25 Things You Should Know About Character

Previous iterations of the “25 Things” series:

25 Things Every Writer Should Know

25 Things You Should Know About Storytelling

And now…

Here you’ll find the many things I believe — at this moment! — about characters:

1. The Character As Fulcrum: All Things Rest Upon Him

Without character, you have nothing. Great plot? Robust storyworld? Potent themes? Elegant font? Matters little if your character is a dud. The punch might be delicious, but not if someone threw up in it. The character is why we come to the table. The character is our way through all those other things. We engage with stories because we relate to them: they are mirrors. Characters are the mirror-side version of “us” staring back. Twisted, warped, uncertain — but still us through and through.

2. The Cure For All That Which Ails The Audience

A great character can be the line between narrative life and story death. She’s a powerful Band-Aid, a strong swaddling of gauze to staunch the bleeding. Think of the character like duct tape: she can piece the whole thing back together. I will forgive your sins of a so-so plot, of muddy themes, of a meh-ehhh-enh storyworld if you’re letting me live for a while with a great character. But don’t think character will close truly grievous injuries. A sucking chest wound — meaning, poor writing, asinine plot or perhaps a duller-than-two-dead-goats storyworld — will only swallow your great character into its gory depths.

3. And Yet The Character Must Be Connected

Don’t believe that all those other aspects are separate from the character. The character is — or should be — bound inextricably to those other elements. The character is your vehicle through the plot. The character carries the story. Theme, mood, description: focus them through the prism of character, not vice versa. The character is the DNA in every goddamn cell of your story.

4. You Are The Dealer; The Character Is The Drug

The audience will do anything to spend time with a great character. We’re junkies for it. We’ll gnaw our own arms off to hang out once more with a killer character. It’s why sequels and series are so popular: because we want to see where the character’s going. You give us a great character, our only desire becomes to lick him like he’s a hallucinogenic toad and take the crazy trip-ass ride wherever he has to go.

5. Tell Us What She Wants

It is critical to know what a character wants from the start. She may not know what she wants, but the audience must have that information. Maybe she wants: her enemies destroyed, freedom from oppression, her child returned to her, true love, the perfect falafel, a pet monkey, the ultimate wedding, a secret subterranean base on the motherfucking moon. She can want a number of things, and it’s of the uttermost importance that we know what it is. How else will we know how far she’s come? How else can we see the stakes that are on the table? How else will you frustrate the piss out of the audience by standing in her way?

6. Not About Likability But Rather, Livability

It doesn’t matter if we “like” your character, or in the parlance of junior high whether we even “like-like” your character. It only matters that we want to live with him. We must see something that makes us want to keep on keeping on, following the character into the jaws of Hell and out through the Devil’s lava-encrusted keister. For the record, the “Lava Keister” sounds like either a roller coaster or a Starbucks drink.

7. The Give-A-Fuck Factor

It is critical to smack the audience in the crotchal region with an undeniable reason to give a fuck. Ask this up front as you’re crafting the story: why will the audience care about this character? You have unlimited answers to this. Look to the narratives all around us to find reasons to care. Anything can fly. We love underdog stories. We love tales of redemption (and takes of failed redemption). We love bad boys, good girls, bad girls, good boys, we want to see characters punished, exalted, triumphant, rewarded, destroyed, stymied, puzzled, wounded. We gawk at car crashes. We swoon at love.

8. Rub Up Against Remarkability

You must prove this thesis: “This character is worth the audience’s time.” The character must deserve her own story — or, at least, her own part within it. You prove this thesis by making the character in some way remarkable. This is why you see a lot of stories about doctors, detectives, lawyers, cowboys, bounty hunters, wizards, space rangers, superheroes… but you don’t see quite so many about copier repairmen, pharmaceutical assistants, piano tuners, or ophthalmologists. The former group is remarkable in part by their roles. The latter group can be just as remarkable, however, provided you discover their noteworthiness and put it on the page or the screen. What makes one remarkable can be a secret past, a current attitude, a future triumph. It can be internal or external. Infinite options. Choose one.

9. Act Upon The World Rather Than Have The World Act Upon Him

Don’t let the character be a dingleberry stuck to the ass of a toad as he floats downriver on a bumpy log. We grow weary of characters who do nothing except react to whatever the world flings at their heads. That’s not to say that characters shouldn’t be forced to deal with unexpected challenges and left-field conflicts — but that doesn’t prevent a character from being proactive, either. Passivity fails to be interesting for long. This is why crime fiction has power: the very nature of a crime is about doing. You don’t passively rob a bank, kill your lover, or run a street gang. Simply put: characters do shit.

10. Bad Decisions Are A Good Decision

Nobody ever said an active character had to be a smart character. A character can and perhaps should be badly proactive, making all the wrong moves and affecting the world with his piss-poor decisions. At some point a character needs to take control, even if it means taking control in the worst possible way. In fact…

11. This Is Why Jesus Invented Suspense

Tension is created when characters you love make bad decisions. They lie, cheat, steal. They break laws or shatter taboos. They go into the haunted house. They don’t run from the serial killer. They betray a friend. Sleep with an enemy. Eat a forbidden fruit. Jack off in a mad scientist’s gizmotron thus accidentally creating an army of evil baby Hitlers. Tension is when the character sets free his chickens and we know full well that those chickens will come to roost. But the chickens will come home changed. They will have knives. Prison tats. And evil wizard powers. Don’t let tension wriggle free, soft and pliable, from external events. Let the character create the circumstances of suspense.

12. How You Succeed Is By Not Having Them Succeed

You as storyteller are a malevolent presence blocking the character’s bliss. You must be a total asshole. Imagine that the character is an ant over here, and over there is a nugget of food, a dollop of honey, and all the ant wants is to trot his little ant-y ass over to the food so that he may dine upon it. Think of the infinite ways you can stop him from getting to that food. Flick him into the grass. Block his path with twigs, rocks, a line of dishsoap, a squeeze of lighter fluid set aflame. Be the wolf to his little piggy and huff and puff and blow his house down. Pick him up, put him in the cup-holder in your car, and drive him 100 miles in the opposite direction while taunting him with insults. The audience will hate you. But they’ll keep on hungering for more. Will the ant get to the food? Won’t he? Will he find his friends again? Can he overcome? Primal, simple, declarative problem. You are the villain. The character is the hero. The audience thirsts for this most fundamental conflict of storyteller versus character.

13. The Code

Just as a storyworld is beholden to certain laws, norms, and ways, so too is a character: every character has an internal compass, an invisible set of morals and beliefs that comprise their “code.” The audience senses this. They know when a character betrays his own code and violates the program — it’s like a glitch in the Matrix, a disturbance in the dream you’ve crafted. That’s not to say characters can’t change. They can, and do. But a heroic fireman doesn’t one day save a cat from a tree and the next day decide to cook and eat a baby. Changes in a character must come out of the story, not out of thin air.

14. A B C

The law of threes. Find three beats for your character — be they physical, social, emotional — with each beat graphing a change of the character of the course of a story. Selfish boy to exiled teen to heroic man. From maiden to mother to crone. Private, Lieutenant, General. Knows everything, everything in question, knows nothing. Birth, life, death. Beginning, middle, end.

15. Boom Goes The Dynamite

Blake Snyder calls this the “Save The Cat” moment, but it needn’t be that shiny and happy. Point being: every character needs a kick-ass moment, a reason why we all think, “Fuck yeah, that’s why I’m behind this dude.” What moment will you give your character? Why will we pump our fists and hoot for him?

16. Beware The Everyman, Fear The Chosen One

I’m boring. So are you. We don’t all make compelling protagonists despite what we feel in our own heads, and so the Everyman threatens to instead become the eye-wateringly-dull-motherfucker-man, flat as a coat of cheap paint. The Chosen One — arguably the opposite of the Everyman — has, appropriately, the opposite problem: he’s too interesting, a preening peacock of special preciousness. Beware either. Both can work, but know the danger. Find complexity. Seek remarkability.

17. Nobody Sees Themselves As A Supporting Character

Thus, your supporting characters shouldn’t act like supporting characters. They have full lives in which they are totally invested and where they are the protagonists. They’re not puppets for fiction.

18. The Main MC, DJ Protag

That said, they don’t call your “main character” the MC for nothing. Your protagonist at the center of the story should still be the most compelling motherfucker in the room.

19. You Are Not Your Character, Except For When You Are

Your character is not a proxy for you. If you see Mary Sue in the mirror, put your foot through the glass and use that reflection instead. But that old chestnut — “write what you know” — applies. You take the things that have happened to you and you bring them to the character. Look for those things in your memory that affected you: fought a bear,  won a surfing competition, lost a fist-fight with Dad, eradicated an insectile alien species. Pull out the feelings. Inject them into the face, neck, guts, brain and heart of the character.

20. Fugged Up

Everybody’s a little fucked up inside. Some folks more than that. No character is a saint. Find the darkness inside. Draw their imperfections to the surface like a bead of blood. You don’t have to give a rat’s ass about Joseph Campbell, but he was right when he said we love people for their imperfections. Same holds true for characters. We love them for their problems.

21. A Tornado Beneath A Cool Breeze

A good character is both simple and complex: simplicity on the surface eradicates any barrier to entry, and complexity beneath rewards the reader and gives the character both depth and something to do. Complexity on the surface rings hollow and threatens to be confusing: ease the audience into the character the way you’d get into a clawfoot tub full of steaming hot water — one toe at a time, baby.

22. On The Subject Of Archetypes

You can begin with an archetype — or even a stereotype — because people find comfort there. It creates a sense of intimacy even when none exists. But the archetype should be like the leg braces worn by Forrest Gump as a kid — when that kid takes off running, he blasts through the braces and leaves them behind. So too with the “type.” They’ll help the character stand on his own until it’s time to shatter ’em when running. Oh, and for the record, Forrest Gump was a fucking awful movie. In short: worst character ever.

23. Dialogue Over Description, Action Over Rumination

Don’t bludgeon us over the head with description. A line or three about the character is good enough — and it doesn’t need to be purely about their physical looks. It can be about movement and body language. It can be about what people think, about what goes on in her head. But throw out a couple-few lines and get out. Dialogue is where a character is revealed. And action. What a character says and does is the sum of her being. It doesn’t need to be more than that: a character says shit, then does shit, then says shit about the shit she just did. In there lurks infinite possibilities — a confluence of atoms that reveals who she is.

24. Take The Test Drive

Write the character before you write the character. Take her on adventures that don’t count. Canon can go suck itself. Fuck canon. Who cares about canon? Here I say, “to Hell with the audience.” This isn’t for them. This is for you. Joyride the character around some flash fiction, a short script, a blog post, a page of dialogue, a poem, whatever. Test her, try her out. That sounds porny, but what I mean to say is: cut off her skin, wear it, and dance around the goddamn room. Which leads me to…

25. Get All Up In Them Guts

Know your character. Every square inch. Empathize, don’t sympathize. Understand the character but don’t stand with the character. Get in their skin. The closer you get, the better off you are when a story goes sideways. Any rewriting or additional work comes easy when you know which way the character’s gonna jump. Know them like you know yourself; when the character does something under your watch, you know it comes justified, with purpose, with meaning, with intimate knowledge that the thing she did is the thing she was always supposed to motherfucking do. Unrelated: I really like the word “motherfucker.”

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If you dig on the apeshit crazy-face no-holds-barred profanity-soaked writing advice found here at terribleminds, then you may want to take a wee bitty gander-peek at: CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY, which is available now! Buy for Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), Nook, or PDF.

73 responses to “25 Things You Should Know About Character”

  1. I actually just had an epiphany about my character while reading this! Seriously…a shiver just went up my spine. Must go work on my character profile some more. Thank you, oh great and wise Penmonkey. 😀

  2. I was going along with you, Chuck, until you said: Don’t let the character be a dingleberry stuck to the ass of a toad as he floats downriver on a bumpy log.

    I’m rather fond of dingleberries…

  3. Brilliant stuff, this. I especially like the failure elements. if a character’s perfect and gets everything he wants, what’s there to like? When does that ever happen for us? Make it tough, and you teach us to root for him, to connect with him, to feel a kinship.

    I’m saving this list.

  4. I think part of the reason people love Shakespeare is that he absolutely *nailed* #17.

    Great list, some stuff I really hadn’t thought about before. Thanks!

  5. Shakespeare, the commenter, sent me here, because she knows I’m passionate about characterizations.

    I’m with you, though you seem to be a bit more structured in what you call out than I am, but the gist is in complete keeping with my own thinking. Nothing too perfect or too ordinary. If you’re going to make an asshole, at least make him an appealing asshole so people know why they’re taking the time to wander about with him.

    Good stuff.

  6. Brilliant. Completely brilliant. And really rather funny. Then again, that is your norm. 🙂

    Great post. I think this will help a lot of people. 🙂

  7. Cool, I was afraid for a moment when I saw the title that it was going to be one of those lists where people tell you that you need to know your the names of all your characters pets and who their first kiss was with and so on and so forth for a pages and pages (those things drive me mad). I should have known better of course, I think this covers most if not all of the stuff that’s actually important, I think you only need to know who a character’s first kiss was with if it somehow effected their personality or course of their life after that point (or if it happens ‘on-screen’), but knowing what drives a character and what makes him/her/other interesting now that IS important.

    Minor quibble with #17 in that there are people who see themselves as support characters in someone else’s life, although they tend to make more interesting characters round about the point where they start getting resentful about not being appreciated and go completely off the rails. Also I do agree with the rest of the point in that just because they think of themselves as a support character is no excuse for the writer to do so. It is possible to go too far with this of course, there is probably no need to flesh out the entire life story of every extra who stumbles across the stage.

    re #23 I’d like to pass on a rule of thumb about description that I got out of a book on writing science fiction and fantasy ‘never have more than two of anything’ not more than two colours, or two items of clothing etc. I wish I could credit the author of that particular gem or point you to the book in question but I don’t remember either the name of the writer or the exact title of the book, what I do remember, years after reading it, is that in the accompanying extract the character being introduced was described as ‘a real maroon’ and as having hair in painted red braids and red contact lenses, that’s how powerful that description was. I like that rule.

  8. Yeah, our fluffy white dog used to get dingleberry blockages (lots of fur). Ugh. Soaking worked, and he was pretty patient. I miss the dog, but I don’t miss that.

    You know your stuff.

    I *did* like Forrest Gump. “Shit happens!”

  9. Love this. 😀 Especially 14, ABC. I’m going to have to re-look at my latest character!

    And re: Forrest Gump, the movie — I think that the “protagonist” technically would have been Jenny. Just like the Robert the Bruce character in Braveheart, or Cameron in Ferris Bueller: the main character is over the top and never changes, but the real protagonist gets run through the ringer.. Don’t think you can pull that off in written fiction (but now I’m trying to think of it!)

  10. See, that rule of three thing is how I knew my current work was the first of several novels, not a stand-alone as I had planned. Two of the three protagonists had 1-2-3 arcs that wrapped by the end of the book, but the third was still stuck on 1. Turns out his 1-2-3 is one step per book. Now I know what I’m doing next NaNoWriMo. Glee!

    Tangentially related: I went to college with the “boom goes the dynamite” kid. True story.

  11. I would nitpick #18:
    “That said, they don’t call your “main character” the MC for nothing. Your protagonist at the center of the story should still be the most compelling motherfucker in the room.”

    The main character and the protagonist don’t have to be the same person. I like the example of Darth Vader: he’s the main character of the original trilogy. He has the most freedom to act, and everyone else basically scurries around reacting to him. But he’s not the protagonist; (most of) the audience doesn’t want him to win. The protagonist and viewpoint character was Luke: he had to win, but it wasn’t his moral choice that determined the overall outcome. This was also the case in a recent Charlie Stross book, but to go into it further would spoil the plot (can discuss via email if you like).

    It’s also possible for the viewpoint character/narrator to be neither the main character nor the protagonist: Dr. Watson, for example (who kinda did see himself as a supporting character, come to think of it). That’s kind of rare nowadays, I think. Though, one could make the case that in Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald” the viewpoint character, main character, and protagonist are all different people.

    Still, it’s just nitpicking: in most cases, the protagonist and MC will be the same person, and must indeed be the most compelling motherfucking character on this motherfucking plane.

  12. Great post as always. This gave me a few really good ideas I can use to rework some of my characters. Also, I don’t care what you say, Forrest Gump rules.

  13. #24 is one of my favorite things to do when a project grabs me. I do screen tests with my characters and settings. Just shorts… a few pages to play with the dialogue, the interaction, the personalities and their dynamics. It’s so much fun because nothing has to fit into the story I’m going to write. Plot be damned, this is just a test to see if these characters have legs and look good “on film” so to speak. My screen test for one book later turned into a pretty awesome scene in the first act of that book, but sometimes, you just want to play around in the world without committing.

  14. Chuck,
    I’m very glad to see you pointed out that ‘test driving’ your character around some flash fiction is a fantastic way to discover who they really are. This is exactly what I’m doing with “Margo”, who has made several appearances in your challenges.
    When I wrote “Hermosa Beach Heartache”, Margo just literally kicked her way into my mind. Now she is well on the way to being the MC in my next novel (oh – ‘attempted’ novel, that is…).
    All to say, I totally agree: disregarding the audience and screwing around with a character, just to see what she does and says, is a rocking way to discover her.

  15. Kinda freaked out about the timing of this blog since today I was ready to light my MC on fire and throw her over a cliff because I was so sick of her. I wanted her to DIAF and now you tell me I have to take her out. Ugh.

  16. Love this. Love this, love this. The absolute weakest parts of my stories are my characters. They’re all me, because I don’t know how to make them otherwise. Now I have 25 ways to change that.

    Thanks, this was awesome. I’m really enjoying this series.

  17. “cut off her skin, wear it, and dance around the goddamn room”

    That was exactly what I needed to hear about creating characters, exactly when I needed to hear it. Thank you!

  18. very nice list, dissapointed about the forrest gump issue, i think that character complies with a lot of things you said, i hate you for that….. not really but i did love that movie a lot. keep on keeping on

  19. I love great advice that’s not preachy or dry or regurgitated from a preachy, dry source. Thanks. My creative writing students will appreciate this a lot.

  20. Great post. It occurs to me though that a secret base on the moon can’t possibly be subterranean, now can it? “I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

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