5 Easy Steps to Make a Character Arc

Character arcs are the bread and butter of storytelling. Many people argue that there is no such thing as “plot”, there is just a character undergoing change as they interact with their surroundings. I often find it helpful to think of a story as just a series of choices made by a flawed character. So it stands to reason that a character arc is oftentimes the backbone that a story is built on. 

While character arcs can have infinite complexity, they all share a few key building blocks. Not all of these are necessary, but most good stories will use one or two of them. As always, find your originality in the ways you break away from these building blocks, yet at the same time, they are still important tools. 

Just to preface, I am currently in the process of outlining a story, and I reached the stage where I plan character arcs. After spending a few minutes looking at the white page and drawing a blank, I decided to review everything I’ve learned about character arcs, and assemble that information into a tidy little guide. So as you read, bear in mind, this article is from the same perspective as all of you; an avid student of the most difficult craft. I am not an expert, but I am a learner, and perhaps you will find this article more helpful because of it. 

  1. Built In Potential

Before you do anything, you must first make sure that your character has the potential for change. This can take many forms. Maybe something is missing from their life, that they need to get. Maybe they have a flaw of personality they need to overcome. Maybe they have a perfect life, but the potential to fall into depravity. It can be literally anything. But from the very beginning, a character must be designed to change. 

As a rather archetypal example, consider Achilles from The Iliad. He goes from a paragon of heroism to a creature possessed by his own rage. His character arc is of a man becoming an animal. But this regression didn’t come out of nowhere. The potential was always inside of him, represented by his ferocious and legendary anger. Without his anger to drive him into inhuman depth, his character arc doesn’t make sense. His character is structured to change. 

  1. External and Internal Change

Character arcs are built on change. But even a character with the potential to change won’t realize that potential if nothing happens. If the Trojan War never happened, Achilles would never have changed. It was only because of the war, because the man he loved died, that his character arc began. 

This change comes from two places, external and internal. External change often takes the form of the “inciting incident”. Something happens to the character. Their life is wrenched from the status quo. It is important, though, for external change to continue to happen to a character. Don’t let them form a new status quo. Keep challenging them with new circumstances. 

Internal change is often a result of the character thinking about or processing the events of external change. This is where the real meat and potatoes of character growth happens. A character’s thought process is a window into both their mind and into the themes of a story. Scenes of a character grappling, wrestling, with their own emotions can be some of the most powerful moments in your story. Milk those scenes. 

It is important to give these two things roughly equal weight in a story. Too much external change, and your story will feel plot-driven and empty. Too much internal change, and your story will feel slow-paced and uninteresting. Find the happy balance that works best for the story you want to tell. 

  1. Character Through Decisions

Now that you have a character with the potential for change as well as the impetus for it, you need a way to convey that change. My recommendation is to do this by showing your character making decisions. 

Decisions are an oft-misrepresented concept. In Story by Robert McKee, he explains how the choice between “good” and “evil” isn’t actually a choice. Good is just so blatantly obvious. A character like Superman does not make a decision to save the innocent or not, he just does

Rather, a real decision has to be between two equal options. When Superman is asked to choose between saving an innocent or stopping a villain, that is when his true character is revealed. And when he still chooses the innocent, the story has successfully shown what he truly prioritizes. 

Equal options make for more interesting choices because they have stakes and consequences. Choosing one option means abandoning the other option. And when both options are equal, it means both the character and the reader feel a sense of loss that only one can be chosen. Don’t be afraid to let those consequences be real.

The consequences of the choices a character makes should increase over the course of the story. Something that many stories do well is have a character choose wrong when it matters most. Have them experience the greatest possible consequence. Putting your character through the thing that would make them suffer the most, as a result of their own decision, is one of the most powerful tools in storytelling.  

I find it helpful to have characters make these decisions periodically throughout a story. In many ways, I structure a story entirely around these moments of intense decision making. I also try to make the decisions thematically resonant, they relate to each other. This way, I can show how a character changes by the different choices they make when confronted with similar problems. 

  1. Conscious and Subconscious Goals

When a character makes a decision, they do so in pursuit of an objective. A character should have a goal, a motivation, something that they wish to accomplish. A small thing, such as winning an argument, or a larger thing, such as finding love. Whatever it is, a character is always working towards something. This is why they’re in a position that forces them to make a decision in the first place. 

I find it helpful for a character to have two goals. A conscious one, and a subconscious one. The conscious goal is a concrete thing. Something, someone, that they can physically touch. In Finding Nemo, Marlin wants to find Nemo. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo wants to destroy the ring. These conscious goals are stated out loud, explicitly, and involve specific and concrete solutions. 

In pursuit of a conscious goal, a character will naturally, but accidentally, accomplish their subconscious goal. Unlike the conscious goal, the subconscious goal is never stated out loud. It is intangible, often involving a character’s true nature. 

In Finding Nemo, as a side product of finding Nemo, Marlin becomes confident and capable. This is something he has always wanted to be, but never been able to. In Lord of the Rings, as a side product of destroying the ring, Frodo becomes a worldly, experienced adventurer. This is something he has always wanted to be, but never been able to.

The subconscious goal was well established by the narrative, but the characters would never have said to themselves that was the reason they went on the adventure. Both the characters and the story used the conscious goal as an excuse to allow the character to achieve their subconscious goal. 

  1. Relationship Tugging

Finally, it is important to remember that no character goes through change alone. Each character is surrounded by a web of other characters that influence the decisions they make and the arc they travel. 

I like to think of different characters as playing a game of tug-of-war with the protagonist in the center. The protagonist gets tugged back and forth by the people they are in a relationship with, until eventually they are pulled too far to one side. 

Star Wars is a story that does this excellently. Luke Skywalker’s character arc is of a peasant boy with no skills becoming the savior of the galaxy. As a part of that process, he is tugged in different directions by Darth Vader and Princess Leia. Vader wants him to become a dark lord, and Leia wants him to become a Jedi hero. 

Luke is tugged back and forth between these two sides. As with the part about decision making, these two sides are presented as equal in his mind. Sometimes he feels the tug of the dark side stronger, sometimes he feels the tug of the light side. The climax of the story is when he is tugged all the way to the light side. 

Importantly, you’ll notice that Vader is a character who is also undergoing this ‘relationship tugging’. Luke is tugging him in one direction, and Emperor Palpatine in another. To make the world of your story feel truly rich, and your characters feel truly dynamic, it is useful to create a web of interconnected interactions like this. 

In Conclusion

As with all writing advice, you’ll only drag yourself down by trying to follow it exactly. I can think of a dozen amazing stories that use none of these building blocks, yet have spectacular characters. I compiled this list as a way to inspire myself, for my own process. If it helps inspire you, I couldn’t be happier. But there are uncountable places to draw inspiration, and every writer’s process is unique.

6 Ways To Immediately Improve Your Dialogue

Dialogue is one of the trickiest things to get right. But, when done well, it can carry an entire book on its back. Dialogue that flows, that sounds like the characters, that means something. A reader is willing to read almost anything so long as the dialogue is good. 

Here are six ways to immediately improve your dialogue. 

1) Tags

Dialogue tags (such as ‘he said’ or ‘she said’) can make or break dialogue. One of the most common pieces of misinformation is that you should avoid using ‘he said’ or ‘she said.’ People often say that you should find the word to better match the tone of voice, such as shouted, yelled, called, whispered, etc. This is, in almost every scenario, wrong. 

‘He said’ and ‘She said’ are invisible to the reader’s eyes. They make dialogue flow without a hitch. But if the reader’s eyes get caught on every wild dialogue tag, it makes the dialogue feel clunky. Not only that, but it feels like the author is imposing their own will on the reader’s imagination. A reader can infer  a character’s tone of voice by the words that they use. When the author hammers them over the head with dialogue tags, it feels unprofessional. It feels like the dialogue lacks subtlety. 

Something to especially avoid is a dialogue tag combined with an adverb. “Yelled crazily,” or “muttered inaudibly.” This exacerbates the lack of subtlety by an order of magnitude. More than anything else, readers enjoy figuring things out on their own. They enjoy piecing together clues. If you make everything on your page blatant, the reader will lose interest. 

Now, this isn’t a universal rule. Sometimes words like yelled or shouted or whispered are useful. But they are only useful if used sparingly. Stick to ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ whenever you can. 

2) Intersperse with Action

Instead of using dialogue tags, you can use action. For example:

“Hey, Frank.” Sarah stood up from her chair and shook Frank’s hand. “Come in.”

This serves a number of purposes at once. First, it sets the scene, and describes the characters. Second, it gets rid of clunky dialogue tags. Finally, it grounds the dialogue in the things that are actually happening in the world. It’s not just two talking heads. 

3) Vibrant Voices

What makes dialogue most interesting to read is if the character has a distinctive voice. Think of your favorite characters. If you heard a line of their dialogue — even if there were no tags to distinguish it — you would recognize them immediately. 

This ties in with character building itself. A good character has a personality that leaps off the page. They have mannerisms, ticks, habits. They have a way in which they perceive the world that is unique to them. They have thoughts and opinions. They have humor, or lack thereof. All of these things should come across through dialogue. 

A good exercise to encourage this is to remove the dialogue tags from a scene of dialogue you have written. Can you still differentiate which character is speaking? If you can’t, it means you aren’t using their dialogue to properly express their personality. 

4) Dialogue Serves Multiple Purposes

Good dialogue is always doing multiple things at once. If you ever have a character say something, and the only thing they mean is exactly what they have said, you should take that line of dialogue out. 

There is a long list of things that dialogue can accomplish at the same time. I’ll mention a few of them here, but this list is by no means comprehensive. It is entirely up to you what your dialogue accomplishes, but it should always be accomplishing a lot of it. 

Dialogue should reveal character. It should progress the plot. It should inform things about the world. It should inform things about character dynamics. It should be filled with conflict. It should convey meaning about the themes of the story. It should be doing all of these things and more, and it should be doing them at the same time. 

5) Dialogue Should Be Subtle

If a character is sad, they will never say to another character, “I am sad.” No person ever says exactly what they are thinking. Dialogue is not a brain-to-mouth pipeline. Dialogue is filtered first by the character’s sense of self-consciousness and second by the author’s sense of subtlety. 

For example, Earnest Hemmingway has a short story called “Hills Like White Elephants”. In this story, a man and a woman are discussing an abortion, all the emotional weight abortions carry with them. However, the word abortion is never said. In fact, the characters don’t appear to be talking about an abortion at all. Yet the reader can piece together what they mean by subtle clues that Hemmingway provides. 

Characters dance around issues. They never mention the elephant in the room. They never explicitly state the things they are thinking about. But they allow these things to enter their dialogue, to color the words they use and the way they talk. 

The reader will find no greater pleasure than solving the mystery of what is actually on your character’s mind, but they will be disappointed if the character comes out and says it. 

6) Dialogue Should Have Conflict

The most boring thing to read in a story is small talk. If a character walks into a room and there is a half page of, hi’s and how-are-you’s and the-weather-is-nice’s, the reader will put down the book. 

Now, characters can have small talk. But that small talk should always be edged with conflict. Something the characters want, something they are prevented from having. Conversations should read like a game of chess. Characters advance their movements, lay traps, pursue objectives, and defend from enemy assault. 

Now, conflict does not have to be an argument. For example, two characters in secret love with each other are in constant conflict. Every word exchanged is part of a game to get the other character to reveal their love. 

If you ever have a scene of dialogue without conflict, you should either do two things. Add conflict (hidden conflict, outright conflict, even just a subtle sense of tension in the air) or remove the scene. 

In Summary

This is by no means a comprehensive list of everything that goes into dialogue. But if I had to pick a couple of takeaway points, it would be subtlety and purpose. Good dialogue always serves a direct and immediate purpose to the story. But it should also serve this purpose in subtle ways. Good dialogue does not announce its intentions, but should always make them clear. It is a tricky balance to strike — one that I have certainly not mastered myself — but it is an important one to be aware of, and to strive towards. 

How Bad Are Adverbs, Really?

Don’t use adverbs. Don’t use adverbs. I have heard this advice from a hundred sources a hundred times. It seems to be the one thing that style guides and literary critics can all agree on. Adverbs bad. But how useful is this advice? Is there a way that, actually, adverbs good? 

An adverb often serves to add specificity to an action. They also can convey emotion, add punch to a sentence, heighten tension and explain setting. They are an all purpose grammar tool. So why the hate?

In my own experience, whenever someone has suggested that I remove an adverb from my writing it is because I am using that adverb as a crutch. What I mean by this is that I am using the adverb to convey the information by expressly telling the reader. In reality, I should be conveying this information through other means. More specific language and detailed descriptions can often serve to convey the same information as an adverb in a more artful way. 

Everyone knows the classic example of how the sentence “he sprinted” is better than the sentence, “he ran quickly.” Why use lot words when few words do trick? Sprinted is a better phrase than ran quickly. But there are more complex examples. 

“The sun shone brilliantly across the grasses gently swaying in the wind.” A fairly stock description of a field. The problem with the adverbs here is not that they are bad sentences, but that they are always used to convey this image. Adverbs are bread and butter of cliche descriptions. A better sentence might read, “The grass dipped and wove in the breeze, each kernel of wheat reflecting the morning sun.” By forcing myself to avoid adverbs, I had to invent a more original way to describe the scene. 

Adverbs are also exceedingly dangerous when they are used as dialogue tags. From personal experience I know that nothing I have written has ticked a creative writing teacher off more than, “shouted loudly.” Oftentimes, an adverb modifying a tag is simply a sign of ameature writing. Even if the phrase is fairly solid, such as “said softly” which is a personal favorite of mine, it still comes off as ameature. I’ve found that using adverbs in this way is best done sparingly; often it can have good effects, but that effect is negated by frequent use. 

But I also believe that adverbs can be useful, if used well. Sometimes adverbs fit well with a more flowery style of writing, writing that relishes long sentences and complex structure. Sometimes an adverb is just exactly what’s needed to describe something as well. To use an example of a sentence I wrote recently: “she sits down heavily in a chair.” I can’t find a perfect verb to encapsulate that sense of sitting down with an angry harumph, but “heavily” does the job pretty well, and it doesn’t get in the way. 

Adverbs are a danger. When I go back to edit my work, they are something I look for, because I know I have a penchant to rely on them. Replacing adverbs with stronger, more direct language is usually the right call. But the only rule in writing is that there are no rules. If you feel the call of the adverb, don’t just sprint for it. Run quickly.

How to Structure a Story

All stories have structure. Simple structures: the hero wants something, they attempt to get it, they are thwarted, and then they succeed. Complex Structures: frame narratives, flashbacks, multiple perspectives, subplots. Structure is the substance and shape of your story. It is the events that transpire, and it is the sequence and manner in which those events are related to the reader. 

But what is structure? What are the different patterns, what are the accepted customs? How can I break from those set ways? These are questions I ask myself frequently. I researched them, but the answers proved vague and disparate. I hope to be able to synthesize what I’ve learned into more bite-sized chunks.

Choosing the structure of your story is an important part of the storytelling process. It helps your reader know what they are getting into. It gives them a pattern to follow in their head. And when you deviate from the structure, your reader knows to pay attention. But how do you choose which story structure is the one for you?

Everyone’s process is different. I can only speak for myself. In answering that question, I like to  examine the accepted canon of story structures. 

Types of Structures

I find it a little funny that almost every major writer will attempt to create a definitive list of every type of story. Kurt Vonnegut does this in his lecture titled “The Shapes of Stories.” Christopher Booker wrote a book called, The Seven Basic Plots, and the contents of that book should be self explanatory. Robert McKee in Story gives a list of the 25 different film genres. Joseph Cambell proposes a single unifying story in the hero’s journey. Film experts tell you the three-act structure is king, theater aficionados will tell you the five-act tragedy is the supreme form. 

But of course, the end result of all these lists is that it’s super difficult to find anything definitive, so I mostly stopped worrying about it. Following any one of these formulas too closely will result in a, well,  formulaic story. I’ve learned that I can express myself best in the ways that I deviate from these forms. 

The crummy part is, in order to deviate from a form, I had to first learn what that form was in the first place. Which was kinda a pain. I’ll do my best to give an overview of the major ones.

The Hero’s Journey

This is a classic. You’ve probably heard of it. The above image is my summary of its different components. I made it in MS Paint, so it doesn’t look great, sorry about that.  In essence, the hero’s journey concerns a single protagonist. He (most typically male, but as I said, true beauty comes from breaking the standards, which is why many people find heroes with other genders to be more compelling) is living an ordinary life, in a world that he understands. 

Then an extraordinary figure calls him to adventure. He resists, then agrees. He leaves the world he knows and enters into a world of mystery. He meets friends, mentors, allies, enemies. He struggles and fails. He reaches the very bottom of misery or hardship, and then overcomes that to claim his reward. 

Finally, he returns, his character changed by the events he encountered. The world he once knew is now different to him. Perhaps he’s removed from it, jaded. Perhaps he’s able to fix its problems.

Sound familiar? I could spend the rest of the article listing books that use this structure. Rather than following this formula to a T, I found picking and choosing elements from it to be really helpful. It turns out the hero’s journey has a lot of important lessons. 

Characters should make decisions. Not a decision between good and evil — that’s hardly a decision. But decisions between equal options. Do I go on the adventure, or do I stay where I am? That’s a story beat that will never get old. 

Characters should have allies. Friends are cool. Teachers are also cool. Positive relationships can bring out different aspects of your character’s personality, and when those relationships are taken away, it can bring out even more aspects. 

Characters should have opponents. People who are searching for the same thing as your character. Rivals they can respect, or hate, or anything in between. Forcing your characters to overcome obstacles is how they grow. 

The abyss is crucial. It’s a bizarre part of storytelling, but I’ve found that we all like watching characters suffer. It doesn’t have to be physical pain, and indeed, it probably shouldn’t be. Instead, find what hurts or terrifies your character the most, and then inflict them with it. That’s the abyss. 

Redemption and reward is so satisfying to read, especially if I’ve just watched a character overcome their personal abyss. I love those moments where a character is recognized for what they’re truly worth. 

Finally, the return. The hobbits come back to the shire. The juxtaposition of who the character is now and where they used to be highlights their growth (or downfall) and emphasizes the theme of your story. 

As much as I find these elements interesting, an author truly grabs my attention when they break these elements. My mind walks along the pattern, ho-hum, and then boom! The mentor dies on page 3, instead of halfway through. Wow! Where is this story going? 

Rising Action, Falling Action

I bet you were taught this in high-school. At its core, this is a simplified version of the hero’s journey. This structure is too simple to be useful, but it still has lessons to teach. Personally, this graph taught me the power of escalation. 

Stories should increase in intensity over their duration. Economics states that though something may be originally pleasing, the more times we are exposed to that thing, the less pleasing it is. In order to maintain that original level of pleasure, we need to up the ante. 

If your character gets injured, that’s exciting. If your character gets injured in the same way, that’s less exciting. But if they get even more injured, that’s just as exciting as the first time. 

Finally, tensions should come to a head at the climax. Everything is realized. The excitement has never been this high. The story is resolved with a flash and a bang, and then things return to normal. 

However, this graph is flawed. As a kid, my English class had a visitor from a local author. She showed us this graph:

Now this is cool. Just as the same injury, if repeated, loses interest, readers will also lose interest if the pace of escalation stays the same. Escalation itself becomes boring. To fix this, you can alternate between highs and lows. As the story progresses, the highs get higher and the lows get lower. 

The Road by Cormac McCarthy, is a good example of this. The story concerns a dad and his child walking through the post-apocalypse. If the story were just suffering, it would be boring. But the story alternates between suffering and hope, and then takes that hope away. Reading The Road feels like the author is tantalizing you with the promise of comfort for these characters. You keep reading because you want to know if they ever actually find safety. The answer would be too obvious if the story had no variation. 

My Personal Process

I like starting with an archetype. Perhaps I saw a really cool movie about an antihero, so now I want to write about an antihero. I do a little reading. What are the conventions of the antihero story? Where can I subvert them? I learn that antiheroes need a foil, an innocent character. The antihero and the innocent need a reason to be forced together. Now I have the foundation of a story. 

Next I add a genre. I throw it on top like seasoning. Perhaps I want to tell a story about a cyberpunk antihero. Oooo. What are the conventions of cyberpunk? I do a little reading. It turns out I need dystopic capitalism, virtual reality, and degenerate body modifications. Where can I deviate from those?

Now I turn to the hero’s journey. What does my character want? What prevents them? What helps them? How do they change over the course of the story? Answering these questions gives me a basic outline of start, middle, and end. 

Finally, I create escalation and de-escalation. I come up with a moment of intensity, and I follow it with a moment of peace, and I repeat that process until my story reaches a climax. And each time, I increase the magnitude, until I have taken both ends to their logical extremes, and there I find the abyss and the reward from the hero’s journey. 

I do this process for each character and each subplot. Usually genre stays the same, but perhaps in my cyberpunk story one of the subplots is a romance. Anything goes. I allow myself the freedom of having the story be as long or as short as it needs to be to realistically cause change or growth in my protagonist, antagonist, and secondary characters. Sometimes this results in a short story, other times, a novel. 

General Advice

At the end of the day, don’t stress about structure. It doesn’t matter if your story adheres to three acts or five or which of the seven basic plots applies to you. It’s your story. Ignore conventions, do it. 

But it is helpful to pick an established structure and to change it. The hero’s journey, but female (The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood). The hero’s journey, but in space (Star Wars). Classic fantasy, but with realism and stakes (A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin). Each of these stories follows some conventions, some pattern. And each of these stories subverts that pattern. Know the story you want to tell, know what is expected of you, and know how and when and where to defy those expectations. 

The best way to research is to read. I like to write fantasy. So I read fantasy. Way too much fantasy, if my wallet is any judge. I read critically, I read to analyze the story for its component parts, and I learn a little bit more about the structure of fantasy. (Sometimes I’ll steal an idea from a story. Don’t worry, everybody does it. All you have to do is call it ‘inspiration’ and nobody bats an eye). 

I’ll conclude by tentatively adding one more proposal to the lists and lists of types of stories. A story is a character who wants something and is prevented from having it. When the dust settles, that’s all a story is. 

Creating A Complex Character

My favorite feeling is falling in love with a character. Grinning stupidly whenever they’re on screen or sobbing with them as they struggle. Watching them learn and grow, and cheering for them without restraint, and then that empty ache when the story is over. 

It’s a rare feeling. The greatest challenge for me when I write a story is attempting to give this feeling to the reader. I am not always successful — it’s the most difficult task in storytelling. But each time I fall in love with a character, I learn a little bit more about how to replicate that process. 

This is, of course, a bare bones overview. Characters are insanely complex things to discuss. I would argue characters are far more complex than us humans. Each of these points I will assuredly discuss again, at a later date, in more detail. But for now, this is a good summary of what I have learned. 

Motivation

All characters need motivation. Motivation has two parts: a what and a why. The “what” is more superficial. It can be anything. True love, treasure, a friend, a castle, personal growth, adventure. I find it helpful to imagine the moment in which the character achieves their desire. What are they holding in their hands or their hearts? Who surrounds them? What are they thinking about?

The what is not nearly so important as the why. A character can want true love, and seek it, and find it, and that makes for a compelling romance novel. But when the novel explores why the character wants true love, it reaches another level of poignance and thematic power. Answering the question of why your character wants something often is an easy way to strike at the very core of who that character is. 

Flaw

Character flaws make a story interesting. You don’t need to like a character to fall in love with them. In fact, most of my crushes are on villains who I would never want to invite to a dinner party but who I adore watching on the screen or page. 

Choosing a flaw for a character is a delicate process. Flaws should be relevant to who the character is at their core and to the story itself. If you have a character whose flaw is, say, murderous rampages, but then that aspect of the character is never explored, they never grow, and the story never concerns it, then it’s not much of a flaw. Indeed, many stories are centered entirely around the flaw and overcoming it. This is the most basic and eternal form of character arcs. 

Take Prince Zuko, from the show Avatar: The Last Airbender. His character flaw is, principally, that he’s doing the wrong thing. The rest of his story is the process of him realizing that and redeeming himself. What makes Zuko so compelling is his struggle as he turns himself around. Fixing his flaw digs at who he is at a very base level. It requires him to confront his father and his sister over the way they sculpted and manipulated him. Zuko’s flaw is a central element of his character and the story as a whole. 

I would advise you to steer clear of flaws that are based only in personality. Being an obnoxious person isn’t much of a flaw if it is left at such a surface level. Rather, I find it helpful to connect the innards of a character with their outtards. Zuko’s flaw is not that he shouts or is angry or is kinda annoying. Those personality traits result from his deeper flaw; he’s doing evil deeds, and knows it. 

Change

Dynamism is essential to a character. The process of their change more often than not ecompasses the entirety of the story and drives its events. 

They can change in many ways. Commonly, they overcome their flaw. But some stories focus on negative change, a deepening of the flaw. Other stories focus on a revelation concerning a hidden nature. Others focus on establishing a relationship between two characters. All of these count as change. 

Change should be directly tied to motivation. Their motivation, and the pursuit of that motivation, is the vehicle that drives their change. I would advise you to steer clear of having a character’s motivation be change. Rather, focus on finding ways to cause change as a result of motivation. Let motivation be a more physical goal, something the character can hold in their hand, so to speak. Let the mental goal follow naturally as a result of achieving the physical goal. 

Indeed, it can be powerful to consider the idea of  ‘change’ as a secondary motivation for your character. But this time, it is not a motivation they are aware of, or at least, it is a motivation they are afraid of admitting. It is something they keep hidden, even from themselves. 

Again, consider Prince Zuko. His flaw is his evildoing. But his motivation is not simply “do good things, instead of evil ones”. His motivation is to capture the protagonist, Aang. This is a physical and definite objective. In the process of doing so, he learns to do good things, and fixes his flaw. 

Not all characters should change. Your protagonist and antagonist, definitely. Their supporting relationships, probably. But everyone else? Most characters in a story are content to exist as they are, and they serve a valuable function in doing so, as a way to induce change in other characters and as a metric for measuring that change.  

Contradictions

Robert McKee, in Story, describes his opinion on  what makes a character interesting, and it is one that resonated well with me. Essentially, McKee argues, characters are interesting when they have contradictions in their nature. The more contradictions, the more interesting. 

For example, take Han Solo, from Star Wars. Han Solo is likeable because of the contradiction inherent to his roguish nature and his heart of gold. The juxtaposition of those two traits is powerfully dynamic. 

Or, consider Snape, from Harry Potter. Snape is far and away the most interesting character in that series, and it is because of his contractions. He’s mean to Harry, but looks after him. He’s stern and cold, but deeply emotional. He (spoilers, but you definitely already know) loves Dumbledore, but kills him. These contractions are fascinating. The reader asks themselves how they came to be, how they could possibly coexist. It makes his character into an intriguing mystery. 

I structure contradictions around two conflicting statements, connected by a “but”. The character is this way, but also the direct opposite way. For main characters, I might have a list of 5 or 6 powerful contradictions. For supporting roles, I keep it to just 1 or 2.  That’s just personal preference, though. 

Relationships

A relationship with another character is principal to making both characters interesting. Relationships are like the idea of contradictions, above, but in a macro sense. The character is this way, but this other character is that way. Perhaps it’s helpful to think about your story as its own character, and the relationships inside as the contradictions that make it interesting. 

In any case, relationships are useful for a couple of reasons. First, they’re just fun to watch. A dynamic relationship between two characters is more enjoyable than anything else. Two friends with chemistry, working together to solve a problem. A protagonist and an antagonist who respect each other even as they compete. Like contradictions, relationships get more interesting the more opposite two characters are. A character and their foil forced to coexist is the premise of like every buddy cop movie ever made. 

But second, relationships are ways to drag out different sides to your character that they wouldn’t otherwise have shown to the reader. If your character is a gruff bounty hunter, that’s all they will present. But pair that gruff bounty hunter with a child who reminds them of who they used to be, and their gruff exterior will soften. Pair that bounty hunter with a villain they detest, and they will show determination and resilience. Pair that bounty hunter with a love interest, and they will start to reveal passion and emotion. Use relationships to plumb the depths of your characters. 

Hidden Nature

This is much more optional than some of the above techniques. I found that by answering the above questions, especially brainstorming contradictions, my characters already possessed a hidden nature, and I didn’t have to work at it. 

A hidden nature is simply any side of your character that they don’t show to the general public. This isn’t an essential thing for every character. But thinking about what your character keeps hidden, why they keep it hidden, and how that secret eventually and inevitably gets revealed, is a helpful process. 

Physicality and Personality

These two are the most fun parts of character creation, but they are also the most superficial. In my own character creation process, I find that I imagine physicality and personality first, and then promptly ignore them to move on to the more relevant things. 

However, both of these are still important. In what is swift becoming a common thread for this article, physicality and personality are most interesting when they contradict each other and themselves. A giant who speaks in a soft voice. A gangster who wears hand knitted sweaters. 

I will sometimes imagine my character in passing situations. If I’m in class, I imagine my character sitting next to me. What are they wearing? Did they arrive late? Are they slumped over, bored, or sitting straight backed, attentive? It’s like a little game I play with myself, and it proves to be an effective exercise. 

Characters should also sound distinctive from each other. Not just in their actual voices, but what and how they say things. This is more than just an accent. Are they easily angered, do they speak in exclamations, are they quiet in large groups, timid, braggadocious. A fun challenge is to write different lines of dialogue for your characters without the name tags attached, and to see if you can spot the difference. 

Finally, though, I would advise you not to focus too hard on this part of your character. Don’t define your character by how they look or sound. Define them by their decisions and their relationships and their goals. 

Physicality and personality are at their most useful when they serve as keys into your character’s psychology. The gangster wearing hand knitted sweaters is more than just a gimmick, it’s a clue that they care about their mother and that they don’t care about what other people think of them. The reasons why a character looks and sounds the way they do are more compelling than what they look and sound like. 

Competence

A much smaller point: it’s fun to read about a character who is competent. This competence can be in anything; social interaction, fighting, math, you name it. But giving a character a skill that they are better than anyone else at is an easy way to make them seem cool and likeable. It plays into the escapist part of fiction — when I’m reading, I read to feel like someone else. I’d rather feel like someone who has a skill than someone who is totally useless. 

Suffering

Your character should suffer. A lot. In ways that really really hurt them. Similar to competence, suffering is an easy way to make them relatable. We all know what it’s like to suffer, at least a little bit. If your character suffers too, it inspires empathy. 

The easiest way to make a character likeable is to make them suffer in an unfair way. Have someone lie and take credit for their work, have someone not believe them, have them be cheated by the system. A small warning though — this kind of suffering is often superficial. It’s useful when creating an immediate connection, but it’s difficult to create a truly meaningful story if the principal plot point is based off of a miscommunication. 

Additional Note

Sometimes the most compelling characters are the ones who are noticeably missing one of these aspects. Characters without flaws, or without motivations, or without change, or without relationships make for some of the most interesting characters in fiction. 

Writing is full of rules, and the first rule of writing is that you’re allowed to break all of the rules. But the second rule of writing is that you should know why you’re breaking the rule. 

My Character Sheet

Everybody creates characters in their own way, and every way is valid. This is simply the way that I find the most useful, and if you find it useful as well, feel free to claim it and personalize it and make it your own. 

  • Name
  • A paragraph or seven on physical description and personality
  • Flaw (s)
  • Contradiction (s)
  • Greatest Fear
  • Change
  • Hidden Nature
  • Motivation
  • A list of their relationships with other characters, how they feel about those relationships, and what purpose to the story those relationships are meant to serve. 

Creating A Villain

How often have you heard the advice, “A good villain is the hero of their own story”? This line is a step in the right direction. But I find it simplistic and I find that it fails to encompass everything a villain should be. 

One of the most helpful things for me has been to change the very words I use. Rather than hero and villain, I prefer protagonist and antagonist. Following the etymology of the words, they mean he who acts and he who acts against. These words are devoid of moral qualification. They don’t specify good and evil, the way hero and villain do. They also imply a more intimate connection between the two characters, a more direct opposition. Often, a typical villain may have a goal and a typical hero’s goal is stopping the villain. But a protagonist and antagonist are much more deeply concerned about the other. 

Rather than thinking of a villain as the hero of their own story, think of your antagonist as a character with the same goal as your protagonist. Take, for instance, Thanos, from Avengers: Infinity War. A character often lauded as a great villain. To me, what makes him great is not that he is the hero of his own story. Rather, it is that he and the Avengers both want the same thing: happiness for the people of the universe. The distinction between them is the lengths they are willing to go to achieve that end.

All antagonists are different, and the process of their creation is different as well. There are no rules when it comes to creating an antagonist. We all already have an instinct for what makes a villain compelling. But there are a few common tricks and tools you can use to refine the process. Don’t feel a need to use all of these, or even any of them. Rather, see if one may pique your interest, inspire you in a new direction. 

A Piercing Connection

One type of antagonist is a character uniquely capable of hurting your protagonist. But I don’t mean physical pain. Rather, a good antagonist is one who represents the protagonist’s greatest fear, who causes their greatest failure, who terrifies them in a uniquely personal way. 

For an example, consider Captain Beatty, from Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. For those unfamiliar with this book, Fahrenheit 451 concerns a story where the general populace has been rendered complacent by addictive media, and a fire-fighter’s occupation is burning books. Captain Beatty is the fire chief, Guy Montag is a fire-fighter who is beginning to doubt the system. What makes Beatty a compelling antagonist is that Montag is deeply afraid of him. Beatty has compelling, logical, and impassioned arguments for why the status-quo is a force for good. He represents the syrupy ignorance that Montag is trying desperately to escape, he represents the claws of complacency dragging Montague down. He pierces deep and without mercy into Montag’s character. Beatty is uniquely capable of exposing Montag’s flaw. Overcoming Beatty requires Montag to overcome that flaw. 

Or, instead of someone who can hurt your protagonist, someone who can stop your protagonist is also interesting. If your protagonist is competent in a field (which I recommend they should be) have your antagonist be your protagonist’s true equal. Or, furthering this idea, have them be better than your antagonist. Sometimes a neat antagonist can be a flawless version of your protagonists — or someone whose flaws are more well hidden. 

Contradictions

In the article about complex characters, I discussed briefly the power that contradictions have in making characters interesting. Of course, the same applies to your antagonist. The type of contradiction is a little different, though, and there are a couple of common archetypes that you can use. 

Because your antagonist is likely someone doing morally questionable deeds, guilt can be a powerful contradiction. “This person is evil, but feels bad about it.” It’s such a simple contradiction, used in nearly every story, yet its power never diminishes. As always, consider why the person feels bad about it. What part of their character lends itself to guilt?

The opposite is equally compelling. “This person is evil, but doesn’t feel a bit of remorse.” It’s easy to allow this kind of antagonist to become just another run of the mill villain. But there’s also an opportunity to have a character with unique power and presence, a self confidence that your protagonist may be lacking in, or a truly fascinating ideology. 

Another contradiction is persuasiveness. “This person is evil, but goddamn if they’re not making a great case for their side.” These kinds of antagonists really make you stop and think. Ozymandius from Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, is one such villain. He murdered the population of New York, but he had a terrifically persuasive reason why. 

Charisma

This technically falls under the category of contradictions. “This person is evil, but they’re super likeable.” But making a character likeable is such a vague and complicated issue, and so I wanted to devote a bit more time to it. 

Many of my favorite villains fall under this category. I may disagree with them entirely, but darn are they fun to watch. Antagonists with charm, humor, poise, grace, wit, all of these attributes we would never expect to see on a villain. 

One surefire way to make an antagonist likeable is to give them relationships. The relationship could be a negative one, that causes your antagonist pain. For example, there’s the classic archetype of the new kid at a new school, and the popular school bully. An easy way to make that bully likeable is to give them a father figure who is distant and abrasive. 

The relationship could also be a positive one. An antagonist with a love interest that they care about deeply is wildly compelling to me. An antagonist with friends, or a mother, or a puppy, equally so. Just as relationships bring out different aspects of your protagonist, the same is true for your antagonist. 

Arc

My favorite antagonists are the ones who change over the course of the story. They don’t necessarily have to change for the better, or redeem themselves, or anything like that. They just have to be dynamic. 

The reason for this is because dynamism in a character requires a couple of attributes. A flaw, a motivation, self-awareness, struggle. All of these are the building blocks of a likeable character. 

Even cooler is if the antagonist changes as a result of interacting with the protagonist, and vice versa. This intertwining of the two characters can result in incredible relationships. 

Classic Villainy

Classic villains, the big bad evil guy, the cartoonishly evil, these have their place in fiction. I prefer to see these classic villains used in relationship to a more complex antagonist. For a pristine example, take Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars. The Emperor is a classic villain with no redeeming characteristics. His purpose in the story is to contrast with the actual, more likeable antagonist, Darth Vader, and to cause Vader to redeem himself. 

Additionally, the classic villain can be useful if the story is more of a character study about a complex protagonist. Many war novels fall under this category. “War” is a classic villain, no redeeming contradictions there. But it’s used as a means to explore the complicated depths of the protagonist. 

In Conclusion

This is by no means a complete list of what makes an interesting antagonist. There are hundreds of different rules you could find, and following them all would result in something nonsensical. 

My final word of advice is just, when push comes to shove, make your story about characters. Don’t attach moral labels like hero and villain to them. Make it about characters, characters with reasons and goals and backstories and personalities. Let them interact with each other as they would naturally, and let them change as a result of that interaction.