Characters and plot go together like peanut butter and jelly. Plot events force characters to face conflicts, but it’s how the characters react that conveys a wide range of feelings to your audience. Get the free character template for to create intriguing cast members who keep readers engaged from the first to last page.
A Helpful Website for Writers
Before we get started with this week’s post, a quick reminder about the Insecure Writer’s Support Group (IWSG). Explore the site, and if you sign up, be sure to snag copies of the free books for writers.
Table of contents
- A Helpful Website for Writers
- Start with the End in Mind
- What Is a Character Arc
- A Writer’s Critical Challenge
- Add Emotions and Behaviors with Enneagram Types
- Character Development Matrix
- Character Development Levels Example
- Free Character Template
Start with the End in Mind
In the Anatomy of Story*, John Truby described character arcs for different storytelling.
Serious novels typically depict how a person interacts and changes within an entire society or show the precise mental and emotional processes leading up to his change.
He made this key point.
Stories don’t show the audience the “real world”; they show the story world. The story world isn’t a copy of life as it is. It’s life as human beings imagine it could be. It is human life condensed and heightened so that the audience can gain a better understanding of how life itself works.
What Is a Character Arc
As your story unfolds, the point-of-view character faces conflicts and fears that force an awareness of the need to change. Without change, it seems certain the character will not overcome the story’s core challenge. For example, the classic Hero’s Journey serves as the foundation for the transformational POV Character Arc, one of the most popular structures in fiction and movies.
For instance, here’s an arc illustrating the character’s emotional and behavioral progression as the story unfolds.
Using the Character Development Levels and Character Development Matrix can help writers identify progressive emotional and behavioral changes that occur in stressful situations.
The free Character Template gives you the perfect place to record the emotional and behavioral shifts for your novel’s protagonist and antagonist.
As you Build a Story Spine, you can use the information recorded in the lead character’s profile to show crucial changes in emotions and behaviors. For example, the POV Character Arc above shows how stress shifted the Enneagram Levels of Development as the plot progressed from HOOK to MIDPOINT, moving downward from a 3 to a 5 until rebounding to a 3 by the RESOLUTION.
➨Examples of Positive Change
- Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Game series
- Rick Blaine in Casablanca
- Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol
- Lightning McQueen in Cars
- Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice
➨Examples of Negative Change
- Walter White in Breaking Bad
- Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind
- Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby
- Anakin Skywalker in the Star War series
➨Examples of No Change
Not all stories require the lead character to change. In those instances, the protagonist exerts some action that influences the story world, but personal traits and behaviors remain unchanged.
- Robert Langdon in the Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons, and Inferno
- Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep
- Perry Mason in the Perry Mason series
- Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird
A Writer’s Critical Challenge
Stories that deliver meaningful life lessons resonate with audiences. But this requires finesse because your readers will sense whether a character’s emotions and behaviors portray realistic reactions to plot events.
Scan unfavorable book reviews and you’ll often find critical comments because the stories lacked realistic emotions and behaviors. So how can you create realistic reactions, the kind that make characters leap off the pages and satisfy the expectations of audiences?
Consider three goals:
- Convey emotions that capture and hold readers’ interest.
- Supply thoughts, dialog, and actions that support the plot.
- Move the story forward.
Add Emotions and Behaviors with Enneagram Types
Two books by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi can help you show realistic emotions:
- The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression*
- The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma*
Besides learning more about emotions, I also needed to organize my thoughts. For example, I wanted to wrap my mind around how to create realistic character behaviors that would stir the feelings of readers. So I kept searching for what would work for my writing style and genre, and that’s when I discovered the Enneagram of Personality.
For instance, Wikipedia describes the Enneagram of Personality as a test that aligns an individual’s traits to one of nine types, defined and displayed on a geometric figure called an Enneagram.
Note: The Enneagram geometric figure does not represent a religious symbol, but serves as a device to show the relationship between the nine types.
➨The Nine Enneagram Types
To understand how the system works, I studied how the nine types could help writers show real-world emotions and behaviors as characters shift from feeling secure to experiencing stress.
➨How Do the Enneagram Types Differ?
Even with the information available on Enneagrams, I still needed to sort the details and create realistic character profiles. So for quick reference, I turned my notes into this illustration of Character Types.
The Character Types show core tendencies, basic fear, and basic desire. They also show how the behavior changes when a character feels stress or is secure. I use this summary to choose the character type.
➨Use Types in Character Arc and Profile
I use the enneagram types to help me develop:
- Protagonists who have flaws that surface as they transition from healthy to unhealthy emotions and behaviors.
- Antagonists who see themselves as heroes in their own stories without coming off as cliched.
- Supporting characters who play limited roles but add incremental emotions and behaviors that influence the story.
➨Character Development Levels
The state of a character’s emotions and behaviors range from best (i.e., secure) to worst (i.e., stress). As writers, we can use this information to create reactions to plot events, progressing the levels upward (healthy) or downward (unhealthy). I created a quick reference guide to show a character’s range of emotions and behaviors:
- Optimal: Levels one to level three
- Mid-optimal: Levels four to level six
- Sub-optimal: Levels seven to nine
Character Development Matrix
The Character Development Matrix shows the progression when characters are feeling secure or stress.
Character Development Levels Example
Below, you’ll find an excerpt from a lead character’s profile I created for a thriller novel. I chose the Type 8: THE CHALLENGER for the chief protagonist, Kyle West. As explained in the backstory below, readers meet Kyle at Level 6, a decline from a Level 3 after significant emotional events.
➨The Starting Point
- Current Development: At Level 6 (Average), Kyle became combative and intimidating to get his way, creating adversarial relationships.
- Everything became a test of wills, and Kyle would not back down.
- He used threats at work and even reprisals to get obedience and keep others off balance and insecure.
- But unjust treatment made others fear and resent him, and they also banded together against him.
- When he used these behaviors on his boss, Kyle got fired (i.e., another significant event and emotional wound).
➨Changes as Character Feels More Stress
- Stress Progression: Based on his words and angry behaviors, Kyle seemed vengeful and even barbaric.
- At work, people gossiped and wondered if Kyle would seek revenge and become murderous.
- Kyle’s confrontational behaviors appeared at odds with his persona prior to the deaths of his wife and parents.
- If he continues feeling stress, he’ll spiral downward with unhealthy emotions and behaviors.
- Level 7 (Unhealthy): Defying control attempts, Kyle becomes ruthless, and dictatorial.
- He trends toward the criminal and outlaw, renegade, and con-artist.
- Kyle becomes hard-hearted, immoral and violent.
- Level 8 (Unhealthy): At this level, Kyle develops delusional ideas about his power, invincibility, and ability to prevail.
- Kyle believes he’s omnipotent, invulnerable, and over-extends self.
- Level 9 (At Worst): If in danger, Kyle may destroy everything opposed to his will rather than surrender.
- He’s vengeful, barbaric, and murderous.
- He may develop sociopathic tendencies, corresponding to Antisocial Personality Disorder.
➨Changes as Character Feels More Secure
- Secure Progression: The prior two years caused Kyle to slip into aggressive and confrontational behaviors.
- But if he masters self, he can use his strengths to improve others’ lives, becoming heroic.
- If he continues Secure, he’ll progress upward toward healthy emotions and behaviors.
- Level 5 (Average): Kyle dominates his environment and people: wants to feel that others support his efforts.
- Swaggering, boastful, forceful, and expansive, he’s the “boss” whose word is law.
- Proud, egocentric, Kyle still wants to impose his will and vision on everything.
- He still has flaws, but better emotions and behaviors than a Level 6.
- Level 4: Self-sufficiency, financial independence, and having enough resources are important concerns for Kyle.
- He becomes enterprising, pragmatic, a “rugged individualist,” a wheeler-dealer.
- He’s now seen as risk-taking, hardworking, and denying his own emotional needs.
- Level 3 (Healthy): He’s now decisive and authoritative, the natural leader others respect.
- Kyle takes initiative, makes things happen.
- He champions people and protects.
- He’s seen as honorable and carries others with his strength.
Note: At the end of the novel, Kyle has returned to his Level 3 persona, a stark contrast to the Level 6 character readers met at the beginning of the story.
➨Backstory Influences Starting Point
You might wonder: What would cause the story’s hero to fall from a Level 3 to a Level 6?
In Kyle’s backstory, he was a Level 3 before the unsolved murder of his wife. A tragic automobile accident killed his parents, who were on their way to attend his wife’s funeral. As the plot unfolds, readers sense Kyle teeters on the edge of an emotional abyss. Over several pages (i.e., Act 1 through Midpoint of Act 2), the backstory dribbles out, readers discover why Kyle feels and behaves as a Level 6.
Even though Kyle has plenty of flaws, the backstory also suggests he has tremendous upside potential.
Readers want an emotional payoff—to see Kyle change—so they keep turning pages!
The audience hopes Kyle will become worthy of his love interest, Susie. As the pair race to solve the murder before the killer strikes again, readers seek that emotional payoff. They eagerly turn pages, looking for Kyle’s transformation, enabling him to identify the murderer and win over Susie.
Free Character Template
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