Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A way to add depth and conflict to characters

by Stephanie Morrill

One way to add depth to your important characters is to determine their philosophies about life. And to maximize conflict, the life philosophies of various characters should contradict each other. (Though it can also be fun to have two characters who believe the same thing, but go about achieving it in conflicting ways.)

I tend to consider my main character's life philosophies quite a bit, but I don't always do a good job considering those of my other characters. In my book The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet, which will be released in the spring of next year, I discovered that my main character's flaw conflicted with another character's life philosophy, and it helped me so much as I wrote the rest of the book.

The main character (Ellie Sweet, as you might assume) has a flaw of taking on the victim mentality. There are a lot of things about her life that she doesn't like, but she defaults to, "That's just how things are."

But Palmer, the boy she likes, believes he has full control over his life. And when I discovered that, it helped me nail down why Ellie is so attracted to him.

This is the scene that ties the two - Palmer's life philosophy and Ellie's flaw - together. They're working in the school's dark room developing pictures, and Palmer has just announced to Ellie (whom he calls Gabrielle) that he's sure he's going to get the lead in the school play:


I roll my eyes, even though he can’t see. “How can you say things like that? Like you know what will happen?”
“Because I’m a man who believes in making my own way.”
“You’re not a man, you’re sixteen.”
Palmer laughs as he clips his picture on the drying line. “You’re hard on a guy’s ego, you know that, sweetheart?”
The room is quiet as I move my picture down the line, a candid of Elliot and my mom in deep conversation. It’s too dark to tell, but I think the photo’s turning out all wrong. As if my bitterness over catching them in that moment, doing something Mom never takes time to do with me anymore, shades everything.
“What did you mean that you believe in making your own way?”
“Exactly what I said. I don’t believe in just sitting back and letting life happen. If I want something, I go get it. I make it work.”
I frown. “That’s ridiculous. You can’t control everything.”
“You can control more that you think.” Palmer stands behind me, boxing me into the corner. “Don’t you get tired of just reading about everything, Gabrielle?”
My blood pressure spikes. “I like reading.”
“But you shouldn’t make it an excuse for not living.”


When you've determined a character's life philosophy, you instantly open the story up for plot lines that show the philosophy as true and false. If Palmer feels he's in control of his own destiny, I'm going to look for ways to show him he can't control as much as he'd like. Yet Ellie needs to be accepting more responsibility for her life, so I'll find plot points that can push her toward taking charge. Make sense?

Make a list of the important characters in your story. What's a sentence or two that describes the way they approach life and choices? What truths do they believe about the universe? In the story, how can those truths seem sound and smart, and how can they seem foolish?

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section!

36 comments:

  1. Uh-oh. I can't seem to figure out how my characters see life. Which probably means...I don't actually have anything in there about that to begin with!

    Now if only I could figure that out...guess I'll keep trying to get to know my characters better. Actually, I think I've figured out why my beginnings sounds bad! It's not necessarily because of where I start and how I start so much as the fact that I don't know my characters yet! Eureka! Now I know why I'm not getting anywhere.

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    1. I have a tough time starting until I know my characters well, but I'm also a "character first" type of writer when it comes to story ideas rather than plot first.

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  2. One of my characters lives life to make her happy. She is becoming very fun to write. One only has a couple more months to live and she is afraid of hurting other people so she doesn't get close to anyone. One just changed her life to be a better mom, because she sees that as the thing God sees more important than her job. One tries to protect everyone around him and dictate what they do, because he is afraid of losing them.

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    1. Sounds like you have a good variety of characters, Alyson. Nice job!

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  3. Great post, Stephanie! Favorite part: "The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet, which will be released in the spring of next year..." Every time you mention it in a post, I get more excited about it!

    In the story I'm in the beginning stages of writing, the main character approaches life with an attitude of mistrusting the world. Even when she lets herself down, she still thinks it's better than letting other people become involved in her problems. And then there's another character who's all about admitting struggles and helping each other out and not living with regrets. This post has helped me think about where to take the characters in my story. Thank you!

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    1. Thanks, Anna! I'm excited about it too :)

      Sounds like you have some very well thought out characters. I bet the story will be great!

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  4. This is wonderful! :) I have a character who's tough, competitive and quick. She doesn't take anyone's laziness and she will let you know if you are worthless in her eyes. She has a goal she sets and she meets those goals.

    In that same story I have a character who is sort of lost as a person. She has friends, but nobody who's really close to her. She reaches out but gets burned a bit. She's the type to focus more on relationships on not her job.

    The tough character at some point tells the lost character that basically "she is the least worthwhile person she has ever met."

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  5. I have never thought about this before. I'll have to give it a little thought, and figure out what my characters think. I'm only at the beginning of the story, so it shouldn't be too hard...

    Thanks for another amazing post, Stephanie! I can't wait until The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet comes out!

    -Abby

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    1. Thanks, Abby! I'm getting super excited :)

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  6. I think the most clear-cut of my books in this respect is the one with the heroine who thinks life is one big adventure/romance fit for her to write stories about, all starring Phin--who, in turn, has come to believe life's ugly and desperate and that he's as unheroic as a man can get. Definitely fun to pit those philosophies against each other. =)

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    1. Oooh. What great conflict for a romance novel :)

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  7. This post really made me think!
    hmm..I guess my MC's main life goal is to never get hurt. but I'm not sure about my supporting characters. Guess I better work on that.

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    1. That goal can cause some very interesting choices - good one!

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  8. Hm. Ember's main goal would be to prevent herself from getting attached to people, so she doesn't get hurt.
    Jack's is probably to break out of the rut he's in, go somewhere, make something of himself.

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    1. Ember and Jack? LOVE. Great names and great goals :)

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  9. I have an MC who`s the usual optimist. My other MC is her brother, who just can`t make up his mind on most things. And my other MC is just too laid back....
    Thanks for this post Stephanie!! Gotta go work on my characters now~

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    1. Indecisive and laid back tells me your MC is going to have a lot of opportunities to take charge!

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  10. So true. Everyone has a different perspective of life.

    I love love love the excerpt you gave and cannot wait to read about Ellie Sweet! =)

    Tessa
    www.christiswrite.blogspot.com

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  11. I NEEDED THIS SO BAD!! My characters are so flat and cardboard-y I was beginning to hate them. :P But with this information in my mind. . . . TO THE PLANNING BOARD!! :D

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  12. Such an awesome post. Right now my WIP is lacking something, and I've been wondering what it was, but I think I might have found the cure. Thinking of my characters philosophies might just be what I needed because not only is there more tension, but the how my MC's react to certain events(based on their philosophies) makes the story believable and pushes it forward.

    And can I just say that I LOVED that little blurb of your new book. :) I really like Ellie, and Palmer sounds... gorgeous. :P

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    1. I'm so glad this was helpful, Clarebear! Ellie's really fun - though sometimes she's so much like me, I want to strangle her :)

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  13. Thanks for the post!
    My characters in the story I'm just starting now need a little more 'life' so I'll think about their goals and philosophies :)

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  14. My main character sees life as everyone for themselves. He is not used to giving or recieving mercy and is strangely touched when others are kind to him. Another character is self-confident and sees herself as almost invinsible. She sometimes fools around with potentially dangerous people and feels that they can do nothing to hurt her. At the same time, she is very protective of the few people she is close to. My third character is a quiet observer and is content living life to serve others. She is very sensitive and does not often show her true feelings for fear of them being scorned. Despite her unopeness, she is more than willing to listen to others and support them as much as she can.
    Thanks for this post! Characterization is my favorite aspect of writing, so I really enjoyed reading your insight on it!

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  15. This is a really great post! I suppose I might have a bit of conflict between my two characters. For example, my main character is very proactive and hard working to achieve her goals, like keeping her brother safe. On the other hand, another character is laid back and more of a "take it as it comes" type of person. This provides conflict in scenes where the MC wants to get something done, but the other character isn't helping.

    Stephanie, I was so excited to hear the news about your next release! Ellie and Palmer have already captured my interest as great characters :)

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  16. Thank you for the great post. I will definitely be keeping this in mind. :-)

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  17. My MC really wants to appear tough, and she tries to get out of the center of attention by brushing things off as "no big deal". A friend she makes during the story is already tough because she has a rough life. This friend finds it hard to trust people because of some family problems, and because of my MC's secretive nature the two have conflicting philosophies. This could get intense throughout my WIP.

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  18. My main character is afraid to be herself. It makes sense, though, in the consequences. She also has trust issues. Her best friend is the kind of girl who works hard, and seems perfect at everything she does. My other main character isn't worried about taking chances after he gets the short stick in life. Hmm. Although I knew most of this, this really helped gie me a clearer picture of who they are and how they interact. Thanks!
    Oh, and your book sounds awesome. :)

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  19. My main character is kind of the opposite of Ellie. She's used to being able to control everything and she starts having problems when she realizes there are things in life that she can't control. But I haven't thought as much about my other characters. I just started, though, so this is something to keep in mind while I'm fleshing out my idea.

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  20. ooooohhhhhh! This really makes me think....
    Um... I guess for my character when it comes to challenges she charges them head on. She's not afraid of a challenge. She was taught since birth the opposite of what everyone else was taught so she believes that wrong is right and right it wrong. Some of her choices may seem foolish or even mean and deadly but that was the way she was taught.

    Oh! I just came up with a new idea for her! Thanks so much Stephanie! I need to go write this down!

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  21. Life philosophy. This is great; I've never thought about it before! Thanks Steph!

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  22. Whoa. I can already really tell I'm going to love this book. When can I preorder? Palmer sounds amazing. Ellie sounds so relatable. Okay, I'll stop gushing now and move on to the actual point of this comment...

    CONGRATULATIONS, Stephanie! I hadn't yet heard it was being released next spring! Cool!

    Now...I can tell how knowing life philosophies would be helpful...that's something I noticed in Insurgent, too, that the FMC knows what she wants and how she wants to go about it (truth first, action second). The MMC wants the same thing but wants to go about it in a different way...Interesting. :)

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    1. GAHHHH! I missed that one crucial line. A NEW BOOK!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I love love love the name Palmer. AAAAHH!

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    2. Thanks so much, girls :) Totally made my day.

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