When I first started writing, I was a total pantser.
I sat down and started with just a kernal of an idea to go on. Don’t get me wrong, it was fun to get words on the page and see a story emerging, but unfortunately, once I finished that first book, I realized it was a huge mess. I loved those characters, and I had a great black moment, but I quickly realized that the structure was a mess and I would have to completely rewrite it if wanted to try to sell it. After spending a whole year on that book, I decided that I had to find a better way to write. In this article, I’m going to share with you the process I use to structure all of my books, but don’t worry if you’re not a plotter, because it isn’t overbearing for those of us who are pantsers at heart.
At this point, you’re probably wondering why this article is titled “Creating Compelling Characters” if I’m sharing how I structure my stories. The answer is, because the main characters are the stars of the story and they control the story through their decisions and actions (or in some cases, inactions). The decisions the main characters make at the major turning points are what drive the story, and their personality type(s) will influence how they make those decisions.
The concept of the “Big Five” personality traits is taken from psychology and includes five broad categories that describe personality. These five personality traits are used to understand the relationship between personality and various behaviors, and all five of these factors are assumed to represent the basic structure behind all personality traits. These five factors were defined and discovered by several different researchers during multiple periods of research.
I’ve been asked why I don’t use the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator instead, and the answer is, it’s too much information for me. I find it overwhelming. In real life, people are a combination of traits, but for our purposes in creating fictional characters, we’re going to assume that each character has one main trait that will come to play during the turning points in the story. For this example, the trait we’re going to explore is openness.
Defined by an inventive and curious nature, open people generally have an appreciation for art, adventure, unusual ideas, curiosity, and variety of experience. They can be highly emotional.
They are sensitive to beauty and tend to be, compared to closed people, more creative and more aware of their feelings. They are more likely to hold unconventional beliefs.
Open people often have: a rich vocabulary, creative ideas, enjoy the abstract, and have an active imagination.
For this example, I am using the character Phoebe Buffay from the TV show Friends. If you’re not familiar with the show, or you’d like to study it more closely, it is currently on Netflix and Nick at Night. There are also a lot of clips from the show available on YouTube.
Phoebe = Openness
Character traits: naïve, childish, easy going, optimistic, passionate, artistic, open-minded, lively, caring, moody, stubborn, creative, unconventional
Backstory: Her father left the family early on and her mother committed suicide. She had to fend for herself on the streets and never graduated from high school.
Character Arc: Phoebe starts out playing guitar and singing for handouts, and also works as a freelance massage therapist. She’s had lots of dates, but only one serious relationship that ends when her scientist boyfriend leaves for Russia. By the end of the show, she has a steady job with a corporate massage business and marries Mike, finally finding stability in her life.
Character Flaws: Character flaws serve many purposes in a story, including creating conflict, allowing the audience to identify and empathize with the character, and adding depth to the character and story.
Fatal Flaw: Phoebe is emotionally closed off and won’t let anyone get too close to her because everyone in her family leaves her, as did her first long-term boyfriend, and when she finally realizes she wants to marry Mike and make a commitment, he tells her he never wants to get married, which proves her worst fear that no one wants her.
I hope you found this article useful, and I’d love to see you in the workshop where there are several more lessons and techniques to explore.