Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Character Building and Character Arcs

(Fourth lesson in my writing class, going over Character Building and Character Arcs.)

Character Building is a one of the most important things in any story.  A story could have an excellent plot, a stupendous theme, and a revolutionary moral, but if we don’t know why the hero is doing what he’s doing, why he is the way he is, we don’t care.  Or, even worse, if we don’t give him a personality, we won’t care.

Character Building is making your character.  Some writers use long lists of irrelevant questions to “interview” their characters.  But Character Building is much more than knowing what color their car is, or even how old they are.  Sure, they might come into the story once in a while, but likely they’ll only be mentioned.

The big part of Character Building, what you really want to focus on, is the character’s personality.  The readers don’t care about what color hair the main character has, even if it’s hot pink, and that’s why you need to focus on the personality.  Now say this person is sort of rebellious against her parents wishes, and she dyes her hair pink spitefully against her mother’s wishes - now that matters, because it shows part of her personality - rebelliousness.

You might already have a rough idea for a character, or maybe not.  But when you’re starting out, you’ll usually want to browse over a list of traits, good and bad, and pick out a few that work well together and fit with this character you’re making.  For example, don’t pick both submissive and rebellious for the same character, because they’re virtually the same.  You can, however, pick shy and rebellious.  Why?  Because shy doesn’t necessarily contradict rebellious, it just means he or she might not be so outspoken about it.

I have a list of traits here.  For starters, pick out two good traits and one bad one.  It’s hard to give your hero a bad trait, but you need to realize it doesn’t make your character evil, instead it makes him or her human, realistic, and 3D.  3D as in, the character isn’t all good, their might be some dark secrets he or she is hiding, something that the character doesn’t want to reveal.  In the end, you’ll probably want it to be exposed.

But that’s for later.

  1. active 
  2. adventurous 
  3. affectionate 
  4. afraid 
  5. aggressive 
  6. ambitious 
  7. amiable 
  8. angry 
  9. animated 
  10. annoyed 
  11. anti-social 
  12. anxious 
  13. argumentative 
  14. arrogant 
  15. attentive 
  16. babyish 
  17. bored 
  18. bossy 
  19. brave 
  20. brilliant 
  21. busy 
  22. calm 
  23. can't keep a secret 
  24. careful 
  25. cautious 
  26. charismatic 
  27. charming 
  28. cheerful 
  29. childish 
  30. clever 
  31. clumsy 
  32. coarse 
  33. cold-hearted 
  34. compassionate 
  35. competitive 
  36. complacent 
  37. compulsive 
  38. conceited 
  39. confident 
  40. confused 
  41. considerate 
  42. cooperative 
  43. courageous 
  44. cowardly 
  45. crafty 
  46. critical
  47. cruel 
  48. cultured 
  49. curious 
  50. cynical 
  51. dangerous 
  52. daring 
  53. decisive 
  54. dependable 
  55. dependent on others 
  56. determined 
  57. diligent 
  58. discreet 
  59. dishonest 
  60. disloyal 
  61. disobedient 
  62. disparaging 
  63. disrespectful 
  64. dissatisfied 
  65. doesn't learn 
  66. domineering 
  67. doubtful 
  68. dutiful 
  69. eager 
  70. easygoing 
  71. eloquent 
  72. encouraging 
  73. energetic 
  74. enthusiastic 
  75. fair 
  76. faithful 
  77. fearless 
  78. fidgety 
  79. fierce 
  80. finicky 
  81. foolish 
  82. formal 
  83. frank 
  84. friendly 
  85. frustrated 
  86. funny 
  87. generous 
  88. gentle 
  89. giddy 
  90. giving 
  91. glamorous 
  92. gloomy 
  93. grateful 
  94. greedy 
  95. grouchy 
  96. gullible 
  97. happy 
  98. harried 
  99. hateful 
  100. haughty 
  101. helpful 
  102. honest 
  103. hopeful 
  104. hopeless 
  105. hospitable 
  106. humble 
  107. hyper 
  108. ignorant 
  109. ill-bred 
  110. imaginative 
  111. immature 
  112. impartial 
  113. impatient 
  114. impolite 
  115. impudent 
  116. impulsive 
  117. inappropriate 
  118. inconsiderate 
  119. independent 
  120. industrious 
  121. innocent 
  122. insensitive 
  123. insolent 
  124. intelligent 
  125. jealous 
  126. judgmental 
  127. lackadaisical 
  128. languid 
  129. lazy 
  130. liar 
  131. logical 
  132. lonely 
  133. loving 
  134. loyal 
  135. lucky 
  136. malicious 
  137. mature 
  138. mean 
  139. meticulous 
  140. mischievous 
  141. moody 
  142. mundane 
  143. mysterious 
  144. naive 
  145. negligent 
  146. nervous 
  147. never satisfied 
  148. no sense of humor 
  149. noisy 
  150. obedient 
  151. obliging 
  152. obnoxious 
  153. observant 
  154. obsessive 
  155. overindulgent 
  156. prejudice 
  157. procrastinator 
  158. reckless 
  159. rude 
  160. sarcastic 
  161. selfish 
  162. self-pitying 
  163. shy 
  164. smart 
  165. stubborn 
  166. superficial 
  167. tactless 
  168. taking self too seriously 
  169. too trusting 
  170. unable to commit 
  171. uncomunicative
  172. unconfident 
  173. unmannered 
  174. untrusting

On that list you’ll see several disagreeable and unlikable traits that you can pick for your character.  You’ll likely not be wanting to have the truly evil ones for your character.  Then again, you might.

I’ll give you a few minutes to pick out three of them, two likable and one not so likable, or even evil.

So if you haven’t quite got the ones that fit, that’s alright.  You can review your character this week, but now, we’ll stick with the ones you have now.  You probably have some kind of a character forming in head now, so we can continue on.

I’ve pre-written a scene in which your character is faced with an important decision.  Decisions, actions, and reactions are what makes a character shine through the page and become 3D to you and the reader.  Your character is shaped in the decisions he makes.

Your character just discovered he has inherited one hundred million dollars from a trust fund, how does he react?  Is he just satisfied?  Does he hyperventilate?  Maybe he is annoyed or refuses to accept if he believes money is the root of all evil.  And also, aside from his physical actions, what is he thinking during this time?  WHY is he excited about this?  Is it because he can now move out of his old apartment, have a vacation, and still afford a lambergini?  Or is it because he can now help the community by paying for a new library?

Here’s another situation.

Your character lives in a very poor district of town.  He must somehow get food for the rest of himself and the rest of his family.  He has two options; 1, to go out and find any sort of second or third job he can get, though its low pay still might not be enough.  And 2, to go into the streets and steal bread or other food (and remember, though this might be wrong, your character would have plenty of motivation for it).  Of course, if your character was lazy, he might not do anything at all.  But for this exercise, pick one of the two above.

And finally for a third situation.

Your character wants a job.  But at the first four interviews he’s been rejected, what does he do?  Keep trying?  Give up despairingly?  Try a new plan?  Or maybe recruit a friend for help?

The first of those three examples was how a character reacted to getting an enormous amount of money.  The second was a decision, and the third was an action.

What your character wants.
What your character needs.
What your character believes (is it a lie?).
What your character thinks he needs.

If each of those questions has different answers, even if they’re just slightly varied, will make a dynamic and realistic character.  Those were some good questions to build on the story goal, what the main character is going after throughout the entire story - it also builds on your character and who he or she is.

The characters, in a story, are literally the most important thing.  Enjoyable characters make enjoyable stories, make your characters real.

Related Posts:  Character Arcs



  1. When I do interviews with my characters, I don't do it to find out the answers. I do it to get my character's voice. And then I ask myself why. Why did he answer that way? Why did she say that? And it helps.

  2. My characters seem to go on downwards character arcs. Always. *Insert evil laughing here.*


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