Writing Excuses 9.13: Three Pronged Character Development

We talk about characters a lot, which is fitting since characters are what make things go in most of our favorite books. Brandon introduces a new model for examining characters in which three primary attributes – Competence, Proactivity, and Sympathy – are contrasted. We treat each one as if controlled by a fader or slider, like on a mixing console, and we look at what the relative positions of those sliders do to a character.

It’s only a model, obviously, and it’s not how we go about starting a character, but it has proven useful in troubleshooting characters who aren’t accomplishing the story purposes we want them to accomplish.


Come up with a race of creatures in which there is a sum which you’re not allowed to push past, and you have sliders on these people that control their attributes.

The Killing Moon: Dreamblood, Book 1, by N.K. Jemisin, narrated by Sarah Zimmerman

31 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 9.13: Three Pronged Character Development”

  1. I think I like the likeability slider if there has to be a fourth. I with there was more of this in rpgs. Instead of the one slider of perfect angel/kills everyone the see. I guess that where you have to roleplay.

  2. I have to point out that the Competent/Proactive/Sympathetic is, for me, *always* a zero sum game. Admittedly, there are the Superman characters who rate highly on all 3 scores, but there’s a difference between creating a balanced character (Kelsier, Harry Dresden, arguably Captain Tagon (I’m not sure how much of that is proactiveness on his part vs having skilled subordinates and being lucky)) – you have a character who’s got the skills, plans ahead on when and how to use them to best advantage, and is genuinely likable, but there’s still going to be some shortcoming – Kelsier may run out of metal at an inopportune time, or just underestimate just how tough his opponent is; Dresden will bite off more than he can chew (no matter how big his proverbial mouth gets) and grind himself down to the point where it’s a desperate struggle not so much because he’s up against insurmountable odds so much as he’s broken himself down to the point where he’s no longer capable of repeating his earlier feats.

    Superman will proceed for all eternity as if nothing is wrong until he comes across the wrong kind of rock. The Hardy Boys (dredging way back into childhood stories for more Mary Sues) will end up pissing off an entire criminal organization, cult, or the like. And yeah, I rate 2 teenagers managing to get the entire mafia actively engaged in trying to kill them about as likely as someone having collected a fragment of the planet Superman happens to come from. (Admittedly it becomes more plausible when his enemies are also from Krypton, but the fact that a rock has the ability to curtail his powers is still Deus ex Machina in my book.

    There’s a reason I like Marvel over DC – aside from the few icons like the original Captain America (a pretty much irredeemable character in my book – it’s amazing the movies managed to do anything with him at all), everyone in the Marvel-verse is a person. Tony Stark is a “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” with his epic exoskeleton that rides the border of that technology=magic quote, but he has a tendency to spend too much time partying and enjoying life. Highly sympathetic (aside from when he’s abusing his obscene wealth), highly competent, but not nearly proactive enough. Wolverine is, in a lot of ways, low in all 3 – he’s got the physical competence but tends to think every problem can be clawed to death, he’s got the tough guy/animalistic demeanor that ranges from rough charm to downright terrifying, and he doesn’t really exhibit much ability to plan ahead at all.

  3. Well that was probably the best comeback I’ve seen in a long time.

    And since my current manuscript has three main characters, I’ll have all sorts of fun with these sliders when I’m doing later drafts and polishing everything!

  4. This episode is probably my most favourite comeback ever. Good to have you back, Dan xD Really missed you! The butterfly has been dealt with?

    (Oh, and which incarnation of… ‘the guy’ did you meet?)

    In all seriousness, great episode guys. Learnt a lot about characters and certainly got a few ideas I’d like to experiment with. As always ;)

  5. I think that whether the “sliders” are a zero-sum game is dependent on the kind of story you’re writing. If my memory is correct, there was once an episode that discussed character-driven stories versus plot-driven stories. A character-driven story requires the main character to have at least one flaw, so the sliders need to be balanced in a way that makes the character, themself, interesting. Where you can get away with having a “superman” character is when the story is fully plot-driven and the reader is more concerned with the method of resolving the problem, rather than whether the character undergoes any sort of personal growth.

  6. Very interesting episode! I will have to think about this some more, but one thing I wondered is if the sympathy slider could be split into two, as there are two kinds of sympathy. There’s “Oh, your situation stinks and I feel sorry for you” sympathy, and “You’re a really nice person and I like you” sympathy. (I think Brandon mentioned the latter at the beginning of this episode.) In theory, you could have a character who is very competent, very proactive, and very sympathetic in that their life stinks, but not very likeable, and their character arc could be one of becoming more likable.

    Nice to see, er, hear Dan’s back. Gotta love the TARDIS noise.

  7. The thing about the “slider” model is that the things we use to move the sliders can themselves be imagined to be on sliders.

    Also, there’s a patch-bay, which enables you to slave the SYMPATHY slider to the COMPETENCE slider, and so forth.

    In short, it’s a model that gets frustratingly complex the more you try and map book things to mixing board things.

    I’ve run mixing boards though — the big ones, with dozens of knobs per slider, a patch-bay the size of a computer hutch, and racks upon racks of effects equipment — and I can tell you this much for sure: Mixing boards are frustratingly complex all by themselves. Mapping all of their guts and gain knobs to writing techniques is going to quickly require mastery of two disciplines instead of just one.

  8. First, welcome back, Dan: we’ve had all these marshmallows, but no one knew if they were delicious or not.

    Second, I think the “if the sliders are zero sum or not” question is itself a slider, ranging from gritty (totally zero sum) to classically heroic (totally not zero sum). The more restricted the sliders are, and the more inversely proportional they are, the more “realistic” the character is, the gritter they are, and thus the darker the overall story. It’s basically the idea behind character generation in several table-top roleplaying games: if you want to play a superhero story, the characters get higher stats across the board, but if you want to play a gumshoe detective, the stats are much lower.

  9. Welcome back Dan! (Though since I’m not a whovian, I think I missed a lot of insider jokes…)

    Very interesting podcast. I’m working on a first draft, but I’m so close to the end that character problems to be attack in revisions are starting to pop up in my mind. This episode helped me realize that the love interest of my protag is high in competence, but relatively low in sympathy and proactivity. Low proactivity isn’t necessarily a bad thing (if I ever write the second book, a positive turn in that direction would be his arc) but low sympathy is bad for a character you want readers to like.

    Thanks for the food for thought. I’ll probably be mapping out all my characters with this model now.

  10. Very engaging discussion. I like it when the podcasters disagree with each other on occasion. It gives us different perspectives.

    Interesting view on the three sliders. I’m writing a tale with three protagonists and it looks like each of them is rated differently on those scales.

  11. Great podcast guys! My favorite in a while.
    Thinking about this, I realized that James Bond (particularly during the Roger Moore era) was a Superman character who had all three sliders pushed to 100%. And this doesn’t get taken down until the Daniel Craig films.
    In Casino Royale, Competence and Proactivity are still set to maximum, but they take down sympathy by depicting Bond much more as the brutish, thugish killer. Then they raise his Sympathy across the film by having him tortured.
    In Skyfall, Sympathy is set to 100% from the start because Bond has been so wronged by M, but the nature of his injury/insult allows them to take Competence way down for the first time in the franchise history.

  12. Great episode and great to have Dan back (your non-human stand-ins didn’t cut it).

    I just had a thought while listening and I think someone mentioned a fourth POWER slider. Here’s where I make my case for it:

    At first I thought that came with COMPETENCE. In a way it can. But if you look at a lot of genre stories, some characters have incredible powers, but either don’t know how to use them (Green Lantern at the very beginning, Vin when she first discovers she’s a Mistborn, anyone who obtains the magical item but not how to use it). So that’s where POWER, though latent and not realized, creates a compelling dynamic whereby a reader might turn the page to find out if the character can master this POWER and thereby become COMPETENT.

    Whereas, Tyrion Lanister has no power of his own, except his competence..maybe money. His competence saves him. Knowing what to do or say, choosing alliances. But in any fight, we’re thinking “Oh, this guy’s going to get killed!” and that vulnerability is compelling when he is otherwise so competent and has more traits we can empathize with than any of his family.

    The reason this distinction is important is that, a highly powerful character can be so incompetent that a reader dislikes them, despite being otherwise sympathetic. If a character keeps making stupid choices, I want to put a book down.

    And my thought on sympathy is that maybe Empathy is a better word. Understanding and identifying with a character, even if you’d personally make different choices or perhaps think they’re vile.

    I’m sure this is a theory that will continue to evolve, and I enjoyed the podcast (and thank you for allowing it to be longer!!) I want “30 minutes long, because there are 4 of you, and you all have good ideas.”

  13. This is a really interesting topic. I’ve been thinking that Mary Sue characters, with all 3 sliders turned way up, can be useful in stories with a “man vs. society” element to them. A couple of examples that come to mind are Ned Stark, and Bunny Colvin from seasons 3 and 4 of The Wire. Both come across as your traditional “hero”, and both are placed into worlds in which their heroic qualities end up being liabilities, highlighting the unfairness of those worlds.

    I guess you could also say that while both characters are highly competent in their jobs, their competence slider is much lower when dealing with political intrigue (in Ned’s case) or institutional dysfunction (in Colvin’s case). So maybe they aren’t true Mary Sues. Still, in both stories, the fact that these characters would be Mary Sues in a just world — that the very qualities that make them good and honorable leaders make them vulnerable to the realities of their respective worlds — serves to make a powerful point.

  14. Hi guys, been a long time since I posted. 2 cross-country moves will do that to a guy’s time. Never stopped listening, though.

    This is an awesome analytical tool and it is great to have Dan back. Quite the twist, didn’t see it coming (I think I got a little misty-eyed). I had started to wonder if you might just rename Eric James Stone to “Dan” and write Mr. Wells out. ;-)

    I think the 4th slider idea of Howard’s is very appropriate and it should be noted that not only do sliders change over the course of the story, they won’t necessarily be 100% in all regards. Take James Bond: we may relate to him and sympathize with what he is trying to do, but he isn’t the most sympathetic with his relationships.

Comments are closed.