When I was first starting out as a writer, I spent most of my prewriting time on plotting. I initially approached planning out my fiction like we’re all taught to approach essay writing: it’s all about the outline. So that’s where I’d always start: with plot.
Please don’t misunderstand me. Story structure is vitally important, and I’ll advocate for taking the time to craft an airtight plot all day long. But, as we know from our Aristotle, character is the engine of plot. (If Aristotle’s Poetics is new to you, check out my other post on The Ancient Rules of Storytelling here).
As a novice writer, laying out plot points wasn’t my problem. But my writing was like skipping stones: skimming across the surface of what could have been a much deeper and richer narrative. That’s because depth in a story comes from character, not plot complexity.
Maybe this isn’t news to you, but it pretty much blew my mind when this clicked for me. And it sent me on a quest to discover a better and more effective method for designing my characters.
Falling in love with the characters is the surest guarantee that readers and decision-makers will go with you on the adventure of the story. So if you find yourself struggling with creating complex and layered characters, or if “work on character” is a note you’re getting from readers -- or even if you’re just ready to give your approach to character design a makeover -- I hope this article gives you something new to try.
One of the inscriptions above the door to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi reads, “Know thyself.” Philosophers and poets have spent centuries unpacking this simple phrase, but what’s important to know for our purposes here is that for the Delphic oracle to unlock the mystery of our fate, we have to start by understanding our past and our present.
And here’s another fun fact that I drop on my first-year Homer students every semester. In Greek, the word moira means both “character” and “fate”.
When we’re talking about story craft, this is why it’s impossible to untangle character and plot. Who your character is determines what your character does. And, as Aristotle says, character is revealed in choice: character is the habit of moral choice when the choice isn’t obvious.
Let’s think about this for a minute. Remember that great moment in The Two Towers when Faramir lets Frodo, Sam, and Gollum go? His lieutenant tells him that if he does, his own life will be forfeit. His response is, “Then it is forfeit.” Sam tells Faramir later that this decision shows Faramir’s “quality” -- his character. Sam recognizes what Faramir is risking. Faramir’s desire to be the “good son” and obey his father’s every wish collides with his moral certainty that Frodo must not be detained. The choice isn’t obvious -- and Faramir’s decision to put Middle Earth above his own life and his deep need for approval from his father reveals his true character.
So as we’re embarking on this quest to discover our characters, we should remember that in order for us to know our characters, it’s most helpful to see them in action in situations that aren’t easy or clear. Remember, character is fate -- habits of choice in the past shape the arc of their future.
Before we go any further, I want to take a step back and consider some of the more traditional methods of designing characters. Most of these follow the “outline” format, with a few variations. A quick Google search or flipping to the section on character in your favorite screenwriting book will yield a wide variety of possible approaches, and character templates offer questionnaires you can fill out, to varying degrees of detail or depth.
Questionnaire-style approaches can be useful for coloring in the contours of a character. But I’ve always found that they encourage a list-based set of responses. A list (a “character outline”) gives you a snapshot of your character. It’s like a dating profile -- it gives you enough information to ask for that first date, or to walk away.
But what happens on that first date? Chances are, you tell each other stories. That’s how you actually get to know the person, right?
That’s because we’re narratives in motion. Our past is the chapters we’ve already written. Our present is a work in progress. And our future hasn’t been written yet. So when we approach character development, we need to grab the snapshot as quickly as we can and then go further.
For our purposes here, I’ll break this out into two boxes: “character mapping” and “conflict mapping”. Character mapping is a way of framing your character in relation to the journey they’re about to take in your story. Conflict mapping is a way of understanding character development as laying a strategic foundation for scene work.
There are two prerequisites to this kind of character development: a well-developed premise line and a good sense of your story concept and story world. (These can and will evolve as you work, because this is a dynamic system, but you need to have a starting point.)
When I move from my concept to character design, I don’t use bulleted lists or questionnaire-style responses. Instead, I write my responses in paragraph format. This is a guided reflection that’s powered by association and a strong sense of the narrative of the character’s “life” before the adventure of the story begins.
I start from questions about who the character is right now and why they’re doing what they’re doing. I explore their current relationships and how those relationships are influenced by what happened in their past. As I work through their past, I reflect on the future that waits for them (the story I’m about to write). What do they want most? Why do they need this change?
I’m not just interested in the “what” -- the disconnected and disembodied details of their “life”. I’m interested in their emotional journey up to this point. What are their hopes, fears, worries, joys, expectations, wounds, misbeliefs, and blocks?
The most powerful tool in this process is the use of micro-narratives of a character’s past to identify their choices in action. For example, a fill-in-the-blank character prompt like “My character won Most Likely to ______ in high school” isn’t really useful unless it’s given a context that matters to the story I’m about to tell. If I fill in the blank and add a micro-narrative, I have something powerful to work with: “Betty Sue won Most Likely to End Up on a Wanted Poster in high school after she stole a sliver of Sodium from the Chem Lab and exploded the water fountain in the 10th grade hallway to get back at her ex.”
I can’t stress enough the importance of grounding these micro-narratives in the story you want to tell. This is what makes this process so lean and efficient. To get a firm knowledge of your character, you don’t have to answer 200+ profile questions or fill out a five-page character template. You just need to see your characters in action in a few key moments from their past and to drill down into their emotional drivers.
Can I let you in on another huge advantage of the micro-narrative method? You know those scenes where your character shares something from their backstory to illuminate a choice they make? With this method of character design, you have those moments already laid out -- or, because you know the narrative arc of their life so well, you can develop something else that’s totally consistent with who they are.
And this leads me directly into a discussion of conflict mapping.
The end goal of character design is, of course, the script. Scripts are powered by character because action results from a combination of conflict and choice. Understanding your character means that you know what situations and characters will bring the most intense conflict to the adventure. And because you know their deepest needs and desires and the lesson they need to learn about themselves and the world, you know how to ratchet up the intensity.
One of the main sources of conflict in any story are the other characters. Most character templates don’t offer any prompting to consider how this character relates to any of the others in the story. But with conflict mapping, you can reverse engineer your characters’ histories to set them up for maximum conflict in the story you’re about to write. John Truby calls this approach a “character web” in his fantastic book The Anatomy of Story, and I can’t recommend this enough.
To give you an idea of how this might work -- if I know one character is big on loyalty, I’ll design another character (preferably one they’re close to) to be a traitor. And that character is a traitor because their driving need is to be accepted, and a third character’s position of power offers fulfillment of this need.
See how this works? It’s actually awesome once you get it rolling. Every single one of these junctions of conflict has story potential. Depending on the magnitude, this potential could be realized in a beat, a scene, a sequence, an act -- or this could be the engine that powers an entire script.
Let’s look at my micro-narrative for Betty Sue’s “Most Likely” award again to see some other ways in which these micro-narratives can lay the foundation for future scene-work.
Betty Sue won Most Likely to End Up on a Wanted Poster in high school after she stole a sliver of Sodium from the Chem Lab and exploded the water fountain in the 10th grade hallway to get back at her ex.
This is certainly not meant to be an exhaustive list of scene foundations, but hopefully this gives you an idea of how useful this method can be as you move from character to designing your beat sheet and scene outline.
Plot is character and character is defined by moments of choice and conflict. Habits of choice are formed in a character’s past -- and this is why your character’s past is, in some ways, his or her fate. Your character descriptions should illuminate their emotional arc of change as well as gesture toward potential scenes that will convey your character’s deep needs/desires/misbeliefs. And these descriptions should let you explore the interconnections between your characters.
Even though this sounds like a lot of heavy lifting -- and it is -- I’ve found that this method of character mapping takes me less time than traditional character outlining, and it’s remarkably powerful in giving me the tools I need to build my stories around complex and layered characters.
One additional note of caution. These descriptions aren't set in stone. Remember that your characters will change once you move onto the page. There is a dynamic interplay between plot structure and character, so expect this to be a system in motion. But if you set out with the end goal of the script firmly in mind, you’ll be able to use this tool with maximum effectiveness.
If you want an easy one-sheet list of prompts you can use to start building your own character micro-narratives, you can download mine for free here.
Shannon (S.K.) Valenzuela is a novelist, ghostwriter, and award-winning screenwriter. Her curiosity about pretty much everything means she loves writing research-based stories: grounded sci-fi and historical fiction are her particular playgrounds of choice at the moment, though she also loves a good science fantasy adventure.
When she’s not penning her own stories, she loves her work as a story coach and creative entrepreneur at The Story Scene. She specializes in helping new and emerging screenwriters and novelists, and she’s coached dozens of writers through their first drafts and rewrites.
She’s also the host of the Subject Matter Expert podcast, which is designed to inspire and inform sci-fi writers through interviews with scientists, thought leaders, and writers working in the genre.
In real life, she’s a university professor with a Ph.D. in Medieval Literature, so you’ll also find her in the classroom exploring the poetry of Homer and Dante. She loves teaching stories almost as much as she loves writing them.
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