The Clash of Characters

In last weeks’ posts I talked about how you can take an ordinary character and make him fascinating by developing those three essential components to their personalities: their core need, their greatest fear, and the lie they tell themselves based on the wound they received early in life. I showed how my character Jake in my novel Intended for Harm was all about father issues, and that tied in with my main theme. I pretty much had that as a basic idea when I started planning. (You’ll notice I usually use the word planning as opposed to plotting and it’s not because I’m against plotting, but I want to de-emphasize that structuring and growing you novel is not all about plot. Plot is important, but a plot with no heart is just a plot.)

But then I had eight other main characters (POV characters) to develop, as well as a small handful of secondary characters. Since my secondary characters only had some bit roles, albeit essential to the story, I didn’t spend as much time going into these three main elements of their personalities. I still made them rich characters, and I supposed if I thought about it for a few minutes, I could easily come up with their needs, fears, and lies as well. I think I do this now subconsciously with all my characters so that it comes out as I write. However, I’m talking minor characters that pop up in a scene or two. But for all other characters that are integral to your story, you will want to spend time thinking about these things.

Jake marries Leah while he’s at college. She gets a little wild, and pushes him into marriage, then pops out four kids, one after the other (she suffers from postpartum depression and is only happy when pregnant). Eight years later, she runs off with a rock band and abandons her family. So I had to create these four children, since I knew the reader was going to watch them grow up for the next thirty or so years. That put somewhat of a burden on me to get a good understanding of family dynamics. Jake ends up with six kids (he has two more after he marries Rachel), and each of those kids needed to be not just different but believable.

Have a Reason for Each Characteristic

Now, I could have just come up with a nice diverse list of personality traits and doled them out for variety, but I did not want to do that (and plenty of writers seem to do this). So I thought how Reuben, the firstborn, would have felt. What is the big hurt he experiences? When he’s seven years old, his mother leaves him. He’s the firstborn and oldest. So I gave him firstborn qualities.

Firstborn children often feel they have to be grown-up. They can be overly serious and overly responsible. Maybe not always, but setting Reuben up to have those tendencies is believable. so what lie does he believe? That it’s his fault his mother left (very typical), and if he had been a better son, she wouldn’t have left.

Starting with this, I envisioned Reuben as a sweet child but a burden to his dad (Jake did not want Leah to get pregnant, which is something Reuben senses). I also decided, then, to make the next child, Simon, be Leah’s favorite. That exacerbates Reuben’s low sense of self-worth and the lie he believes. If he sees how much his mom loves Simon, he believes more deeply that he’s a nothing. This then becomes a repeat of Jake and his father–a son wishing to please his dad but feeling he’s failed.

Hence, I tied in with my overarching theme. Reuben’s core need, of course, is to have his father love him, and by the time he’s an adult, the two of them have worked through some of this and there’s healing there. But I created a believable rocky road.

Now Simon has other issues. He’s been the loved child of the bunch. So when his mom bolts when he’s five, he’s furious. I made him a hot-tempered, volatile personality. The lie he then believes is that all women are evil and traitorous. He’s so hurt and angry, he goes through life distrusting women.

When his father remarries, Simon wages war with Rachel for years. His greatest need is to have his mother’s love, so when he’s eighteen and he seeks her out, you can only imagine what happens when his long-awaited dream explodes horribly in his face.

Now Watch Them Clash

Now, when I put Reuben and Simon together in scenes as they grow up together, you can see how their issues will underlie their interaction. You can picture the arguments as Reuben tries to dutifully be a better son to his new mother, whereas Simon tries to sabotage her inclusion in the family every way he can.

Reuben tries to be the responsible big brother, but Simon thinks he’s being duped and selling out. Your characters will clash if their core needs, fears, and lies threaten one another.

Then I have four other children in this story, four other intense sets of dynamics introduced. If you recall the Bible story, Joseph is Jacob’s favorite, and because he outwardly shows such favoritism, Joey’s brothers all hate him. By the time he graduates high school, they are after him with murderous intent and drug him and throw him off a freeway overpass hoping to kill him.

Joey is a bit arrogant and gifted, which makes showing him favoritism all the more easy for Jake. Not only that, he’s the love child between Jake and his new wife, and it’s expected that merged families will foment some conflict and resentment between integrated siblings.

I hope by sharing this process with you I’m giving you ideas on how to grow and nurture your characters into deep, compelling ones. You need to have your themes in mind, and then work from your protagonist outward.

You want to think about having traits that are common or expected to some extent, like Reuben’s firstborn issues. You don’t have to have them, but they offer a great framework to work within. Again, think universality.

This week, take two or three of your characters that you’ve worked on developing (and now have those three components well entrenched) and look at the dynamics between them. How can you make their core needs clash? How can their lies trigger a reaction in the others? Share some thoughts with the rest of us as you process these things.

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    1. You can’t really write believable characters unless you really know them. Maybe some gifted writers can just draw out a character sopontaneously as they write and somehow magically the character is believable and rich and deep. But for most writers, they do need to spend the time to create great characters whose needs, fears, and dreams tie in with the themes of the book.

      1. I absolutely agree; you need to know your characters. Sometimes, even if you think you know them, a few chapters down the line you can find your writing slowing… something’s not right, you know it deep down. If it’s not plot, it’s probably characterisation. I’ve only self-published once, so I know there are people out there more experienced than me, but I know in my gut when something isn’t right… and rather than plot, it’s the characters that I’ve not understood; better to try on this early on and have fewer revisions than realise it later on.

        1. Jim, I think that’s a very astute observation. I agree with you. Sure, you can have plot issues and holes and something is not working and you feel that. But when there is a sense that something is not cohesive in the overarching story, it’s usually because the characters have not been developed to work with the themes of the book and they don’t have a purpose in the plot, or it’s not quite “spot on.” (Okay, had to use a British-ism for you!)

      2. It’s interesting…I completed my first novel a few months ago, and I’m going to revise it (again!) soon. One of the weaknesses in the manuscript is that the characters–who I felt I really *knew*–aren’t as well fleshed out on the page as they need to be. There is insufficient tension between some of them as a result. I think the suggestions in the post (and elsewhere on the blog) will help make the characters more convincing and their relationships more dynamic.

  1. I’m learning so much from this. I’ve been working on developing my characters, but thinking of them in terms of firstborn and similar traits is something that never occurred to me. In the series I’m plotting, my bad guy will be a fraternal twin, and this has given me a new perspective on how to deepen his character.

    I agree that you can’t write believable characters unless you know them, and they can still be spontaneous even when you’ve plotted them out.

    Thanks so much!

  2. Here is my character thought of the day

    The first character that comes to mind is Reggie. In my content, Reggie is the polished empire building business person, driven to succeed at all costs, which puts him at odds with the main characters of the book, which come to you from the Little White Church on the Bluff Ministries. Reggies is rough, tough, has a raspy voice and hawk like appearance – until he meets God on the lawn of one of his huge estate homes – then it all changes. God throws him on the ground for a wrestle – think Jacob ladder type of thing – and Reggie looses everything in this world he holds dear, but gains the Savior. I use the change in character as a picture of what God can do in a transformed life, from the depths of evil to a kind benevolent old man willing to bend to God’s will and use his fame and fortune to further His Ministries. What would you do if God threw you to the ground for a spiritual wrestle, drawing a line in the turf and letting you decide for Him, or to remain with dark legion. What what you decide?

  3. I couldn’t agree more with your insight on this issue. Planning a book is hard work and I hate it but I have to do it. But even after careful planning, characters will grow and sometime surprise you. In my latest (13th) book “The Concrete Kiss” I have an autistic girl who didn’t really come alive for me until I started writing her chapters and I tried to see the world as she must see it, and she almost broke my heart. She turned out to be more than I ever could have planned in advance. — David Grace

  4. “She turned out to be more than I ever could have planned in advance.” — David Grace
    Yes David That’s what I meant. Guess I stated it badly

    1. There are more posts coming up on secondary characters, including your antagonist, and how your secondary characters can have issues that parallel and support the plot.

  5. This is an interesting triad. What I like most about it is the ability to create and resolve problems on different fronts. Emotions are tied to actions which are tied to self expression which is tied to self evaluation. I’m currently working on a fantasy story which has been great fun to craft. I use the Core Need, Greatest Fear already, and although I really like your suggestion, instead of The Lie, the third element is The Choice. The Choice really is two separate but connected components: Internal and External. Internal Choice is the point at which the Greatest Fear temporarily reaches a compromise to move the character forward. The External is the Choice in direct contrast to the internal the character must resolve in order to tame the world. This is difficult since the character moves through the world. So what’s really happening is growth. But at what cost? I ask this question constantly.

    Great post. It gave me a lot of food for thought…

  6. This is a worthwhile series in many aspects. Even if you think you know all about fleshing out characters it helps to learn more in-depth ways to do so. Your suggestions make the characters come alive and provide ways to enhance the necessary clashes that promote good reading. Thanks much.

  7. Great strategy for creating realistic characters. It’s much more intuitive than taking characters out of guides with titles of, “25 Interesting Characters,” and the like.

    I think we all could use this methodology and come up with different characters, because of our own personal experiences. Our characters would flow seamlessly with the story as well, since our personal experiences shape the plot too.

    I used the same type of exercise on my current book, and even used the plot to reverse engineer my characters, and therefore his backstory too, so that the characters were believable AND did what the plot needed in order to move the story in the direction I wanted/it needed to go.

  8. Outstanding article. When writing my novel I created a notebook with pictures, either cut from magazines or printed out from the internet, that closely portrayed the physical aspects of each character. In other words, a picture or two of each person ‘under construction’. The pages following defined the sorts of traits you mentioned for each character. I also answered and recorded each question of the Proust Questionnaire as I believed each character would. (See the last page of any issue of Vanity Fair.) This notebook, also complete with maps and floor plans for each key scene, provided a quick-look reference as I wrote that ensured both consistency and believable diversity for my characters’ thoughts and actions.
    Your article inspired me to ask of each character in the short stories I’m currently working on: “What’s the biggest lie you tell yourself?”, and, “What’s the biggest lie you tell others?” This, I’m convinced, will be a powerful tool for unmasking each character’s personae. Thank you,

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