditional character), who has a dubious personal agenda in rescuing his long-ago best friend Bucky Barnes, aka the Winter Soldier.


Captain America: Civil War (2016), Marvel Studios.

Tony is and has always been the most flawed character in the entire series, and the filmmakers never once shy away from this. Tony’s the “bad guy” here. Tony makes wrong decision after wrong decision for deeply personal reasons that feel like an almost inevitable outcome of his past hang-ups and mistakes. Not exactly heroic for a guy who has always been one of our heroes.


Captain America: Civil War (2016), Marvel Studios.

But how much better is the movie and the character development for being willing to shine a light on its characters’ dirty secrets?

2. How Have Your Characters Changed By the End of the Story?

Want to utilize one of the best ways for discovering who your character really is? Look at how she has changed—or not changed—by the end of the story. Even if your character starts out as a less-than-great person, she might prove who she really is by ending as an objectively good person who chose to do the hard right thing. Or, vice versa, she might have chosen to reject the right thing in order to cling to her own selfish or broken preferences.

The story never lies. Even when you might not entirely realize what kind of character you’re writing, the story will tell you. You can put all the pretty glitter you want on a character, but if her change proves to be negative in the story’s end, that‘s who she really is. And vice versa (which is one reason we love anti-heroes so much).

How to Figure Out How Your Character Has Changed

Ask yourself:

  • What negative personality traits has she overcome?
  • What positive personality traits has she embraced?
  • What positive personality traits has she rejected?
  • What negative personality traits has she embraced?
  • How has she changed physically (new clothes, straighter posture, etc.)?
  • What has she sacrificed along the way to gain her goals (either selflessly or selfishly)?

The character these answers reveal is the true character. This is the character you’ve been writing all book long, even if she spends most of the book acting in opposition to her ending status.

How Civil War Was Honest About How Its Characters Changed

This is Cap’s movie. There was never any doubt he was going to be the “good guy” and “win” the conflict, while Tony would be the “bad guy” and “lose.” This premise worked largely because of how it had been set up by the previous films.

Had the storyline turned Cap into someone seeking emotional revenge, the story would have been neither honest nor compelling. That’s not true to the character. Putting his friendship with a solitary wrong person above everybody else’s moral and logical arguments, that is true to his character.


Captain America: Civil War (2016), Marvel Studios.

The heartrending final fight in this film works largely because Tony’s actions are also utterly true to the man presented throughout his five previous films: emotionally distraught, ridden with daddy issues and regret, full of self-loathing, and obsessed with self-redemption.

The beauty of it is that Tony’s “flaws” are so utterly relatable and compelling, audiences are not distanced from him even as he makes wrong choices and tries to kill other characters we love.


Captain America: Civil War (2016), Marvel Studios.

3. What Are the Logical Consequences of Your Characters’ Choices?

Often, writers will set up situations for their characters to work through just because these situations are interesting or fun for the moment. But honest writing demands we always create consequences for these situations.

If your teenage character goes for a joyride in a cop car just because you like the scene that results, that’s not good enough. The cops better show up at his parents’ door the next morning, wondering why their vehicle is double-parked outside the driveway.

The single most honest thing any writer can do is force his character to face legitimate consequences for his actions.

How to Write Logical Consequences for Your Characters

  • Take a good hard look at the choices your character makes. The more important those choices, the more scrutiny they deserve.
  • Ask yourself, in a realistic world, what negative consequences would logically result from these choices?
  • Then take it one step further. How can you make these consequences even more dire? The bigger the scene (e.g., is it a plot point?), the heavier the consequences should be.
  • Now, punish your character with these consequences. Take it as far as you can without delving into melodrama. It’ll hurt, but your story will improve in every way imaginable.

How Civil War Was Honest About the Consequences of Its Characters’ Choices

Including Tony in Civil War was a brilliant idea on so many levels, not least because it closes his arc in such a sad but honest way. As a hero within his own movies, he seemed fated by genre convention to end heroically. But because Civil War lifted him out of the context of his “own” story, it allowed for a much more honest appraisal.


Captain America: Civil War (2016), Marvel Studios.

As you may remember, my take on the “cornerstone” themes in the individual Marvel trilogies is that the Captain America movies are about friendships and loyalty, the Thor movies are about family, and the Iron Man movies are about self: selfishness, self-destruction, self-improvement, and the search for personal redemption.

Tony is a desperately flawed person, who has been seeking redemption in all the wrong ways. He has spent the entirety of the series trying to escape his own self-loathing and atone for his mistakes. Everything he’s done is a flamboyant gesture in an attempt to assuage his own guilt—from becoming Iron Man in the first place as a way to atone for his war profiteering, to creating Ultron in an attempt to protect the world from the threats he feels partially responsible for launching, to pushing the Accords in atonement for the deaths in Sokovia.


Captain America: Civil War (2016), Marvel Studios.

But no matter how hard he tries, he just can’t escape himself. That all comes home in a desperately raw and honest way in Civil War when his character finally spirals out of any semblance of heroism, forcing both Tony and the audience to face the truth about him.

4. Which of Your Character’s Actions or Attitudes Scare You?

How do you know which of your story ideas is truly honest?

Easy. It’s whichever scares you into wanting to give up writing altogether.

As my critique partner Linda Yezak wrote recently in a series of posts:

What are we afraid to write because it’s too intense and personal? Write that. Write it because it’s most relatable, because it’ll help you overcome the baggage, because your readers will realize they’re not alone. Because, if you don’t write about it… your story is shallow.

Sometimes our characters end up going to some pretty dark places—and we don’t like it. We try to steer them back to the light, back to that fun, light, happy little scene we really want to write. But that’s not honest. It’s not going to do either your character or your story justice. And readers are instinctively going to understand you’re avoiding the story’s juiciest possibilities.

How to Write Characters That Scare You

Ultimately, whatever scares you about your character is something that scares you about you. Writing is sometimes self-introspective torture. (Gotta suffer for your art, remember?)

Ask yourself:

  • What scares you most?
  • What makes you uncomfortable?
  • What don’t you want others to know about you?
  • How are these things reflected in your characters?
  • How are you avoiding writing these aspects of your characters?
  • What scenes can you create to allow you to fully explore these aspects?

How Civil War Presented Scary Characters

As far as jerks go, Tony is a deeply likable character. He’s funny, smart, unexpected, loyal, and ultimately, in his own individualistic way, upright. But if he was just a good guy with a smart mouth who pretended to be a jerk, that wouldn’t be an honest character.

In truth, a likable jerk can be one of the hardest of all characters to write. We write them because we love their baditude, but that doesn’t mean we always like the grimy parts that create that persona.

For example, we may find Tony endlessly entertaining, but the fact remains he’s often immoral, out-of-control, and dangerous. How easy would it have been for squeamish writers or filmmakers to gloss over these less appealing aspects of his personality?

And yet if they had, we would never have gotten the intense and often cathartic honesty of Civil War, in which all Tony’s bad seeds finally bear catastrophic fruit, which he and everyone he cares about must deal with. It’s not the end we want for one of our heroes. But it’s the end we need because it’s the only end that’s true.


Captain America: Civil War (2016), Marvel Studios.


Honest characters are hard to find these days, as Hollywood churns out cookie-cutter adventure flick after cookie-cutter romance flick. One of the main reasons Marvel stands head and shoulders above just about every other franchise out there right now is that it set up difficult but compelling characters from day one—and stayed true to them every step of the way. This is nowhere truer than in Civil War.

While this isn’t my favorite of the Marvel movies, I do feel, in so many ways, it is the series’ crowning achievement. Even if the entire series made the unlikely move of careening downhill from this point forward, Civil War at least brought everything full circle in a brave and satisfying way.

Which, of course, brings us to the (temporary) end of our blog series as well. I hope you’ve enjoyed this analytical romp through one of my favorite film series as much as I have. I plan to make it an ongoing feature, so look for Part 14 in November when Doctor Strange releases. In the meantime…

Stay Tuned: Next week, a special Wordplayer guest will give us another perspective on Ant-Man and why it demonstrates some excellent change arcs.

Previous Posts in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Has it ever been hard for you to stay true to your characters? Why or why not? 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. At the end: The Shield.

    That is all.

    That is enough.

    (OK, Pepper being a no-show at the beginning sets the stage for the the ending. Tony’s choices never seem to be the right ones, do they?)

  2. This movie was definitely not my favorite, although there were some good things to it. I’m a big Cap fan, and it felt more like an Avengers movie than a Cap movie, which I gather is a common complaint. It just bugs me that Cap’s last movie became an Avengers movie. Ah well. 😉

    Now that you mention Black Widow’s shoes, though, that reminds me: One of the things I like about her appearances in Cap’s movies is that she gets to wear normal clothes, and not be in the catsuit all the time!

    • I loved Winter Soldier, and when they announced the third film was Civil War I had the same fear that it would turn into an Avengers flick.

      While it definitely wasn’t as Steve focused as the prior two films, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the relationship of Cap and Bucky was the heart of the film. Especially since Steve’s intent to search him out was the way they ended Winter Soldier. It would have been a letdown if they had left that thread dangling in favor of getting all the big names together just to draw more box office.

      In some ways I would have liked to the trilogy wrap up with Cap not having to share the spotlight, but in others this does feel like the perfect culmination to his series… and everything Marvel has done to this point for that matter.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        While I agree that I, too, regretted this wasn’t more Cap-centric, they ended up giving me a film I enjoyed so much in its right that it was almost worth it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The catsuit I can deal with it. It’s the heels that drive me nuts!

  3. Awesome! Been waiting for this post. Spending too much time trying to craft my hero. Making progress though. Michael Hauge also talks about the essence of the character and his self-protected identity. The identity being what we think, pretend, or project ourselves to be to others. This is what he called the comfort zone. The essence is who the character really is underneath. Knowing the true character in my story has not been easy. But still making headway. 🙂

    This movie was pretty epic on many levels. I also was impressed with Tony’s arc in the story. Talk about culpability, they set that up brilliantly! Then his motivations throughout the story were all too real. Excellent. Cap on the other hand, I had trouble believing his motivations. I found it difficult believing he would sacrifice the unity of the Avengers, betray his country, and lie to Tony all for one measly friend. Those stakes are pretty high for him. He obviously made some really bad choices with serious consequences. But for what? Bucky? Give me a break. I would understand if it were Peggy Carter. THAT would make a lot of sense. But Bucky? Hmmm…

    When he dropped his shield after giving Tony a complete beatdown, was a climatic moment for me. Tony: “That shield doesn’t belong to you. My father made that shield. It’s government property”
    Then Cap, without hesitation, drops his battle tested signature weapon to the ground. Stark is laying on the ground defeated, wounded and disappointed by his “friend” ex-Captain America. While he gets away with a murderer, Bucky. Caps shield lies there helplessly marred by the claws of the black panther. That scene evoked the most emotion in the story for me. I was sad for Tony. Somewhat angry and disappointed at Captain America, and the Avengers, now the dance of two camps.

    What an excellent movie!

    • Interesting. I’d not heard anyone offer that view of Cap in this story.

      Can’t say I agree that Bucky is just “one measly friend”. Bucky is the most important person in Cap’s life. Certainly moreso than Peggy Carter, IMHO, and I say that with nothing but love for everything about their relationship as it was portrayed in First Avenger because I loved that on screen.

      But he only knew Peggy for a short time. Bucky is his oldest friend and, while not a romantic relationship as he shared with Peggy, Steve’s dearest relationship. He looked out for scrawny Steve as a child, was there for him when his parents died, and they served on the front lines together in war. That had all been established in the first two Cap films, the second of which ended with Steve demonstrating his intent to search for Bucky.

      Then we get to Civil War. Cap has slowly been losing his faith and trust in the powers that be, and then the powers that be hit him again with the accords. As he’s mulling that over he gets the call that Peggy has died, and he loses one of his last touchstones to his old, simpler life where things were black and white (as an aside, one of my favorite scenes in the movie, and a great payoff from WS, was Black Widow being there for him so he wouldn’t be alone).

      It’s at that point, when he’s reeling mightily, they introduce Bucky to this story; his best friend and ONLY remaining tie to his old life. I thought that was brilliantly plotted.

      The Avengers had already fractured over the accords. His country had betrayed him in multiple ways in Civil War thanks to Hydra infiltrating SHIELD and brainwashing his best friend into a weapon of death. And his relationship with Tony, while one of respect, was never without its struggles; and certainly not to the level of friendship he had with Bucky.

      You’re dead on. He made some bad choices with serious consequences. So did Tony. But I agree with Kate that each of their choices were in perfect unison with their characters and the arcs they had taken to that point.

      • That would explain a lot. I had forgotten about some of the deeper connections between Bucky and Cap. That didn’t make it any easier to accept emotionally, but certainly gives it more merit. Winter Soldier and Civil War are my favorites of all the marvel movies. Hard to say which I enjoyed more. Civil war was so complex with so many characters it might win out. But I need to back and watch WS. The introduction of the winter soldier was AWESOME.

        I’m not anti-Cap or pro Team Ironman. Just a fan of the sport, as they say.

        The interpersonal conflict in this one was very impressive. The fact that I had such an emotional response speaks to the success of the movie and series as a whole. Now I’m very curious about how the Avengers will proceed in upcoming movies. They left some crumb trails at the end of the movie as a hint.

        Kate: I would love to see a further analysis of the character arcs of not only this movie, but of the whole series. Because to me it seems you can’t make a proper assessment only looking at one movie at a time. You have to take the entire series into consideration. At least that’s what I think.

        Secondly, how would you categorize this one? Would Team Cap and Team Ironman act as each others Antagonist? Do Cap and Tony act as Co-protagonists and antagonists simultaneously? Whew. Then there were several people with character arcs. Very complex.

        • I too am curious how the Avengers plays out in upcoming movies.

          A friend asked me what I thought of the movie coming out of the theater for this one, and I said “My least favorite Cap movie, but my favorite Avengers movie.” After rewatching it, I think that still holds, but that is not intended as a slight to Civil War, which Kate nails the best parts of in her analysis.

          That’s mostly because Winter Soldier is hands down their best film so far IMHO, and I get giddy at how well they established who Steve is in First Avenger.

          Despite how good the entire series has been, most of my favorite Cap scenes are from First Avenger. Jumping on the grenade. Pulling the pin from the flag pole. “Do you two fondue?” Pretty much every scene between him and Erskine. It was all perfect, and enough to overcome them dropping the ball on the Second Pinch Point.

          Now, as an Avengers film, this one is definitely the best. It’s satisfyingly deeper than the actual Avengers movies, making it more than the summer popcorn flick those two largely were, IMHO.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        Yeah, I gotta agree with Jared on Bucky. He’s central to Cap’s journey in every single movie. It’s a relationship that goes deeper than just common sense–which you can kinda feel Sam Wilson disliking and trying to work through in this film.

        • Crap. Guess I got that one wrong.

        • I hadn’t thought of that with Sam, but I think you’re right. Their relationship has been pitch perfect since the opening moment of WS, and I can see that now that you mention it.

          I love the interaction between him and Bucky in the VW. His “I hate you” comment was great comedic timing, but I like how the two of them come together to smile at their mutual friend when he goes in for the kiss.

  4. I failed to mention the following:

    Captain America’s choosing to stand for freedom, individual rights and fighting for what he believes in was supberb.

    The addition and assimilation of new characters was awesome. Ant man was cute, proved to be effectual. Black Panther was SWEEEZZEEETT. Spiderman was hilarious.

    What’s your analysis of the character arcs of the main characters? It seemed like there were several in this one.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      All the arcs in this movie are, of course, continuations from previous movies. We see Cap, as always, in a flat arc, imposing his Truth on the world around him. Tony seems to be in a corruption arc, moving from a Lie to the worst manifestation of that Lie.

  5. These blog posts are amazing! As a hard-core Marvel fan and writer, I’ve been constantly looking forward to them. Can’t wait to read Doctor Strange’s!

  6. Ah, now I need to go rewatch this. I’ve only seen it once in the theater. I get that Cap is the good guy because it’s HIS movie, but I still was rooting for Iron Man in this one. My take–and it’s been months since I have viewed it so I need to rewatch it, of course–was that there really was no winner in this movie. But that’s how I walked away from the theater, at least.

    Definitely looking forward to Doctor Strange. Benedict Cumberbatch! What’s not to love? 🙂

  7. Great advice for building strong characters. Reminds me to do a better job building the secondary characters as well as the main ones.

  8. Great post. A lot to chew on, both regarding Civil War and strengthening our characters.

    I recently rewatched this one after getting the blu ray last week, and it holds up very well. I agree that it struggles a bit in sticking the dismount on all the subplots. Personally, I found Black Panther’s story fizzled into an anticlimactic ending after sizzling at the start. But ultimately I really like the film because of the points you’ve addressed here.

    This was an enlightening series. Thank you. Looking forward to next week’s guest perspective on Ant-Man.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m really looking forward to the Black Panther movie. I think the fizzle in this movie will heat back up into some really excellent angles in his own film.

  9. Sorry this movie was an overstuffed, overly intellectual exercise in how Not to write an emotionally satisfying piece of work. Film and literature should above all hit you on a visceral, not intellectual, level (“You’re being uncharacteristically hyper non-verbal”. Come on. Really, Mr. Screenwriters? It’s a superhero film!). Just. Too. Much. Going. On. Can u remember the villain Zemo’s plan? Right. They should have just cut that whole storyline and made the crux of the film ab Tony’s discovery that Bucky is his parents’ murderer and Tony’s choices in light of that discovery.

    • I have to disagree. While Marvel has been stuffing the movies a bit much (you’re right there), the reveal that Cap knew about Tony’s parents should come as a jolt, not an “I saw that coming.”

      They played it right by saving it to the end. It also sets up the final scene with the Shield. My question is how the franchise is going to retrieve the relationship in the end or are they going to just deepen the antagonism?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s not perfect, but as mixed opinions about Ultron have already shown us, emotional reactions are ultimately subjective.

  10. Christine M. says

    I love your in-depth character series. And using Marvel is pure genius.

    I also love what you said here: “Often, writers will set up situations for their characters to work through just because these situations are interesting or fun for the moment. But honest writing demands we always create consequences for these situations.”

    I have read too many critiques and thought, your character wouldn’t do this. I mean, just because the scene is cool, it doesn’t mean that it belongs in this story.

  11. There’s clearly some smart people over there at Disney. While not perfect, Marvel has been far better than anyone could have rightly hoped for in this day and age of shallow blockbusters.

    I’m also continually amazed by how well plotted I find many/most of the Pixar and Disney animated films are. Disney Animation has had a renaissance ever since Jon Lasseter took over both studios, and may have even surpassed Pixar, IMHO. Not surprisingly, story is the number one Lasseter tenet, and they spend quite a while working them over and over until they’re just right.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I have to admit I’ve become disillusioned with Pixar in recent years. But Marvel continues to exceed my expectations.

      • I understand that. Other than Monsters University, which I love, I haven’t connected with one of their films in a while. But they will forever be a group I think fondly of thanks to an epic five year run from Cars through Toy Story 3, which was five perfect films for this movie goer in five straight years.

        Disney on the other hand has given me some of my favorites of the past five years. Most notably Wreck-it Ralph and Zootopia.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I agree. What I call Pixar’s “Golden Age” (up through Cars for me) is a fantastic piece of work. It’s Silver Age ain’t bad either.

  12. I wasn’t thinking of going to see Civil War but this post has changed my mind. When I do watch, I’ll be thinking of all the points you make here.

  13. Wonderful* post.

    (*see thesaurus for synonyms)

  14. Long post. So many things.

    “How to Write Characters That Scare You” I think I do all those, and then I use a pen name so people won’t realize it’s actually me.

    Consequences. Mine is a romance and also a coming of age story. Two teens fall in love when they’re not supposed to, but have a lot of growing up forced on them by their choices – both actions and inactions. At this moment my daughter’s in the maternity ward with our newest grandchild. While visiting it reminds me of the climatic scene of my story and I hope people don’t see when I start to cry – about my characters.

    OK, big spoiler. The fifteen year old girl ends up pregnant, but because of her age and other things, she’s not given a choice as her parents make her have an abortion. The boyfriend doesn’t know until later. She drinks until they find her passed out with alcohol poisoning. Finally the two are allowed back together and fairly alone in the hospital room where both then spill out their pain.

    Certainly a trial by fire. I’m crying again, and this part of the story is 100% fiction.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “If they cry, they buy.” But that emotion always has to start with the author. If you’re eliciting that kind of emotional reaction from yourself, you know you’re on the right track.

  15. Captain America’s arc throughout the Captain America trilogy is fascinating as well. He starts off the series as a pure patriot, proud to fight for his country. In the second movie, his distrust for the modern government grows substantially after the Hydra plot twist is revealed. In this movie, he ends up being a straight up insurgent even if his motives are noble.

    On a side-note that’s not related to storytelling, this marks the 4th movie in a row with Iron Man in it that’s made at least $1 billion. That’s pretty crazy.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I love how they took such a straight-laced character, stayed absolutely true to that part of his character, and yet still made him the biggest rebel in the entire series. Beautiful.

      • Katie said this in the piece

        “Cap is a stubborn anti-authoritarian (which is an awesome bit of irony coming from an ultra-conservative, ultra-traditional character)”

        I hesitated to make what might be construed as political comments, but as it’s been touched on again here let me try to be as impartial as possible, in saying how I think Cap’s character change reflects historical change.

        Steve Rogers grew up in the 1930’s and 40’s and his original character reflected the society of the time. It continued through the 1950’s when Salinger published his social commentary “Catcher In the Rye.” The first person narrator, high school student Holden Caulfield say everyone around him living their lives as some piece of a predestined script. He saw that it was all – phony.

        By the 60’s we had the counter-culture movement where the young people wanted to break out and do their own thing. The radical thing was to ‘question authority.’

        Forty years later those people from the 60’s are many of those running the country and leading our current society. They have become the new establishment, and like Cap, conservatives are now the ones who rebel against the new institutions.

        Before I get too ideological, I’ll say that I am a Libertarian leaning Christian Conservative. I don’t trust people, I don’t trust power, so therefor what I don’t want to see is power concentrated in a few hands. That was the Captain America we saw in Winter Soldier and then Civil War. He know longer trusts authority.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I agree with this interpretation–and, honestly, I’m just incredibly impressed the filmmakers were willing to stay true to the character in this regard.

  16. I was looking forward to what you thought of Civil War, and I’m glad to see you enjoyed it! Great post as usual! It looks like I’m going to have to do a reading marathon of all your Marvel posts :p

  17. This line of thinking is what turned one of my POV characters – my second biggest role character who I am trying to prevent from stealing the spotlight… – into having a negative character arc rather than a positive one. He’s just too selfish. He’s barely a protagonist. He’s the antagonist’s antagonist.

  18. Andrewiswriting says

    I gave this movie 11 stars out of 5.

    I will always love The Avengers the most, but I thought this movie was brilliant. Here’s just one subtle thing that’s a trademark Marvel ‘getting-it-right’ thing:

    Watch Winter Soldier, then Cap, then the Panther leap down into that undercroft roadway in the chase scene. Notice that all three of them jump and land differently:
    Bucky does a Colossus – just jumps and lands thud with both boots like he’s a tank;
    Cap lands like an acrobat, all springy and Robin/Nightwing;
    Panther falls slower than the others and lands like a cat, as if he barely touches the ground.


  19. I actually do think this was one of my favorite ever of the Marvel series. As you said, the characters were so brutally honest, and the most important aspect of Cap’s nature, his deep loyalty, was showcased so very naturally. It was all over awesome.

  20. Never have I seen such a big fan of the Marvel characters and the Marvel movies, that is, until meeting you!
    But for good reason: Marvel (or Disney now, I suppose) seems to get things right most of the time where it seems other franchises are nearly dead from the get-go.
    Can I suggest you next article be titled, “What DC can learn from Marvel”? Or even BETTER, “What DC can learn from K.M. Weiland”!
    If someone from the filmmaking team behind DC had read your articles and thought, “hmm, I think this K.M. Weiland person knows what she’s talking about…let’s hire her to pen the script for our next DC movie!” If that happened, would you do it?

  21. This was a fantastic article – a great analysis of what makes my favourite marvel movie work so well. I’ve loved this whole series of posts, especially since I’m a huge Marvel fan and am writing a superhero novel myself. I’ll be using your tips to improve my story for sure!

    Just one question – when you say:
    “…What has she sacrificed along the way to gain her goals (either selflessly or selfishly)?”
    Do you mean “either selfishly or selflessly” instead?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      So glad you’ve enjoyed the series! It’s been a ton of fun for me to put together. As for your question, I’m probably just being dense, but I don’t see that switching the words around makes much difference either way.

      • Just read over my reply, and realised that I thought you repeated ‘selflessly’ twice in that instance (i.e. ‘selflessly or selflessly’), but I’ve now realised it was just me not seeing the difference between the words. Whoops!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Hah, I *do* do things like that all the time. I read it over about five times in your comment just to make sure my eyes weren’t tricking me. :p

  22. I think this post indirectly pushed me to get back to outlining/brainstorming my novel… So thanks =D

  23. Loved the movie, disliked the title choice.

    I think it set the wrong expectations for those (of us) not fully in the know about the Marvel Universe in the comics.

    Avengers Civil War would have been a better title. Someone, somewhere, was too close the movie. All their good reasons for the title choice (end of a story arc, etc) fall flat as they add more and more superheroes to the mix.

  24. On another note, is there any way you could legally do a book based on this series of posts? I think it would be good for many writers and great for you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve thought about it, but not quite sure how that work with copyrights.

      • I think you might be able to approach this from a journalist perspective. Instead of crafting a How To book for writers, consider a profile piece on How They Do It. The implication, then, is that writers can extrapolate lessons. It would also allow you to take all the material you’ve already written and re-purpose it. You might even approach Marvel/Disney with your proposal and in return, they might give you access to stock stills to illustrate the book.

        This has the option of instead of seeking permission, you are seeking information for a dedicated fan base. You could title it “An Inside Look at Marvel’s Movie Magic” or something equally sensational.

        If that doesn’t appeal to you, you could do a semi-scholarly look comparing the Joseph Campbell monomyth and how Marvel not only exploits it, but blows the whole convention out the window with their treatments. In other words, even if you have the monomyth down pat, that doesn’t mean you can still tell a story as well as Marvel Movies.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          It’s definitely something I’m chewing on. I’ll probably wait awhile anyway, to add some more posts to the series. But we’ll see what happens!

  25. I know that this is a really late comment, but I’ve been this series of posts lately.

    I agree with you on pretty much every point, but there’s another important lesson to be learned from Civil War. This has to do with the villain and his actions.

    In Civil War, the villain has a pretty solid motivation. His plan, on the other hand? Not so much. At pretty much every single plot point, *everything* has to go perfectly – sometimes requiring extraordinary luck – in order to advance his plan.

    For one, he impersonates Bucky to bomb the assembly. What if the camera that caught him had been of a higher quality? What if it had caught him from a better angle? Everything would have been lost.

    Then he counts on Bucky to be found and captured. How did he know that he would be? How did he know that they’d be able to find (arguably) the world’s most capable assassin? If Bucky wasn’t caught, the plot would end there.

    But Bucky *was* found and caught, despite being helped by Cap. Then Zemo impersonates the UN psychiatrist. Of course, if they’d had pictures of the real psychiatrist, he would have been caught on the spot.

    A third, big stroke of luck was that Tony, Cap and Bucky all arrived at more or less the same time to the final showdown. He capitalizes on that by revealing that Bucky killed Tony’s parents. But if Tony had somehow been rational, saying, ‘Hey, Bucky wasn’t in control when he did that, let’s cut him some slack,’ the plot would have ended.

    The lesson here is that it’s really important to look at your villain’s actions and plans rationally. If his actions aren’t rational *from his own perspective* the story suffers. The antagonist can’t just be a constant physical and thematic obstacle (which Civil War did very well). The antagonist needs to be a character in his own right, with his own rational story.

    Again, I do agree with your points as well. Thank you so much for writing this series and all your other blog posts. It really makes a difference for a lot of us. =)

    • Mikhail Campbell says

      I think something people overlook when looking at Zemo’s actions, is that what happened in Civil War was not entirely his plan. It just happened to unfold even more perfectly than he had hoped.

      I don’t think it’s a stretch to think Bucky would have been found and caught. Being under the radar for years is one thing when you are not an international priority. It’s exponentially more difficult when your are the most wanted man in the world who literally everyone is looking for.

      Also, you say he was captured “even with Cap helping him” but you need to remember that Cap’s goal was always to bring Bucky in himself so that he wasn’t just killed on the spot. Zemo, having studied their personalities in depth, would have known that this would likely have been Cap’s approach.

      The psychiatrist thing I don’t see the issue with. He set it up so they had his picture on file or something, that’s typical spy stuff.

      Zemo’s entire goal was simply to get the tape of Bucky killing Iron Man’s parents and have Tony learn the truth. If Tony and Cap hadn’t shown up at the same time, he simply would have gotten the tape and sent it Tony.

      And even if Tony had acted rationally in the moment, it would have sewn seeds of distrust between the team, which, Zemo hoped, would lead to their eventual downfall. Zemo was always playing the long game, but even he didn’t realize how emotionally volatile the Avengers were.

      People think that Zemo’s plan was to have Tony, Bucky, and Cap show up at the same time, show them the tape, and then have them fight to the death right then and there, but that was never it. His mission was just to destabilize. He just got lucky. But that luck is based on the truth of the characters, so it works. If you look at it with this in mind, then his actions were rational from his perspective.

      He was fighting them the only way he knew how, and in a way he knew might not pay off right away, except it did.

      I 100% agree about the villains actions needing to be rational from their own perspective though. I’m currently working on the third book in my trilogy and the plot has a few twists and turns, so I’ve been going through it from the perspective of the villains, to make sure I have a sense of what their plan was and that their actions all make sense based on this plan and with the knowledge that they had at the time. It’s tough haha

  26. Alex Wilson says

    Miss Weiland, my apologies for coming to this post so late, but I always need time to digest these things and come back to it later, and I hope you see this and respond anyway, because this has been the one part of this movie that doesn’t feel right-and hasn’t since the moment I saw it in the cinema. My recent study of conflict on your website has only reinforced this feeling, and I was hoping for a second opinion.

    When Cap, Bucky and Iron Man get to the bunker at the climax of the movie-I think there was a nuclear weapon there?-Cap and Iron Man seem to make amends and do what heroes do, make up for the greater good, and it felt subtle but really good. I was confused having seen the trailers though, how a certain action scene comes about if they’ve now made up.

    Lo and behold, Iron Man finds out that Bucky killed his parents and Cap knew about it and didn’t tell him. Having seen the car crash throughout the movie, I loved the reveal that Bucky caused it-I later found out Cap found this out in Winter Soldier from Zola. I didn’t remember this, but was willing to put it down to my own memory’s fault, and it was a blink and you’ll miss it moment.

    What I didn’t like though was how convenient and sloppy this felt. They’ve just made up, and this revelation sets them at each other’s throats again. This felt INCREDIBLY forced to me, despite the reasons Iron Man was upset being totally justified. Why, if you needed Cap, Bucky and Iron Man to fight it out one last time, why have them make up just moments before? Could they not have at least made the peace seem tenuous and temporary? That way you could say “Oh man, these guys were only just speaking to each other, and now this pushes them over the precipitous edge!”

    I just felt like their making up moments before pulled them too far away from that edge, when they were about to fall right over the edge for good.

    Either way though, when Cap is over Stark with his shield and slams it down just next to Stark, despite me being Team Cap all the way (I’m actually REALLY not a fan of Iron Man at all), they genuinely had me, and I thought that Shield was doing some beheading, despite my better judgement. I was 23/24, and they had me in the palm of my hand! 😂

    • Mikhail Campbell says

      It may just be a matter of interpretation. Them making up at the bunker DID feel extremely tenuous to me. They were nowhere near buddy buddy again, even with Tony making a few wisecracks (which he does to cover up his emotions). So Tony seeing that tape did shatter what was tenuous and uncertain in the first place.

      As for why they did it this way, it’s because it just makes the moment more powerful if you know they were so close to working things out. Also, I think for the climax they didn’t want this big battle to be (even in part) over a misunderstanding. It works better because all the characters have discovered and acknowledged the truth about Zemo’s plot, but their emotions overcome them anyway.

  27. Not really a writing comment, but knowing Civil War and Secret Invasion from the comics, I so wanted an intro movie, followed by a year of TV shows struggling with it, followed by a closing film. Both CW and SI should have been done much later when more characters are introduced (Fantastic Four, especially). As a storyline can run through many different comics, have either storyline run through Daredevil, She-Hulk, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, SHIELD, and many others, would have been a great callback to the comics.


  1. […] a lot of it may be in the verbs, it’s in the characters, too. K.M. Weiland says that to be a gutsy writer you need to be true to you characters, and Ron Estrada shows us how to write your middle grade […]

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