Tuesday, October 9

On The Art Of Creating Believable Characters: No Mr. Nice Guy

On The Art Of Creating Believable Chacaracters: No Mr. Nice Guy

I love my characters. This is what you'd expect. After all, I've created them, they have (in some way I don't begin to understand) been formed from the very stuff of who I am.

So perhaps it's not surprising I find it agonizingly difficult to put my protagonist in harms way, to tempt her, to see her stumble and fall all in the service of creating conflict. I'm not talking about physical, external, obstacles/conflict like the kind Jason Bourne or Indiana Jones might encounter--blocked lanes, men with guns, exploding cars. These type of obstacles are important--they batter the character, test their courage, their mettle--but the real grist of character development occurs when internal obstacles, internal conflicts, enter the mix.

You don't--I don't--want my lead character (who, since I write in the first person I can't help but think of, at least a little bit, as me) to betray what they believe, to make a wrong choice, to fail or do something she'll regret. And yet these are the events which create tension and drive a story forward.

Internal conflicts set up an impossible choice for our characters. These aren't win-win situations. Just the opposite.

Janice Hardy has written an excellent article on ways to force your characters to do things neither of you want them to do ("Forcing the Issue: Adding Conflict to Your Scenes"). Here are five questions you can ask yourself as an author that will help you grow horns (and perhaps a tail) so you can introduce internal conflict into your story and give your saintly protagonist a few regrets.

1) "How can I force them to go against their morals/belief system?"
Janice writes:
This plays off the inner conflicts. If they need to steal a car to save the girl, how can I make stealing that car involve a choice that would eat at them?
For instance, the car could belong to someone in the mob and "borrowing" it would mean your character would owe them a favor--if they decided not to kill her first!

2) "How can I force them to make a choice they really don't want to make?"
For instance, a triage situation. You have two people, a friend a your client. Your friend has stood by you during difficult times, you've known this person their whole life. They've become more than a friend, they've become your family. You also have aclient, someone you have pledged to protect and take care of. They are both mortally wounded but you only have enough supplies to save one of them. Which one will you choose?

Either way your protagonist chooses they will lose something of great importance.

3) "How can I force them to make a bad choice?"
Janice writes,
Mistakes are great fodder for plot. Protagonists can act, and that action causes more trouble than they were trying to prevent in the first place. This works even better if they make the wrong choice because they're try avoid violating one of their belief systems.
Let's say your character believes strongly that meat is murder. She is a hot-shot bodyguard and has taken on a job to pose as her client's date at a black tie affair. Her professional reputation is on the line: she must keep him safe no matter what. Your client has received a tip that an assassin tasked with killing him is attending the banquet.

At the gathering their obnoxious host announces, long and loudly, that the only good animal is a dead one--and preferably slow roasted with a touch of pepper. Your character is presented with a choice: eat meat and stay at the party so she can guard her client or be true to what she believes and refuse to eat meat. This, though, will get her kicked out of the party and put her client in danger.

Your protagonist remains true to her beliefs/ethics and refuses to eat meat. While standing up for what one believes is admirable it forces her to abandon her professional obligations. This leaves her client vulnerable and he is killed.

4) "How can I force them to fail?"
Your character, if you want them to be interesting, can't win all the time. They have to fail as well. But they can't just fail. The trick is to get them to fail because of an inner conflict.

I just finished reading A Discovery of Witches. In it the protagonist, Diana Bishop, fails to extract the secrets from an enchanted grimoire because she has sworn not to use her magic.

Her inner conflict is that she has a desire, a need, to be normal, to make her way in the world without her magic because she feels it was magic that was responsible for her parents' death. This failure--which may in the end turn out to have been a good thing--is the event that launches the protagonist on her journey. This is the event the story grows from and revolves around. No failure, no story.

5) "How can I force them to do something they'll regret?"
For instance, take the situation in (2), the triage example. Let's say that, at her friend's urging, the protagonist let her friend die and saved the client.

But perhaps the friend wasn't just a friend, perhaps he was her business partner. Perhaps he had a wife and children.

Now your protagonist is faced with running the business all by herself. On top of that her partner's widow hates her. Still, she doesn't shirk her obligations and takes on the financial responsibility of of helping support her late friend's widow and children.

You can see how the protagonist could regret the choice she had made for the rest of the novel.

Janice concludes:
It's easy to throw more "stuff" in the way of your protagonist, but also look at your scenes and see what mental obstacles you can toss into their path. Not only can that help deepen your plot, but deepen your characterization and themes as well.
Agreed! I would encourage you all to read Janice's article in its entirety: Forcing the Issue: Adding Conflict to Your Scenes.

Do you suffer from NWS (Nice Writer Syndrome)? Take Janice Hardy's test: Do You Suffer From NWS?: Living With Nice Writer Syndrome.

How do you produce inner conflict in your characters? Do you have any hints or tips you'd like to share? :)

Other articles you might enjoy:
- Jim Butcher On Writing
- What Is A Writer's Platform?
- Perfection Is The Death Of Creativity

Photo credit: Rafael PeƱaloza


  1. Basically, make them more like real people, not like the people you wished everyone would be. I agree - it helps readers relate.

    1. "[M]ake them more like real people, not like the people you wished everyone would be."

      RD, that's exactly it.


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