Character Architecture

Make Sparkling Characters

Copyright © 2009 Dorian Scott Cole

   About this series.

Character Architecture shows how to take any character and change it so that it pleases the audience. A building architect takes standard buildings and rooms and transforms them into appealing structures without changing their basic function. A writer understands what pleases the audience and forms his characters to have appeal as well as motivation.


Eight steps to sparkling characters

What is it about a character that sparkles? The same things that make people sparkle. They are alive and dynamic. Their personality is electric and they are driven. They are human like the rest of us, and have needs.

Give them motivation

Characters begin as lifeless lumps of clay. The first thing the writer has to do is motivate them. They have to badly want something, whether proactively they want to get or accomplish something, or by reacting to the villain who is out to take something away or block them. Their motivation has to drive them and bring them into conflict with others to get it. For more about character motivation, see How to Use Motivation to Form Characters and Plot.

Give them an attitude

Attitude notoriously makes people difficult, it makes them see things in unique ways which the rest of us don't see, and makes them do things differently from others. Attitude makes characters unique. These traits are much more interesting than plain vanilla wrappers.

Attitude translates the meaning of events, situations, and relationships for the character. Black is white for some people, and for some it is just another shade of gray. One person believes that everyone does things simply to hurt others, while another believes that everyone does things to others for kind reasons. One person believes you should always fight back when hit. Another person believes that you should control your response and allow time to cool.

The result is, a character who believes that every time something negative happens to him he believes it was done with malicious intent and he should immediately strike back. You get another character who tries to do kind things for others, and avoids fighting even if struck. So when the second person accidentally bumps the first, the first strikes back. Attitude complicates the character in delicious ways.

There are a thousand shades of attitude. See: Meaning Transformation: Creating characters with attitude.

Make them change

By the time the story ends, the main character should have changed. Stories are about people finding out more about themselves and applying that. They develop strength, motivation, moral compass, knowledge, skill... whatever is needed to win the battle, and their attitude about themselves and others changes with that.

Some main characters don't change. Main characters in a series typically don't change, especially not in one segment. If they changed, their characters would lose motivation and destroy the next story in the series. Heroes typically don't change - they are heroic, which is an archetypal epitome of virtue that we all look up to. But it is OK for characters to change and become heroic. Villains usually don't change - they are bad to the bone.

Make them loveable or hate-able

I recently created a character that had problems that really complicated her husband's life. Then I realized that people would not like this character, and would not want them to get back together. I left out an important element: the audience should care about her. If an important character appears, we should react to them by either loving them or hating them. If we don't care about them, the story is not engaging.

Make them human

Pillars of virtue don't make good characters, with the exception of heroes. We don't relate well to those who are so far above us. We relate to characters who are like we are: we have needs, we have weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and we have problems. We also typically don't relate well to characters who are too far gone. If they are a main character and they are weak and beset with problems, it is less likely we will care about them. There are exceptions where a person who once excelled is now down and out is faced with a challenge, and then rises to his previous level to conquer the challenge (or dies as a hero). But a character who starts out weak and ends up weak, we probably won't find compelling.

The Human Condition series on this site explores who we are collectively and as individuals.

Paint them honestly

Make them true to themselves. This doesn't mean excessive realism. Realism was an early stage in art paintings, which was followed by impressionism that lacks a lot of detail. Stories are much more impressionistic than real - we don't see all of the nitty gritty detail, but neither is the image we see a distortion of the real person.

Characters that impress audiences can't be simple puppets manipulated by the writer. Actions must come from motivation. Honesty means that the character remains true to his motivation, and doesn't act capriciously. In many ways, the character's actions and reactions should be predictable, even though his choices are unique. His choices should fit with his attitude, his human nature, his capabilities, and the choices that would realistically be available to him.

See Creating Honest Characters

Make them unique

So far I have mentioned "unique" 3 times in the previous text. Unique is what sells a story. TV series and movie remakes may accentuate the familiar tried and true storylines, but most writers are not faced with that. Most have to state up front to prospective buyers and audiences what is unique about their product. People get excited over novelty - it piques their interest.

Characters should have unique personalities, unique attitudes, be in unique settings and situations, and be presented with unique choices.

See Originality: Fixing Stereotypes With Added Dimensions

Need a miracle to save your character? Raise the dead

I remember a sign in a dentist’s office: If you feel pain, thank God, it's a sure sign you are alive. Characters should show the pain they feel in their journey, and the audience should feel it too. They should come to a crisis in their lives where they either must do something to resolve the problem, or change so that they can do something. The problem makes them suffer. Stretching to solve the problem makes them suffer. Weakness does not make good characterization, but suffering does.

See: How to raise dead characters: The value of suffering

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