Saturday, October 1, 2016

NaNo Prep: Top 3 Resources for Writing Characters (Hannah)

Last time I talked about NaNoWriMo, and how it can dare you to start writing.  This month, I am in a flurry of NaNo (NaNoWriMo's nickname) prep.  After all, writing 50,000 words in one month doesn't happen by accident.  Since I am doing lots of preparation and research for November, I figured I would create a three-part mini-series so I can share all of my helpful resources with you.

Some people, like me, love to plan every detail of our stories so we don't get lost in the middle wondering what on earth we were thinking when we made that decision ten chapters back.  We like to work out character, plot, and setting so that we know exactly what story we are telling, and can plan to do this as effectively as possible.  We call ourselves "plotters."  Others like to start with an idea and type away without an outline.  For them, taking the time to create a detailed outline steals the joy of creativity and discovery from writing.  They ride on inspiration and follow where the story takes them.  They call themselves "pantsers," because they write by the seat of their pants.  

As a plotter, I love to know everything about my story before I ever start writing, so I will be spending October working diligently so my writing does not derail during November, and I can be sure to hit my goal.  I hope my research turns out to be helpful to those of you who are preparing for NaNoWriMo as well!

A word of warning: this post ran much longer than usual, and is very heavy on the technical side of writing.  It is certainly not a normal Top 3s post, but don't worry - if you are not as interested in the nuances of writing characters, Elizabeth will have another great Top 3 post for you next week.

NaNo Prep: Characters

Characters are arguably the most important part of storytelling.  Setting is crucial.  Theme gives power. Plot might actually be more important than characters.  But for most people, characters make or break a story.  If readers love your characters, they will usually stick with the story no matter what.  If they dislike your characters, there is not much that will convince them to stay.

If characters are so important to the success of a story, it is critical that we as writers make sure our characters turn out right.  That's no easy task.  There are thousands of articles written on this subject, and I am happy to have found some of them.  So, without further ado, here are my top three posts on how to write fantastic and effective characters.

1. Character Arcs - K. M. Weiland

This amazing 21-part series may look incredibly intimidating at first, but K.M. explains everything in such a simple, easy-to-understand manner that also manages to dig into the heart of storytelling.  This series is not shallow in any sense, and yet the way she wrote it makes you wonder why you didn't figure it out yourself.

She presented a thorough analysis of three different types of character arc.  But what is a character arc, and why is it important?  An "arc" is simply a development, a change that occurs over time.  K.M. detailed the specifics of a particular type of story called "the hero's journey," which is all about the juxtaposition of "truth" and "lie."

The Positive Arc

First, she spent fifteen posts combing through the positive arc in depth.  In a story with a positive arc, the main character begins the story believing a "lie."  This lie can be anything.  In the movie "Thor," Thor believed a good king must be strong, aggressive, and most importantly proud.  By the end of the story in a positive arc, the character has learned to overcome the "lie" and find the "truth."  After an entire movie worth of disaster and struggle, Thor learned the value of humility, the movie's "truth."  Not all positive arcs are this blatant, though.  The "truth" can be something as simple as "think before you act," "it is not good to be too independent," or even, as is common in love triangles, the "truth" could be the correct love interest.  The possibilities are endless, the only stipulation is that the main character must become better, even just slightly, by the end of the story.

The Flat Arc

After the positive arc posts, K.M. wrote two three-post mini-series focusing on flat arcs and negative arcs.  These are similar to positive arcs.  In a flat arc, the main character begins the story already knowing the "truth," so instead of having to learn it himself, he is showing this "truth" to the world.  Captain America, also from the Marvel universe, is a great example of this - from the beginning of his first movie, he knew his truth: "it is worth it to fight and sacrifice for others."  He demonstrated this continuously by covering what he thought was a live grenade and rescuing the POWs during WWII at risk to his own life.  He never changed, which is the most important part of a flat arc: the character begins knowing the "truth," and is essentially the same at the end.

Three Types of Negative Arc

Finally, the negative arc comes in three distinct flavors.  1) Disillusionment arc - the main character begins the story believing the "lie," and at the end has learned the story's "truth" - but the truth is tragic in some way.  2) Fall arc - the main character begins believing the "lie," is presented the "truth" during the story, but ultimately rejects the "truth" and clings to his "lie."  3) Corruption arc - the character begins knowing the "truth," but is tempted away and ultimately chooses the "lie" instead.  All of these are considered negative arcs because they cause the story to end on a tragic note.


The most useful part of each post is that it includes several questions that can help you figure out exactly how to build your story's plot off of the "truth" and "lie" that are inherent in your character.

My brief summary can barely scratch the surface of K.M.'s insight, so if you are interested in writing great character arcs, you should definitely check out her series.

2. Four Cornerstones and Four Pillars of Strong Characters - MJ Bush

MJ Bush also wrote an incredible series on writing strong characters in layers, weaving in elements that make your characters feel more realistic, more compelling, and more complex.  It is technically a ten-part series, but it is not sequential like K.M.'s series.  Instead, it covers eight integral elements of every well-rounded character:


These are the basics.  These form the foundation of who the character is.   What is so scary to him that he will consider doing horrible things to avoid it?  Is it having his family slaughtered?  Being rejected by everyone he cares about?  Being worthless?  What are some of the character defects that hold him back, and how can he overcome them?  Will he overcome them, or will they conquer him in the end?  It is not difficult to see how these things are important.  Even the quirk, which seems silly, is quite telling.  What are some habits and actions that define your character?  This helps readers remember him and keep him separate from every other character.


These are deeper than the cornerstones, but build on them.  You now know what proverbial stick will motivate your character, so you must also determine his proverbial carrot.  Is he willing to sacrifice in order to gain or achieve a particular goal?  What character qualities, skills, or abilities will allow him to reach his goal?  What doubts will cause him to second-guess himself, and most of all, what is the meaning behind the whole story?  All of these things are buried deep within your character (or should be), and MJ's series provides helpful questions and explanations to help you uncover every buried nugget of gold.

3. Characters - Dramatica

If you thought the two series above were in-depth, believe me: it gets better.  This 18,000 word behemoth from dramatica is about as in-depth as a single webpage can get.  It will take a very long time to read, if you are not intimidated by the mountain of information, but it is so worth it.  In a nutshell, the character philosophy for dramatica is built around sixteen major dramatic functions and eight major archetypes.  K.M. Weiland summarizes the archetypes very well, if you are looking for a very simplified version.

According to dramatica, there are sixteen major dramatic functions or roles characters need to fill.  One character can fill more than one role, and the character playing each role can vary from scene to scene, but for the most part, it is consistent throughout the story.  The roles are opposites of each other, as seen below:

The Sixteen Dramatic Functions

There should be a character who...
Pursues the goal -------- Avoids the goal
Helps -------- Hinders
Considers the options -------- Reconsiders the options
Uses logic -------- Uses emotion
Exhibits self-control -------- Appears uncontrolled
Appeals to conscience -------- Appeals to temptation
Supports -------- Opposes
Expresses faith -------- Expresses disbelief

It is clear to see how essential all of these elements are in a story, but they are largely invisible, with some exceptions.  Virtually every character is characterized by at least two or three of these functions, and certain pairs of functions almost always appear together.  This familiar pairing of similar roles has led to the development of eight of the most common character archetypes, seen below.  Like the functions, these characters are set up as opposites.

The Eight Major Archetypes

The Protagonist pursues and considers -------- The Antagonist avoids and reconsiders
The Guardian helps and appeals to conscience -------- The Contagonist hinders and tempts
The Sidekick supports and shows faith -------- The Skeptic opposes and shows disbelief
The Reason character uses logic and self-control -------- The Feeling character uses emotion and seems uncontrolled

The original Star Wars trilogy is an excellent example of these character archetypes.

  • Protagonist: Luke
  • Antagonist: Emperor Palpatine, the Empire
  • Guardian: Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda
  • Contagonist: Darth Vader
  • Sidekick: R2-D2 and C-3PO
  • Skeptic: Han Solo
  • Reason: Princess Leia
  • Emotion: Chewbacca
The last two are less certain, but you get the idea.  These archetypes do not always show up, but are very common.  The blog How to Write a Book Now has a shorter, less in-depth, but comprehensive and very useful post that goes into much more detail than I have regarding the dramatic functions and character archetypes.


Thanks for reading!  Like I said above, this was certainly not a normal post, so thank you for bearing with me.  If you are still interested in learning about developing complex, relatable, and compelling characters, I have listed some other fantastic resources at the bottom of the page.

If you are a writer, do some of these resources seem helpful?  Do you believe in planning a character and following the advice and direction given in series like these, or do you feel like these limit your options and force your character into the proverbial box?  Which arc does your main character have, if any?  Can you see how some of your characters fit specific dramatic functions or archetypes?

If you are not a writer, does reading about the technical side of writing make you appreciate stories more?  Can you identify character arcs in your favorite books and movies?  Do you like it when writers use the most common archetypes, or do you prefer a more unconventional distribution of dramatic functions?  I would love to hear your thoughts!

~ Hannah

NaNo Prep Resources

I will be expanding this list as I find prep resources over the next few weeks until November.  Also, don't forget to check out my NaNo Prep series throughout October, and the NaNo Tips series in November!  I will be adding links as the posts go up.

NaNo Prep: Character Resources
NaNo Prep: Setting Resources
NaNo Prep: Plot Resources

NaNo Tips: Give Your Story a Chance
NaNo Tips: What Helps You Focus?
NaNo Tips: My NaNo Journey

Other Character Resources

Note, offsite links may contain a couple of minor curse words.  It is the Internet, after all.  Nevertheless, I thought these and other links were valuable enough to post anyway.

There are so many more posts on character, however.  If you want to leave a comment and recommend additions to my list, I will be happy to update it.


  1. So...I'm officially going to do NaNo this year, but I am going to go with a 20,000-word goal. Thanks for the inspiration, Hannah! And for this great info, as always!


    1. I am so happy to hear that! Let me know when you create an account, and we can become friends. You are very welcome. :)

  2. Wow, thanks Hannah! These look like fabulous resources, even for those of us not doing NaNo :) I hope your prep is going well!

    1. Yes, these are great all year long. I hope you enjoy them!

  3. Fantastic detail, Hannah! Good for you for being so organized! : )

  4. These are great resources! Also, I definitely agree with your analysis of Leia and Chewbacca's roles- think of the scene where Han is being frozen. They are both losing someone they care about, but Leia is calm, careful and restrained, while Chewbacca is infuriated and ready to kill every storm trooper in sight without a thought to the consequences. As for archetypes, I don't have a problem with them, but I also don't make a point of using them. My WIP has a Contagonist, a Reason character and an Emotion character, and my poor protagonist is also playing the roles of Antagonist, Guardian (for all the other characters), and Skeptic. Anyway, I will definitely consult these resources as I keep working on the characters for my next novel.


    1. I am glad you are finding them useful! I hadn't thought of that particular scene, actually, but it is a great illustration. Leia pretty much averted most of the "princess in distress" tropes - except, of course, the "in distress" part. She was very level-headed and strategic the whole time. Chewbacca, being an animal of sorts, was much more prone to impulsive decisions.

      I don't dislike archetypes, either. I do use them for reference, though, and they help a lot. I try to keep as few important characters as possible, so the archetypes and dramatic functions help me keep my characters streamlined and yet make sure I cover all of the important roles. In fact, telling you which characters fulfill which roles would be quite spoiler-y. One of the most fun things for me has been looking at the common archetypal arrangements of traits and trying to rearrange them differently for my own characters. It creates some interesting combinations.

      How is Eve the antagonist? If she is the protagonist, the antagonist would be whoever is blocking her forward progress... which, actually, if it is a "character vs self" type, she could very well be her own antagonist. Who are contagonist, reason, and emotion?

    2. I know, her rescue in Episode IV is the polar opposite of what you would expect from a princess being rescued- she's skeptical of Han and Luke, and is the first to jump into the garbage chute.

      That's correct, the central conflict is character vs. self; thus, Eve is her own antagonist. Cain is the contagonist. Adam is Reason and Cain is Emotion, though an argument could be made for Harun as Emotion.


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