October 26, 2010

How to Create a Strong Character: Give Them Goals

Atlas Holding the Globe

Last time, we looked at a simple list for What Makes a Female Character Strong based on The Female Character Flowchart.  But if that list is so simple, why does it seem so difficult to create a strong character?  Why do so many fail and fall into stereotypes?

Maybe because the list is made up of simple points, but it isn’t so simple to implement.  So let’s look at how to make sure our characters—male or female—embody each of those traits.  First up…

Can they carry their own story?

Umm, okay, sounds good, but what does that mean?  I think it’s helpful to analyze what we’d mean by this question if we were talking about a character who was not a main or point-of-view character.  If we were talking about a secondary character, what would it mean for them to be able to carry their own story?

Well, first of all, they’d have to have goals of some sort to create a story for them.  At the most basic level, a story is the journey from Point A to Point B.  So to have a story, a character needs a Point B in their life.  They need goals.  Without goals, that poor secondary character would just be standing around to act as a sounding board for the important guys.

As soon as they have goals, they’d have motivation for their actions beyond being a puppet of the plot.  They wouldn’t be doing something just because the plot told them to.  They’d be doing something because they thought it would help them reach their goals.

If you’ve studied the GMC (goal/motivation/conflict) structure of scenes, you can probably guess what comes next.  That’s right.  Conflict.  Characters reveal themselves through how they react to conflict.  What are their strengths and weaknesses?  What makes them more than just a cardboard cutout?

Okay, so a strong character is one that serves themselves—not the plot and not the other characters.  Listen to your characters.  Find out what they want.  Let them want what they want, even when…no, especially when what they want goes against the plot or the goals of the other characters.

In every scene, know the goal and motivation for every character, major and minor.  Let them argue if need be.  My post How to Fix the Infamous Info Dump talked about how showing conflict between characters can help fix info dump passages.  As the characters argue about the pros and cons of different options, they’re cluing in the reader about the situation.  Conflict creates tension.  Tension leads to page-turning stories.  It’s all good.

So let those strong characters of yours muck up stuff with their independent needs and desires.  They’ll help you build a better story, one populated by strong characters rather than puppets.

Do your secondary characters all have their own goals?  Has it helped or hurt your stories?  Did any characters try taking over the story?  How did you handle it?

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Roni Loren

Great post, Jami! I think the question of could they carry their own story is a GREAT one. Because I’m writing a romance series, I’m always considering my secondary characters for their own book. I think this has inadvertently helped me create stronger secondary characters because of it. When my agent signed me, she listed 3 other people in the story she could see carrying their own novels–so I was so excited that she was able to connect with characters who just played minor roles in the first story.


Awesome post, Jami! You nailed it. When you say:

‘Find out what they want. Let them want what they want’

This is really important when it comes to secondary characters, because I think most times they’re used as props for the main character instead of a good foil or, as you say, an important part of the conflict towards the MC’s main goal or resolution.

I’ll have to think about this some more.


Shelly Chalmers

Great post, Jami! This is something it seemed to take me awhile to learn, and a weakness I see in some other writers’ work. The only danger is sometimes those secondary characters suddenly become WAY too interesting and start to try and hijack the book! 🙂 So long as one watches out for those character hijackers (and makes them wait for their own book, darnit!) more dimensional characters always make a book stronger. Thanks for sharing. Also have to go have a peek at your flowchart too.


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Jules Archer

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William R. Soldan
William R. Soldan

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