Creating Compelling Characters, Part 2Mar 18, 2021
Post written by Andrew Wall. This is a continuation of Part 1.
In the previous post we covered the importance of complex characters, our philosophy of character creation, the three big components to consider, and the external world of your protagonist. In this post we will address the internal world of your character, which is the second big component to consider. The third component, your character's arc of change, will be addressed in a separate post—stay tuned!
Internal World: How Your Protagonist Has Reacted to Their Environment
As you could probably guess from reading our discussion on the external world, the internal world is affected by the protagonist’s external experiences. When fleshing out a protagonist’s internal world, it is especially important to:
- define how they have reacted to their external world’s input,
- identify the values that emerge from this reaction, and
- begin seeing what sort of a personality is beginning to make itself known, filling in gaps where necessary.
Defining Their Reactions
Defining how a protagonist has reacted to the elements of your external world has to do primarily with their emotions. For example:
- Do they consider their relationship with power positive or negative?
- Does their relationship with their sibling make them feel jealous or feel supported?
- What sorts of feelings does learning about their nation’s history evoke in them? Disgust? Pride? Uncertainty?
You have identified what the external factors are that are most important to shaping your protagonist, now you need to decide what exactly the relationship between your protagonist and those external factors is like. This is the part of character creation that requires the utmost respect and empathy. If we are unable to enter into our character’s context and situation, then this will become an arbitrary task.
This is the work that really draws us in and helps us get to know our protagonist. Be curious and inquisitive! Set up a mock interview and write down questions about each of these external elements and what your protagonist thinks and feels about them. Close your eyes and imagine yourself living as your protagonist and experiencing each of these external elements in a tangible way. How would they react? Why? Write it all down.
Part of the uniqueness we want our characters to have comes from taking the emotional world of our characters and how they have reacted to their external worlds and allowing those reactions to calcify into values. I, for one, love reading. Yet I personally love reading because I have positive emotions around my early experiences with books, so reading is a way to tap into those emotional feelings of security, groundedness, and love in a way that watching TV never will be for me.
What values emerge from our protagonist’s experience of poverty, for example? The value of hard work? The value of survival? What is the “lesson” that has been learned? What has their tangible takeaway been?
What are the core beliefs our protagonist derives from the stories they have been told? That they are a hero? That magic is evil? That everything is as it should be? That being sly and cunning is a laudable trait? That the government will take care of the complicated stuff, so they shouldn’t worry about it? What do they hold to be true about the world (whether or not it is)? Stories tend to assign moral value (“good” or “bad”) to various elements of the world and the self. What does your character perceive as “good”? What does your character perceive as “bad”?
What have they learned about people and themselves from their relationships? Who will they tend to trust or not? Where do their loyalties lie? Do they feel supported in life or does the world feel out to get them? Are they confident in their self-knowledge or are they uncertain of themselves? How has their self esteem or willingness to form relationships been shaped by their relationships?
All of these things shape the bedrock of what a protagonist believes about the world and themselves. It is these beliefs and values that we can codify here.
Piecing Together a Personality
Once you know how your character has been shaped by their external world on the emotional level and deep level of values and beliefs, you begin to get a sense of their personalities. Personality is more than just belief and values, though. Personality is how our characters take their beliefs and values and re-externalize them to the world. It is how those internal realities are lived out in practice, or at least how they tend to be lived out.
For example, a protagonist who has really negative self-esteem might live that out by being extremely unsure of themselves and indecisive or they might compensate for it in their personality by being a reckless braggart. A different example would be a protagonist that holds a strong value of hard work. This might manifest in them looking down on those they perceive as not sharing their value or they might just put one-hundred and twenty percent into everything they do (or both!).
This is the part where you learn how the rubber hits the road. It is essentially a conversation between all of the decisions that you have made up to now. Some things may seem contradictory. That is okay. Figure out how they come together at this level. Other things might feel redundant. Discern what the nuances between them might be and how they either manifest the same personality trait or lead to distinct personality traits.
Remember, the goal is to come up with a character who is complex, relatable, and very human!
Simply put, our readers deserve protagonists who are complex persons with mixed motives, contradictory presumptions, and various influences, just like they are. While not all of this will come out in our writing, it is important for us to be intimately familiar with our protagonists so we can write these characters in a way that has depth and uniqueness, in a way that allows them to act and think on the pages of the story as whole people.
We can achieve this as writers by thinking through how our protagonists’ external worlds influence their inner worlds, how all the dynamics we have put effort into setting in motion bear upon our central character’s deepest held beliefs and values and how these in turn come out in their actions.
Going through this work is a great precursor to the important job of developing your protagonist’s character arc! Thinking through your character’s development and change over the course of your story is a big task. Luckily, we have a workbook to help you do that and more called “F.I.R.M. Up Your Novel.” You can buy this workbook and go through it yourself or you can get it as a part of a coaching package. Check out these options and take your next step towards creating and writing compelling characters and a compelling story.
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