How to Write Compelling Characters From the Inside Out
Most people, whether they realize it not, are writing their novels in a very inefficient way.
They wonder why they get stuck partway through a scene, why the middle of their novel sags, Or why the ending is anticlimactic.
Really, it’s because the characters aren’t nearly as developed and three-dimensional as they need to be. When creating a story, you need to start developing the characters first. Before plot, before theme, before setting.
If you have an idea for a plot, put it aside until you have your POV characters down pat.
Why? Characters are at the heart of any story. They’re the reader’s point of connection with your novel and they will see all the events of the story through the characters’ eyes.
What Makes a Compelling Character?
Before we get into how to build characters, let’s establish what makes a character compelling in the first place. A compelling character is:
- Sympathetic (different from likable)
- Nuanced (they have layers)
- Flawed (they’re not perfect)
- Active (they go after what they want)
Now I want you to forget everything you know about how to build characters because frankly, the way most writing coaches and story theorists will tell you to do it is next to useless. They’ll ask you to start with your character’s “story goal” (a vague term I’m not fond of) or devise a backstory for them.
But in order to truly have characters that jump off the page and feel alive to your readers, you have to go much deeper than that.
Where to Start
I believe in starting from the core—get to the very heart of your character, and then build them from the inside out.
How does this produce better characters? Well, the problem I see often in manuscripts is that A. the protagonist has no defined personality and therefore is bland as boiled chicken. B. the protagonist has no defined personality and so swings wildly from one extreme to the other C. the protagonist does not have a unique personality and so multiple characters act and talk the exact same.
Why does this happen? It’s because they have no idea why their characters act the way they do; they have no idea how their characters see the world. As you’re about to see there are certain key factors that determine a person’s beliefs, worldview, and course of action. These are your character’s why’s.
The 9 Avatars
What if I told you there was a secret shortcut that can help you build a strong foundation for your characters in just 5 minutes? Well, it’s real, and it’s called The Enneagram.
Don’t get scared by the New Age-y name. I promise this isn’t like astrology or horoscopes, it’s just a social psychology system. Borne out of ancient traditions thousands of years old, it was synthesized into a harmonious system by philosopher George Gurdjieff. It’s based on the premise that there are 9 different fundamental personality types in the world.
While it’s common for people to see a little of themselves in all the different types there will always be 1 type that is scarily accurate.
Now the Enneagram doesn’t encompass a person’s entire personality. The Enneagram is laser-focused on the universal core fear, core motivation, and core values that are inherent to each personality type. If that sounds like French to you, let’s illustrate the concept through an example. Let’s look at Type 2: The Helper. This personality type tends to be very empathetic and warm-hearted. Their values are self-sacrifice, generosity, friendliness, helpfulness, and altruism. However, they can also be self-righteous, hypocritical, sentimental, and people-pleasing. They tend to always put the needs of others before their own to sate their subconscious desire to “earn” love, which can cause resentment.
Core Fear: Being unwanted or unworthy of love
Core Motivation: To feel loved, to be needed, and appreciated
Not all Type 2s will be the exact same. One Type 2 could be a yuppie financial analyst named Joe who loves the color blue and another could be a nursing student named Tracy from the wrong side of the tracks who’s obsessed with learning guitar. The superficial likes, quirks, and traits can differ, but at the end of the day, Joe and Tracy are both driven by the same things because they have the same core fear, core motivations, and core values.
The whole goal is to make our characters feel human, and the best way to do that is to give them one of the nine basic personality types that all humans fall into. I can’t recommend Don Riso’s book, Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery enough. It’s practically a character creation cheat code and goes very in-depth, breaking down how each type’s behavior and mindset changes as they grow and as they deteriorate. If you don’t have time to read a whole book (though please do, it’ll change your writing forever) then you can go over to Personality Path and take their Enneagram Type test—just answer the questions as the character you’re trying to develop. To get even more in-depth (which is always a good thing) also determine your character’s wing. Each Personality Type has 2 wings or two different variations.
So to recap, by now you should already know the most important things about your character: their deepest fear, core motivation, and values. You should have an idea of what they're like at their best, and what they’re like at their worst. This is the scaffolding, the infrastructure upon which you build.
The Lie Your Character Believes
The next step is to decide the Lie Your Character Believes. Everyone consciously or subconsciously tells themselves various “stories” about people and the world every day. These stories are shaped by our past experiences. For example, a person who has been burned by love in the past might tell themselves that true love does not exist. Every compelling character has one dominant narrative, one overarching story that is the lens through which they see the world. It could be, “Kindness is weakness” or “Only successful people are valuable” or anything else, but there are two important caveats 1) it should be very much related to the character’s fear, motivation, and values 2) it isn’t actually true.
That’s right, the narrative your character is telling themselves must be false.
This is what K.M. Weiland says in, Creating Character Arcs: "Your character is incomplete on the inside. He is harboring some deeply held misconception about either himself, the world, or probably both." How about some examples? I’ll be sticking with Pixar movies to illustrate this concept as Pixar is an absolute master at storytelling and story structure.
In Toy Story, Woody’s Lie is, “I’m only valuable if I’m Andy’s favorite toy.” This is why the appearance of Buzz Lightyear is so threatening to him. If Buzz takes Woody’s place, Woody believes he’ll be worthless. This drives his increasingly selfish actions throughout the movie.
In Inside Out, Joy believes, “Happiness is the only valuable emotion.” As a result, she’s possessive over Riley’s control center and constantly telling Sadness to stay away. It takes losing her position of power and seeing that sadness has a purpose for her to change.
But where did your character get the Lie from? What originally caused them to believe this? Within the character's backstory, you need to pull out the Ghost. There could be a lot of bad things that have happened to your character but you have to pull out the ONE THING that trumps them all. The one thing your POV character couldn't "get over." That is the Ghost and the cause of the Lie.
The Ghost is almost always a Very Bad Thing that happened to your character. However, to take a backstory from serviceable to great, it’s better to have the characters blame themselves for the Very Bad Thing or make it so the Very Bad Thing happened because of their mistake. As John Truby says, "You can also think of [the Ghost] as the hero's internal opponent. It is the great fear that is holding him back from action. Structurally, the Ghost acts as a counter desire. The hero's desire drives him forward; his Ghost holds him back.”
An example of this in action plays out through Aang’s story in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Aang is the Avatar, and thus has incredible powers, and is destined to save the world. Aang’s Ghost is that he originally ran away after finding out he was the Avatar, froze himself in a block of ice to save him and his pet in a terrible storm. As a result, the Avatar disappeared for a hundred years and the evil Fire Nation conquered most of the world. Aang’s Ghost is so powerful because his disappearance from the world was his own fault, and as a result, he carries a lot of guilt and insecurity.
The Ghost is often kept secret from other characters, and even from the audience (at first). Rather than slapping your audience with a long monologue about how terrible your character’s childhood was, try to give them glimpses or hints about The Ghost before the Big Reveal. As with all aspects of your character, how the character’s Ghost impacts them should influence and be influenced by the character’s fear, motivation, and values. Everything should be symbiotic.
Want and Need
Want and Need are essential aspects of developing a character and character arc. As with the Ghost, both of them are related to the Lie.
Again, returning to K.M. Weiland, “The Lie plays out in your character’s life, and your story, through the conflict between the Thing He Needs (the Truth) and the Thing He Wants (the perceived cure for the symptoms of the Lie).” Your character has a hole within them that they’re trying to fill. The character’s Lie, though they don’t quite realize it yet, is causing problems in their life and as a result, they’re not fulfilled. The Want could be anything tangible: a promotion, a pilot’s license, an award, a car, etc.
The important part is that the Lie is the root of the Want. The Want is the Thing with a capital T that they believe will magically fix their life and make them feel whole. In reality, however, the only thing that will make them complete on the inside is the Truth or the opposite of the Lie.
Let’s demonstrate this. Continuing the example of Woody, he believes achieving his Want—getting rid of Buzz Lightyear—is what will make his life happy. In reality, he needs to separate his self-worth from being the favorite and be more secure in himself—that’s his Need. The character must satisfy his need in order to be healthy, stable, and whole. If he doesn't satisfy his need, he’ll stay stagnant or even worsen. If the Want is the character’s outer goal then the Need is his inner one. What your character Needs, in most cases, is nothing more than an epiphany or realization that leads him to finally see the Lie for what it is.
As K.M. Weiland says, “He will invariably have to come to a point where he’s willing to sacrifice What He Wants in order to secure What He Needs. Sometimes the story will have to end on that bittersweet note of interior gain and exterior loss. But, other times, once the character has embraced the Thing He Needs, he will then be all the more empowered in his pursuit of What He Wants—allowing him to harmonize both his inner and outer goals in the finale.”
Even if the character doesn’t sacrifice his Want in order to satisfy his Need, he must at least be willing to do so by the climax of the story. To clarify, the Want is always external, while the Need must be internal. The whole goal is for your character to go from chasing after their Want to satisfying their Need.
The plot of the story tends to consist of the character pursuing their Want. They then either realize and accept their Need (in a Positive Character Arc) or reject the Need (in a Negative Character Arc) for the Want.
The Super Objective
Now for the fun part. What is your character’s Super Objective for the narrative as a whole? The Super-Objective (don’t bother looking it up, it’s a term I came up with) is what your character is going to do to get their Want given their specific personality, Ghost, and flaws. The Super-Objective must:
- Be an action verb
- Be very specific
- Be correct for that particular character
So what does this look like? Let’s look at an iconic character—Prince Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Some would mistake his Want to be, “I Want to capture the Avatar.” However, that’s not quite true. Zuko doesn’t want to capture the Avatar because he’s a Fire Nation fanboy. What he wants, is to return home and win his father’s love. Capturing the Avatar is his Super-Objective—it’s the way he intends to get what he wants. There’s a fine distinction between the two, and your plot and character arcs will be muddled if you get the two mixed up.
To be clear: The Want is What they want, the Super Objective is HOW they intend to get it. For those who know a bit about story structure, keep in mind The Want must be established before the Inciting Incident, whereas the Super Objective can only be established after the Inciting Incident.
Creating a Character Profile
This process should be done for every point-of-view character within your story. The best way to organize all this information about your characters is to build a character profile. This is an outline for your character’s personality and arc. In Dabble, go to the “Story Notes” section, and into the “Character” folder. Write down the following:
Going through this process ensures you have a well-developed, three-dimensional, unique, and active character. Each element is interconnected with the others so that your character’s traits are coherent and consistent.
This is the foundation upon which to build your story. If you do this for each of your POV characters you will understand them intimately—better than your spouse or your best friend—and therefore be able to ensure their actions are consistent with their personality and goals. The character will be unique by default, as each character’s, Ghost, Want, Need and Super-Objective will be different depending on their Lie and the way they see the world, just like people.
I hope this helps you create a detailed schematic for your character’s arc, which in turn will help you create better, more powerful, more nuanced stories.
The Chosen One. It’s a trope that many people love to hate despite its pervasiveness across popular culture. If you’re unfamiliar with the Chosen One, it’s a popular trope or narrative device used across books, TV shows, and movies where a character is destined to fulfill a certain role or mission, often because they have unique abilities or traits. These traits are frequently tied to magic, meaning you’ll see this trope a lot in fantasy and other types of speculative fiction, especially those with a young adult audience.
So how do you write well then? Realistically, there are a few things universally considered “good” writing. The story should follow a logical plot where one action feeds into another. The characters should behave in ways that align with their established personalities. There should be some high points and low points and stuff in between. Generally, good writing is also well edited and follows most of the conventions for grammar and punctuation. While you can write well with typos and mistakes, you run the risk of distracting the reader to a point where that good story becomes not so good because it’s unreadable. Ultimately, the success of things like your voice and your characters are going to be up to your reader and you’ll never please everyone. But we can take some steps to ensure we please more people than not.
That’s great—our fiction should reflect the world as it is and that means including people of various ethnic backgrounds and skin tones. But the history of writing about people of color is kind of… awful and it’s important to remember that you can’t just throw in a BIPOC character without giving some serious thought to how you represent and describe that character.