Writing Excuses 9.13: Three-Pronged Character Development
Key Points: Three prongs: sympathy, competence, and proactivity. With change over time. Be careful about Mary Sue. With great powers come great challenges. Maybe not for building characters, but for troubleshooting. Think about how the character interfaces with the plot, too.
[Mary] Season nine, episode 13.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, three prongs of character development.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Brandon] And we’re not that smart. I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And the part of Dan this week will be played by the car from the Jetsons.
[Howard] All the way from Germany.
[Brandon] That went by real fast. I… This is a topic I pitched, because recently I’ve started viewing characters a little bit differently, at least talking about characters. I realized that there are really three prongs or three quoshes…
[Mary] Three parts to the quotients of the character.
[Brandon] Three parts to the quotients of the character that you can mix and match and you can kind of slide these scales up and down to create an engaging character. These three prongs are how sympathetic or relatable they are, how nice they are, really. The second prong is how competent they are. The third prong is how proactive they are. I began to think of many characters as a mixture of these different things, where you’ve got like 20% moved up on the sympathetic prong…
[Howard] So sympathy, competence, and proactivity?
[Brandon] Together make a character engaging. These are the three things I found that really draw me as a reader to a character. I like characters who are competent. I like characters who do something, who protag, as you so eloquently put it so often, Howard. And characters who are nice. I started to realize that if you like take one of these bars all the way down… You can say, “Okay. I’m going to do somebody who’s very competent and very proactive, but not sympathetic or nice.” Suddenly you have a lot of your different villains. Or you can create a villain that is not as… Not quite as competent, but a little bit more sympathetic. Or you can create a character where you bring up the proactivity and the sympathy, but bring down the competence, and you end up like with someone who’s a little bit more like Indiana Jones…
[Howard] The Tick!
[Brandon] Or you just have sympathy only, then you have somebody like Samwise Gamgee or even Harry Potter, who’s not really that proactive and not really… I’d say he’s like 50% up on these two bars and way up on the sympathy one. Just by mixing and matching these, I’ve begun to be able to describe characters.
[Mary] That’s really interesting. Part of what I’m sitting there thinking about is how that plays out as the character goes through… That is… Because one of the things… When you talk about slider bars, of course, that that slider bar doesn’t stay in the same place, where it is in the beginning, for most characters.
[Brandon] Right. Particularly the competency area is going to be moved up over time. But sometimes you will have characters where the trajectory is you’re moving the sympathy bar down as you’re moving the competency bar up and things like this.
[Howard] Or for a good convincing villain, you’ve got the sympathy bar moving up…
[Brandon] Moving up as they understand and relate to the character more. This came because people ask me quite a bit, “How do I make engaging characters, particularly if my character’s kind of annoying at the beginning? How do I make somebody at the start of the story that we’re not going to like but by… How do we still make that beginning interesting?” I say, “Well, just crank those other bars way up.”
[Mary] Yeah. I think this is actually something that you run into a lot with YA where you have someone who is often at the beginning… Not always, but frequently you’ll… One of the flaws that you’ll see is that you’ll have somebody who comes across as the whiny teenager, because you have to give them flaws to overcome for the beautiful character arc. But that means that you have someone whose proactive… Bar is low, whose competence bar is low, and whose sympathy bar is low.
[Brandon] Yes. Yeah. I suggest to readers… Or to writers that you really want to try and move one of those bars up. You’re saying, “I don’t want to have this character be really sympathetic at the beginning.” You’ve really got to make them good at something instead. A great example of this is Artemis Fowl, a teen series where you have the proactivity and the competence cranked up enough that it makes up for the fact that at the beginning, this guy’s presented as a villain, that he’s kind of sarcastic and mean, and as you move through the series, you move that sympathy bar up a lot. But in the beginning, the fact… The mere fact that he’s doing things is… Carries us through with this character.
[Howard] Now, at risk of the… at risk of taking your model and making it unnecessarily complex, when I worked in software, we talked about three slider bars. There is the release date, there is the feature set, and there are the development resources. If you are unwilling to move the release date, then you have to pull down the sliders on feature set and… Or bump up the slider on resources. In short, we were looking at it as a zero sum game, and where do you strike the balance? My question here is are there situations where pushing all three sliders to the top will break the character or break the story? Are there situations in which it is a zero sum game, and you have to pull a slider down in order for the character to be engaging?
[Brandon] See, I would say in fiction, the sliders are not a zero-sum game. It’s about the type of character you’re trying to write. For instance, Dirk Pitt is the perfect example. Dirk Pitt is at a hundred on each of these sliders. At every opportunity…
[Mary] I’m not familiar with him.
[Brandon] Dirk Pitt is the hero of Clive Cussler’s series. He’s a classic Superman character. No superpowers, but he is a classic… He is a Boy Scout type thing, he’s always nice to everybody. He’s civil, he’s super competent, and he is always protag’ing. You find a lot of the golden age like superheroes, they tried to move the slider bars up as far as they could on all of them. That makes the sympathy one sometimes hard to hit the top one because if the person is so competent and so powerful, it immediately makes them unrelatable and so hitting all 100 is hard with a superpowered character, I would say.
[Mary] That was the thing that I was going to say, when Howard raised the question, was that I think that for most people when you raise all of those up, that’s when you get into the Mary Sue character.
[Brandon] Right. You do. There are people who love a Mary Sue, though. There are entire genres that are built around loving Mary Sue type characters.
[Mary] Yeah. For those of you who are relatively new listeners, a Mary Sue character is someone who is so good at everything that they crossover into unbelievable. Frequently it is a… They also represent a wish fulfillment thing.
[Brandon] Yes, they do.
[Mary] One of the things that I think… One of the ways that you can mitigate this, and this is where the… What happens with the Mary Sue characters, is what you’re doing with your plot. Because you can have a super competent character who still hits the try-fail cycles and fails at stuff, not because of their incompetency, but because of things they can’t… You still have to see them having obstacles that they can overcome.
[Brandon] These characters, you pile on the external conflict and make them go through all kinds of terrible things.
[Mary] Yeah. Which is why Superman has to have super villains to fight. Because if you are just fighting normal villains then… Where’s… You would just be annoyed by him.
[Howard] You realize that what you’ve just done is added another slider.
[Brandon] Which one is that?
[Howard] You’re talking about the slider for externalities. If you have the first three sliders maxed out, if you have a Dirk Pitt character or a Superman character, then you are going to have to bump up the level of conflict…
[Mary] See, yeah…
[Brandon] See, I disagree because you can make any conflict difficult. You as a writer have power over all of this.
[Howard] Yeah, yeah.
[Brandon] This is about character. That’s a plot slider.
[Howard] Okay. Well, and that’s…
[Brandon] You can write a book…
[Howard] That’s what I’m saying is, you are introducing…
[Brandon] See. Yeah.
[Howard] As we are talking about it, you’re introducing the plot slider in order to adjust the sum of the character sliders so that it works in the context of this book.
[Brandon] But there are plenty of books I’ve read and movies I’ve seen, and they’re not my favorites, but there are plenty of them in which the character does not have a big struggle. You never feel the character’s going to fail, they are… I mean, the entire melodrama stage play thing, I mean, granted, that’s kind of an in-joke but the character’s never really struggling. They are awesome, they are competent, everything is going well for them, and those are enjoyable situations. They’re enjoyable…
[Mary] I would disagree with that as a statement about how the melodramas go. They have… I mean, there’s the… That’s why you have the car chases through city and…
[Brandon] Well, I’m talking about melodrama plays that I’ve seen. Like where they play… Like I go to them up in Idaho, and it’s all about the audience participating as fun. You boo the villain, you throw popcorn at him. The hero comes on and you cheer and things like this. It’s like this… It’s become this audience participation thing. That specific genre of stage play.
[Mary] Okay. I would… Having not seen them, I’m not able to argue with you. Looking at the melodramas from film, which is where…
[Brandon] Yeah. That’s a different thing.
[Mary] But that’s where the cliffhanger comes from, because something has gone wrong for the villain… Or for the hero.
[Brandon] All right. We need to stop for our book of the week. Our book of the week is The Killing Moon by N. K. Jemison, which I haven’t actually read.
[Mary] I haven’t read it either.
[Howard] I haven’t read it.
[Groaning and creaking… TARDIS noises…]
[Dan] Hey, guys. I’m back!
[Howard] Oh, my gosh.
[Dan] I… Sorry.
[Mary] What are you doing here?
[Dan] I was in the Cretaceous period…
[Mary] That was…
[Dan] When someone stepped on a butterfly again. We got it sorted out, so don’t worry.
[Mary] But that was… Who was in that with you?
[Dan] Who? Oh, you wouldn’t know him. Just a guy. Very friendly though.
[Dan] Loves fishsticks.
[Howard] I am so sorry.
[Dan] Yeah. But I’ve only missed like one episode, right?
[Brandon] [inaudible – who’s going to mend my wall?]
[Mary] Oh, yeah. Yeah. You were just…
[Brandon] Yeah, just one.
[Mary] You weren’t gone very long.
[Brandon] We told everybody that you were going to be back soon and…
[Mary] It’s fine.
[Brandon] We didn’t make fun of you at all.
[Howard] It’s all good. It’s all good.
[Dan] Well, that’s good. I mean, there’s nothing to make fun of anyway.
[Howard] No gerbils were harmed.
[Dan] But it looks like I showed up right in the middle? What are we talking about?
[Brandon] The Killing Moon.
[Mary] Yeah, The Killing Moon by N. K
[Dan] The Killing Moon by N. K. Jemison? I love that book. That was fantastic. What’s the episode about?
[Brandon] The episode’s about characters.
[Dan] Characters. Killing Moon has awesome characters. There were these… There’s this big cast, but kind of three main ones. There’s a… The Killing Moon is a fantasy by N. K. Jemison. It has this kind of really rich African world to it, and there’s this magic system where people use dreams and they actually steal dreams from people. So two of the main characters are priests who do that kind of… The experienced one and the apprentice. Then the third is a woman who’s a diplomat from another kingdom, who thinks that they’re evil and is trying to stop them. It’s a really great book, I recommend it very highly.
[Brandon] Excellent. Now, you were going to put a content warning on this one?
[Dan] Yeah. I do think that there is a… I mean, it’s… Yes. Content warning.
[Brandon] It’s got explicit content. Now, Howard, how can they get a copy of The Killing Moon?
[Howard] Well, it’s a lot easier than getting Dan here. All they need to do is go to audiblepodcast.com/excuse, start a 30-day free trial membership, and pick up a copy of The Killing Moon by N. K. Jemison for free.
[Brandon] Wow. And we have you back!
[Brandon] It’s crazy. So tell us about the three prongs of character development.
[Dan] The three prongs of character development, as I remember them from my previous journey…
[Brandon] Just go back in time to when we started this.
[Dan] Go back in time? Okay. Hang on a second.
[Dan] Okay, I’m back. The first half of this episode was really good.
[Mary] Thanks. I wish we’d had you here.
[Dan] Well, I probably would have had a lot to say. It was difficult to not talk while I was listening to you guys.
[Howard] Now you know what all of our listeners go through.
[Dan] So, did you hear me knocking on the wall? I was behind the door over there. Anyway, I think it’s really interesting. I especially like the conversation about the zero sum and how you can slide some of the things up and down.
[Brandon] Now my comment on this whole thing is, when I discuss characters this way, it’s not always necessarily how I’m building them as a writer. Like, I write a lot of my characters by instinct and things like this. When I run into things… When I run into problems, however, I go back to… Situations like this and I say, “What’s not working with this character?” Maybe this model will help me look at this specific character. Have you guys ever had a character where you’re like, “This character… Oh, he’s not sympathetic enough or she’s not competent enough or something like that?”
[Dan] Yeah. In the Partials series, kind of the three main characters are Kira and Sam and Marcus. After the first book came out, everyone hated Marcus. That was a big surprise to me to hear reader feedback, because my editor and I both loved him. One of the reviewers put it really well by saying that Marcus fills the role of the John Grisham whiny wife, whose job is to say, “Oh, why do you have to go save the world? Can’t you be back and just stay with me the whole time?” What I realized is that his sympathy slider was down, because his role in the story was kind of holding the other character back. So in the other two books, we ramped up the competency slider significantly, we ramped up actually the likability slider a lot by making him much more funny. But in general, the idea was to make him more competent and much more active. We forced him into situations where he had to do things and that helped. So even though he still had that kind of sympathy problem, people liked him now because he was so active and he was doing things.
[Mary] I ran into a similar problem with Of Noble Family which is the fifth book in the Glamorous Histories. For plot reasons, Jane, my main character, was in a situation where she could not protag for much of the book. So the readers were frustrated because they felt like other people were protag’ing and that she… And it was a problem because I had to figure out how to… Like I had her sympathy and her competence up as high as I could go, but I actually had to go back and find ways for her to protag. One of the ways to do it was not by having her be more actively engaged, but… It was actually, I think, a sympathy slider which was to have… Not giving, because I really… She couldn’t protag… Was to have part of what was going on be her frustrated about her inability to protag.
[Brandon] Right. Right, right.
[Mary] Which brought her experience in alignment with the reader experience.
[Brandon] Which then brings up the sympathy slider, and… Yeah. I’ve found this to be a real useful tool, particularly when talking to new writers, where I say, “Look at these three areas.” I do want to highlight, though, this idea of the Mary Sue. Be really careful. When I say to writers often you’ll need to up one of these things, if you up all three, there are genres where that works, but you’re not going to create a really engaging character by having them be great at everything and the super-sympathetic. A great example of someone who realized this is actually Pat Rothfuss. If you read Name of the Wind, a lot of people point at Kvothe and say, “This guy’s a Mary Sue.” But what they’re missing is his sympathy slider is way down. He’s a jerk, he ruins his own… Every success he has, he ruins by doing something worse. He… His romantic life is messed up because he’s messed up. So he’s made someone who’s very competent and pr… He acts more competent than he is. But somebody whose protag is way up, and then brought his sympathy way down, and made a really fascinating character. You don’t read a lot of protagonists in books whose sympathy slider is down so far.
[Mary] Yeah. A lot of times you can get away with that when you’re deeply into a character’s head, and the audience won’t notice that that’s what’s going on.
[Howard] Myke Cole’s… I think it was his debut novel, Control Point, Shadow Ops, Control Point. I loved it. I blogged about it, and a lot of the commenters on the blog complain about Oscar Britton, our protagonist, because he was unsympathetic. They hated the things that he did, they hated the mistakes that he made. I remember reading… Looking at the book and thinking, “Yeah. I felt really, really bad for this character because he’d been morally conflicted and had made a bad choice.” It wasn’t just a bad choice of door number one or door number two. It was a bad choice of bad moral decision, kills lots of lots of people. But he was competent and he was… He was protag’ing and he really wanted to make good on this mistake that he made. I think that made that character far stronger than if I’d loved him.
[Dan] I think John Cleaver is a really interesting…
[Mary] I was going to bring him up.
[Dan] Character to look at here, because in a lot of ways, he… Looking at it, just at the sliders, his sliders are all very high. He’s very competent, he’s always acting, and he’s very sympathetic.
[Mary] Aside from the wanting to kill people [aspect? On the side?]
[Dan] Well, that’s the thing that keeps him from being a Mary Sue, is that he is sympathetic in ways no one would want to emulate. So it’s a different kind of sympathy.
[Mary] I wonder if there is a fourth slider which is weakness?
[Brandon] Potentially. I think that… I mean, this is just a model to use.
[Howard] It’s a troubleshooting model.
[Brandon] A troubleshooting model. I could say to the listeners, you could probably come up with your own sliders. You can add like the weakness slider, how powerful versus weak in the situation. I would say that weakness tends to build sympathy, and it’s one of the main ways… Underdogs.
[Mary] That’s fair enough. [Inaudible – You’re right]
[Brandon] That slider…
[Dan] Well, and that’s where you get back into the idea of how does this character interface with the plot? The thing we always say about Superman is the way to make him interesting is to put him in a plot where he’s not super competent against that specific…
[Brandon] Right. I mean, this is Ender’s Game, too. Ender’s Game, the sliders are all the way up. But the external conflict is such that it doesn’t matter, as much. Plus he adds a bunch of inner turmoil to have the character work through and things, but his sliders are way up on those. So anyway, this is just, I wanted to present this as something for you guys to do.
[Brandon] Howard actually has a writing prompt.
[Howard] I do. Come up with… It can be an alien race, it can be some sort of human sub race or a cybernetic race or some sort of race in which there is a sum that you are not allowed to push past, and you have sliders that dictate personality attributes. That is your magic system, if you will.
[Brandon] Excellent. I would also suggest that you… Not as a writing prompt, but as an exercise, go pick a bunch of your favorite characters from media and try and determine where they are on these sliders. See if you can find people who have one of them all the way up and the other two all the way down. Or vice versa, two up and one down. See if you can create… If you can find people who can fulfill all of these different roles. Because I’ve found it very easy to do, once I was paying attention to this. All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.