The Blog of John Hewitt

Building characters through adversity

Creating fictional characters requires adversity, There are few happy stories in the world. There are happy endings. There are happy characters. Few stories revolve around the good things that happen to people. If they do, there is a downside to the “good things” that happen to them.

Stories are about adversity and conflict. How characters deal with adversity can create comedy, drama, romance, action, and mystery. Without adversity, there is no story to tell.

Creating Fictional Characters Using Physical Adversity

Physical adversity is death, injury, illness and threat. These are the most adverse situations fictional characters (and real people) face. Death or injury can happen to a fictional character or to someone close to them. Death is a universal theme. It dates back to the first stories ever told. The Epic of GilgameshThe Iliad, and The Bible all contain people dealing with death.

Creating Fictional Characters Using Miscommunication and Deception

This is a classic plot complication. One fictional character misunderstands another fictional character or circumstance. All of the characters must deal with the consequences. Miscommunication is a classic Shakespearean theme. Romeo and Juliet die due to miscommunication. King Lear disowns his daughter because of miscommunication. MacBeth believes he is invulnerable due to miscommunication.

Deception is similar to miscommunication, but it involves deliberate lies. While the three witches in MacBeth technically tell MacBeth the truth at all times, Richard III uses both miscommunication and outright lies in his rise to the throne. He does so with malicious glee. He destroys the lives around him. Eventually he is destroyed by his own deceptions.

Creating fictional characters using miscommunication and deception is good, but be careful, you don’t want your characters to seem like idiots. You also don’t want a plot that could easily be resolved if not for a simple miscommunication.

Creating Fictional Characters Using Displacement

Displacement is another popular adversity that fictional characters face. Characters enter a situation in which they are uncomfortable or at odds. This can be as fanciful as Alice wandering through Wonderland. It can be as dramatic as Trisha McFarland lost in the New England forest in Stephen King’s The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon. It can also be as simple as sending an introvert to a party. It is important to note that the displacement works both ways. The focus of a story doesn’t have to be the displaced character. The story can be about the other character’s reactions to the disruption to their lives by the displaced character.

Creating Fictional Characters Using Desire

Every good fictional character has unfulfilled wants and needs. Sometimes they are stated and sometimes they are unstated. One of the classic stories of unfulfilled desire is Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, in which most of the characters are consumed by the desire to own an almost mythical piece of art. Unfulfilled desire is as key to action novels as it is romance novels. The witches’ cryptic messages ignite MacBeth and Lady Macbeth’s desire for power, but it is their desire that dooms them to destruction.

Creating Fictional Characters Using Relationships

Creating fictional characters requires conflict in relationships. Relationship conflicts run a wide spectrum, and are not limited to human relationships. They can extend to animals, nature and environment. Relationship adversity is often the result of the previous adversities, but it is worth a separate category because this is where most resolutions are centered. A fictional character must change the relationship, be changed (or even destroyed) by the relationship, accept the relationship or be doomed to fight the relationship (such as in the Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit).

Life without Conflict is Boring

There are many other conflicts and types of adversity that a character can run into, but the adversity itself is not the key component of a story. The key is in how your fictional characters react to and deal with adversity. It is difficult for the reader to care whether or not the adversity is overcome unless they care about the characters. It is equally difficult to care about fictional characters that have no complications in their life.

The Pleasantville Dilemma

A perfect example of this phenomenon is the movie Pleasantville. In that movie, two characters are transported from their modern life into a fifties era family sitcom in which everything is pleasant and perfect (Displacement). At first, the fictional characters inside the television show have no adversity to deal with. At that point, they are not fully developed characters and their only interest to the audience is the humor of seeing these happy people through the eyes of the two modern, jaded teenagers. The presence of these two outsiders, however, eventually throws this perfect world into chaos. Soon the characters are plagued by injuries, miscommunication, and deception and especially by unfulfilled desires that grow with each new discovery. Adversity turns these people into interesting fictional characters. The mother, the father, and the soda-shop owner become fully realized people and what happens to them matters to the audience. As happy people these characters were a joke, but in the face of adversity they become the heart and soul of the film.

Adversity is a Tool

The key to creating fictional characters is to use adversity as a tool. Use adversity as a tool for character development rather than using the characters merely to further the action. To do this, you must explore your fictional characters. Not only do you need to develop a clear sense of what decisions they would make normally, you must develop how their thinking process changes or fails to change as a result of their actions. If a fictional character makes the same decision two times and it does not work either time, the character has not learned. This does not mean the character has not developed, just that they have failed to change their actions as a result of their circumstances. This is as much of a character trait as a character changing their actions.

A patriotic character may sacrifice themselves for their country more than once, only to be injured or to lose something important to them. They have repeated the same action, but has their reasons changed? The exploration comes in why they choose to make the same sacrifice again, if it did not help the first time. Are they more resigned to their course or do they start to waver? What thoughts lead them to repeat the same action without reward? On the other hand, a patriot might sacrifice the first time and not the second. This is a major change in thinking, and for the people reading or watching the story, the choices must not only be within character, but they must develop the character.

Accomplishing the development of character through adversity is a challenge for even the most experienced writers. The keys to accomplishing this are:

Know your Characters Well

The more time you spend analyzing your fictional characters and deciding what their thinking process is, the better prepared you will be to decide how they will react to the adversities they face.

Decide how you want your fictional characters to change and how you want them to remain unchanged. If you know how you want your character to develop, then you can adjust your plot accordingly. This does not mean that you tailor the plot to the character. If you want the story to be about blowing up a building or developing a vaccine, then that is your plot. What you want to analyze is how your character would go about accomplishing that task, and what obstacles they would face.

Don’t be Afraid to Change the Circumstances

An idea that seemed good in the planning stage may not always work in execution. Sometimes events must happen to develop a plot but in the writing process your characters might have strayed from your original ideas for them. Take the time to work the conflict through. Sometimes the same event can take place if you change one or two minor details in a story. It is simply a matter of being creative.

Mix Things Up

Some actions are out of character only until a character does it. You may think that your character would act a certain way in a given situation, but sometimes you’ll want to experiment with having them do something else. People are full of contradictions, and they don’t always act the way they think they act. A self-image can be a very deceptive thing.

In the best stories, plot development and character development work together. Rather than sacrificing one to develop the other, each is used to the benefit of the other. It is the proper blending of plot and characters that makes great stories work. When a great story is over, the reader should feel like the distinct way it developed could only have happened with those set of characters, yet they should find that entirely acceptable. While it is OK to think that a character should have dealt with the adversity differently, the reader our audience should not think that that character would have done it differently.

Exploring characters through their possessions

The possessions that a character chooses to surround themselves with can reveal a great deal about the way they lead their lives. Directors and actors frequently use possessions as a way to study their characters. They decorate the character’s room, office, vehicle, locker or any other common places the character would use. They also determine how the character would dress, often shopping for clothes that fit the persona of the character.

You can determine many things about a character from their possessions, including:

  • Cultural background
  • Social class
  • Wealth
  • Intellectual interests
  • Emotional interests
  • Artistic interests
  • Level of organization or disorganization
  • Favorite colors
  • Age
  • Secrets

Here are some common areas in which you can explore a character’s possessions:

  • Clothes
  • Bedroom
  • Living room
  • Bathroom
  • Kitchen
  • Secret or private room
  • Closet
  • Office
  • Cubicle
  • Desk
  • Pockets
  • Purse
  • Backpack
  • Locker
  • Hope chest
  • Vehicle

Here are some questions you can ask in addition to describing their possessions. Remember that any of these questions should be followed up by asking “Why?”

  • Does the character have many possessions or few possessions?
  • Does the character hide any of their possessions?
  • What condition are the character’s possessions in?
  • Does the character have any possessions that are broken or unfinished?
  • Does the character’s possessions differ significantly from place to place or according to who will see them?
  • Is there a particular order to the possessions that the character keeps?
  • What are the character’s most valued possessions?
  • Are there any possessions that the character keeps hidden?
  • Is there any possession the character doesn’t have that they want?
  • Is there any possession the character has that they don’t want?
  • What is the effects of other people’s opinions about the character’s possessions?
  • If the character was packing for a trip, what would the character take?

Creating a character biography

When you write a biography for a character, you discuss some of the major events and people that have shaped the life of the character up until the point at which the novel begins. This method looks at things such as accomplishments, tragedies and anything that made a serious change in the character’s life. It should also give you some idea of the character’s everyday interests. You can write it in the third person or the first person (as if it were an autobiography). This can help you develop the character’s voice. It can also be fun to write the biography as if it were a magazine profile or a dossier by a private investigator or spy.

What should you include?

Some of the things you might discuss when writing the character’s biography include:

  • Description of family
  • Date of birth
  • Place of birth
  • Location changes
  • Interests
  • Talents
  • Legal trouble
  • Educational experiences
  • Work experiences
  • Athletic achievements
  • Influences
  • Political activism
  • Friends
  • Romantic relationships / marriage
  • Awards
  • Failures
  • Tragedies and difficulties
  • Controversies
  • Name changes
  • Clubs and organizations

Interesting Biographies

The great thing about biographies are that there are plenty of examples on the web. Here are a few biographies you might want to look at before you start on yours:

Maya Angelou
Harold Pinter
The Autobiography Project
Jackson Pollock
Joseph “Shoeless Joe” Jackson
Charles Bukowski

Building Characters by Brainstorming

Brainstorming is a proven technique for exploring just about any idea. The process consists of quickly recording (without editing yourself) all of the options/descriptions/ideas /thoughts you have about a topic. You then sort through your items and pick the ones that work. This process can easily be applied to creating characters.

I have purposely tried to leave the sort of details you should review as vague as possible. If you really need more guidance, however, you might want to start with appearance, friends, goals, quirks, flaws, problems, values, morals, history, possessions, skills, fears, favorites, enemies, education, finances, pets, and family. Don’t feel as if you need to include all of these categories or limit yourself to these categories. Just write what comes to mind.

Step One: Find a way to organize your thoughts

Get a large sheet of paper, notebook, a set of index cards or a computer application that you can use to write ideas on.

Step Two: Write what you know already

Write down the information that you already know about the character. This could be as basic as the name and gender. The point is, get the things that you are sure about out of the way first.

Step Three: Explore the possibilities

Begin writing down every possible potential detail that you can think of for the character. The details can be random and even contradictory. Your record every possible thing you can think of that seems to fit the character. Spend as much time as you need, but no less than fifteen minutes.

Step Four: Figure out what matters

Review the potential details and discard details that you are sure won’t apply to your character. Separate the rest into details you are absolutely sure that you want, details that might work, and details that are still interesting but contradict each other.

Step Five: Build your profile

Create your profile of the character, grouping details into categories of similar items. Concentrate on the details you are sure about but give the other details a final review to decide which ones should be added.

Using interviewing to create fictional characters

The character interview is a chance to explore both a character’s background and voice. It is an exploration of a character’s opinions, experiences, goals and attitudes. The basic method of conducting an interview is simple. You ask questions and then, as the character, answer those questions.

Many Forms of Interviews

Interviews come in many forms, and you can get as creative with them as you like. Many people choose to conduct interviews in the style of a relevant magazine. For example, you might use a Rolling Stone or People Magazine style interview to approach a celebrity character. You might use a hobby magazine interview to approach a character with a particular interest, such as building model railroads.

You may also pose the interview as a police interrogation, a job interview or a therapy session. An additional alternative is that you can interview one character about another. You might interview a mother about her child or an employer about an employee. If you don’t feel that creative, then simply ask questions and don’t worry about who the interviewer is.

Let the Conversation Flow

One of the real benefits of the interview method is that it can be a free flowing and natural process. It can be easy to generate a lot of information about a character quickly using this technique, once you get used to the style. It can also be more fun than many of the other methods of exploring a character.


Here are some interviews of authors to get you in the mood: