Writing Tip: Creating Memorable Characters

Posted February 16, 2017 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Writing

Characters + Plot = Story Arc

All stories have characters. All stories have a protagonist and an antagonist. But not all characters are people.

Yep, characters can also be objects, animals, symbols, or concepts. Nor does the antagonist have to be a person. It could be a moral or emotional conflict with which the protagonist is struggling.

Characters also vary in importance in the story — from hero to villain, bellhop to waitress — and purpose — to motivate the main character into taking the action that will move the story along…even if all that character does is drive the taxi.

Create Believable Characters

To pull your reader in, to involve them emotionally, to need to flip that next page in desperation, to make your characters — good or bad — make them believable, authentic, interesting, full, rounded.

Be inspired by someone you read about, get payback on someone you hate, emulate someone you admire, use yourself — the real you or the fantasy you, a dream, your imagination…go wild. But believable.

Now Make Them Work For You…

That’s the easy part about character. Now that character has to work for you. Determine an overall character arc with a starting point in which they have a purpose in this story. For the character (and the story) to be interesting, that character needs to struggle to overcome a conflict (internal or external), all with a motivation convincing enough that the reader buys it.

I’m reading Mark Dawson’s John Milton series right now, and his protagonist’s primary motivation is working the twelve steps of AA. He figures he can’t go back and atone to all the people he’s killed, so he’s paying it forward and helping others instead. Think Jack Reacher, only John is a former assassin.

Your character must be able to defend themselves. There must be hope somehow. Part of their struggle may be to gather up the courage, the will, to do something, to fix something in their lives whether it’s an internal goal or an external purpose. They must start the story with a problem, encounter struggles and conflicts along the way with the resolution causing change in or for them at the end.

…Then Work Harder

The character’s traits should play into the goal they must reach in the story. Perhaps the character represents certain values, an idea, a belief that you want to emphasize. Do you want your reader to judge your character?

Character Storyboard…

Also known as the character profile, character bible, character reference sheet, character backstory, or character sketch, it’s an essential record of your character. Not only does it provide a quick referral for you as a writer but it also keeps your character’s “facts” consistent. So s/he always has the same name (and spelling), the same physical appearance, personality quirks, motivations, emotional status/reactions, marital status, interests, talents, those revealing details, etc. It’s amazing how often a character changes their name (or sex) in a story. The changes in eye color or hair without their having, ahem, stopped off to get contacts or hair dye.

Do create a descriptive profile on your secondary characters as well with their own character arcs.

That profile that’s created for each character will make it easier to ensure you hit all the beats. Start with your protagonist and antagonist, and progress from there right down to the maid in the hotel.

Keep in mind that readers like to escape, and that means interesting characters. Not the ordinary everyday kind of people we see every day at the store, school, work, etc. In J.D. Robb’s In Death series, EDD Detective Ian McNab is eye-searingly colorful in his wardrobe while his detective girlfriend, DeeDee, is a Free Ager who loves her sweets and obsesses about the size of her derrière. Eve’s father figure, Captain Ryan Feeney, is always rumpled and is never seen without his bag of candied almonds. Just be sure the quirkiness fits in with the character and their role in the story.

Also keep in mind that while your character sketch may be very detailed, it’s simply their backstory helping you create a believable character with depth.

It helps to include graphic(s) of how you see the character, as it helps you maintain consistency — and serves as a reminder of what they look like, makes it easier to describe the character. Consider including frontal, profile, and back views. And nothing says you can’t include ideas of their wardrobes…

Print a blank Character Bible

Character Name: Photo
Sex: Age:
Marital Status:
Motivations & Goals: For there to be a story, the protagonist needs a challenge, a motivation to act, that will cause change in that character over the course of the story.
External Conflicts: Determine the conflict your character has with another character, against Fate, battling God or the supernatural, nature, society, and/or technology.
Internal Conflict: Determine the:

  • Conflict your character has within themselves
  • Aspect of their personality struggling for dominance
  • Something in their nature must be overcome to reach their goal
  • Struggle(s) they experience within their own mind
  • How they overcome their struggle to reach the goal
Character Traits: Eccentricities, emotions or temperament, mannerisms, intelligence level, morals, phobias, fears, fantasies, etc.
Dialogue: Diction, syntax, speech patterns, accents, etc. Photo
Physical Description: What they look like — hair, eyes, height, age, skin color, etc.; what they feel, taste, sound like; their health; what they wear, clothing styles, posture; body language, etc.
Social / Relationships: Sexual activity, job, social class, where they live, relationships, hobbies, where they’re from, educational achievements, etc.
Flesh your character out with: How the character deals with conflict and change.

Archetypes are a Quick Profiling Start

Carl Jung first came up with the concept of the psychological archetype, a universal model of behavior or personality that can be recognized by anyone from any time period or culture. Think of the archetype as a “stock character”, a type of shorthand for the reader, providing them with all sorts of subconscious information and quickly creating a realistic character. There are also cultural archetypes that incorporate images, symbols, or patterns: the quest, the heavenly ascent, the apple, the snake, etc.

At the least, the archetype gives you a jumping-off point for your own character!

Writing is…

…a lot of work…yeah, you already know that one, lol. What the posts on “Writing” are intended to do is explore the various mechanics of writing from plots to points-of-view to structure to character development to genres to voice to target audience to book types to character or story arcs to back stories to plot devices to themes to diction to copyright to flashforwards to flashbacks to framing the story or devices to memes to tropes to pace to perspective to settings to show versus tell to social context to continuity to storyboards to style to language to style sheets to syntax to tone to tropes and more…

It’s an evolving conversation, and sometimes I run across an example that helps explain better or another “also known as”. Heck, there’s always a better way to explain it, so if it makes quicker and/or better sense, I would appreciate suggestions and comments from anyone on some aspect of writing with which you struggle or on which you can contribute more understanding.

If you found this post on “Creating Memorable Characters” interesting, consider tweeting it to your friends. Subscribe to KD Did It, if you’d like to track this post for future updates.

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Credit to: Dave Hood’s “Elements of Fiction: Character
Part of Speech: Literary Element
Definition: A person or other being in a narrative work of art — a novel, play, television series, or film. The character may be entirely fictional or based on a real-life person.


Cast of Characters

Character Arc

Character Conflicts

Characterization, a.k.a., Building Character


Literary Devices Used

A.k.a., fictional character

Cast of Characters
Definition: The fictional beings who appear in a narrative.

Basic Types More Specific Types
Cast Types
Recurring character appears often and frequently throughout the series and may play a major role or be a major focus in a story.

Guest character appears in a few stories or scenes, but is not essential although they may evolve into a recurring character.

Main Characters Definition: Two primary characters exist in every fictional story, no matter what.

  1. Protagonist
  2. Antagonist

A.k.a., MC, regular character, ongoing character, core character, primary character

Protagonist Definition: The hero/heroine, the story’s main character, who is usually up against an antagonist.

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While the protagonist is usually someone the reader identifies with, s/he can also be someone the reader hates.

See archetypes.

Sherlock Holmes

Lieutenant Eve Dallas in J.D. Robb’s In Death series

Harry Potter in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series

Alex Cross in James Patterson’s Alex Cross series

Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang incorporates multiple protagonists.

Antagonist Definition: The character or force in conflict with the protagonist.

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The antagonist may be evil or immoral, but can equally well be a well-meaning but domineering parent or even an individual who unintentionally stands in the way of the protagonist.

See archetypes.

Dr. Moriarty in the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories

Voldemort, Professor Snape, or Uncle Vernon in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series

Purdue OWL

Secondary Character Definition: Recurring characters who are of lesser importance, but play a direct role in progressing the plot, revealing key details about the story, the story world, or the protagonist, motivating or foiling the protagonist, and helping to define the story setting.

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They almost always interact with the protagonist on some level, be it through dialogue or a memory that the protagonist has of this secondary character.

They may inspire the protagonist to do something heroic or stupid, drive them nuts, push their buttons, a micromanaging boss, a flirt, a secondary character with no respect for the protagonist, etc.

He may stand in opposition to the protagonist (while not necessarily being a bad guy), preventing the protagonist from completing a task.

They are the protagonist’s friends, coworkers, enemies, parents, siblings, extended family, pets…teacher, mentor.

Ideally, the best friend provides some contrast to the protagonist — physical, personality, family background, etc., but is never more interesting than the protagonist.

Maintain a character profile for secondary characters and provide them with their own character arcs.

Can be a regular, core character.

A.k.a., sidekick, supporting character

New York City Book Editors’ “Your Guide to Creating Secondary Characters

Dr. Watson as the sidekick, the Scottish landlady Mrs. Hudson, Scotland Yard Inspector LeStrade as a foil for Holmes’ brilliance, the Baker Street Irregulars to ferret out information, and Mycroft Holmes for behind-the-scenes support in the Sherlock Holmes stories

Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series

Roarke, Mavis, Nadine, Peabody, Feeney, Galahad and more in J.D. Robb’s In Death series

Lesser Secondary Character Definition: They’re not important secondary characters and yet they’re not minor characters either. They have more personality and quirks, etc., than a minor character, but don’t have as large a role as secondaries.

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Detectives Baxter and Trueheart are part of Dallas’ Homicide Division, Detective Callahan is the lone female in EDD, Crack is a huge black man who owns the Down and Dirty and is one of Eve and Roarke’s friends, and Detective Webster, an ex-lover who’s in IAB in J.D. Robb’s In Death series
Minor Character Definition: Their whole purpose is to make the story more interesting and progress the plot.

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Don’t spend a lot of time on them or give them too much depth; they provide a bit of action or dialogue, and that’s it.

Can be a regular, core character.

A.k.a., tertiary

Manny in P.D. James’ Devices and Desires makes an explosive entrance, cracks a few lines…and delivers an envelope that progresses the plot.
Background Character Definition: Both character and setting element who interact with main and secondary characters but don’t overshadow the main action.

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They can have a few quirks, especially if it contributes to the storyline, but don’t overdo it. Consider their importance in the story and give them just enough to get the job done.

A.k.a., walk-on, incidental character

Some of your minor characters will be determined by setting — time, place, or situation:

  • sailors on the ship the heroine is fleeing on
  • a mechanic at a garage
  • the desk sergeant at a police station, etc.
  • doorman at an apartment building or hotel
  • neighbors – I’m thinking Darynda Jones’ Charley Davidson series with Mrs. Allen, her neighbor with the ferocious poodle
  • acquaintances – then there’s Charley’s interactions with the ghosts Blue Bell and Strawberry Shortcake
  • classmates
  • waitresses
  • clerks
  • service personnel
Cardboard Character Definition: An uninteresting, flat simulacrum passing for a real character used when you don’t put yourself into the character — for whatever reason.

A.k.a., stereotype, mannequin, drone

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Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward is filled with right-thinking men and women of cardboard.

Definition and example courtesy of Ohio University.

Confidante Definition: A character in whom the central character confides, thus revealing their personality. That someone does not have to be a person.

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The protagonist, Dan Davis, confides in his cat, Pete, in Robert Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer.

Definition and example courtesy of Ohio University.

Narrator Definition: The fictional storyteller, which may incorporate any one of a number of different points-of-view.
Viewpoint Character Definition: The character through whom we “hear” the story.

See the post on “Point-of-View and Perspective are Intertwined Yet Distinct“.

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If you choose a first-person point-of-view character, how they tell the story will be an essential part of creating their character.

A.k.a., point-of-view character

Spear-carriers Definition: Flat minor characters who provide verisimilitude, rarely named or described in any detail.

Think cast of thousands.

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The population of Earth in C.M. Kornbluth’s The Marching Morons are spear-carriers.

Definition and example courtesy of Ohio University.

Stock Character Definition: Usually a flat stereotype easily recognized from literary tradition.

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Their purpose is to move the story along, and as such, they tend to be easy targets for parody and to be criticized as clichés.

The presence of a particular array of stock characters is a key component of many genres.

A stock character may be an archetype; if not developed, it’s the cardboard stereotype.

A.k.a., stereotype

Reflects (clichéd) aspects of real people:

  • Courageous military personnel – the Brave Starship Captain
  • Ruthless business people
  • Tubby, cheerful bakers
  • Cynical cops
  • Troubled teens

John Collier’s short story collection, Fancies and Goodnights, brings stock characters to life.

Definition and example courtesy of Ohio University.

Sympathetic Character Definition: A character whose motivations readers can understand and whose feelings they can comfortably share — I could identify with her.

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Usually the protagonist, but not always.

The sympathetic character does not have to be a good person.

Winston Smith is a sympathetic character even though he betrays Julia and his own values in George Orwell’s 1984.

Definition and example courtesy of Ohio University.

Unsympathetic Character Definition: A character whose motivations are suspect and whose feelings make us uncomfortable.

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The boundary between sympathetic and unsympathetic characterization is necessarily ill-defined.
In Terry Carr’s collection of short stories, Universe 14, Lucius Shepard’s protagonist in his short story, “Black Coral”, starts as an unsympathetic character whose punishment is to become sympathetic.

Definition and example courtesy of Ohio University.

Character Arc
Definition: Charts a character’s internal growth or change over the course of a story, the character development.

At the beginning, he views himself and the world one way, but through growth and inner transformation, he comes to view his life on a deeper, more meaningful level.

The character must grow and change, struggling with weakness, inner demons, insecurity, addictions.

The protagonist must have a challenge, a motivation to act, for there to be a plot.

Why does the character do what they do?

Becca Puglisi; Live Write Thrive

Four Basic Parts of a Character Arc
A good story with depth will include both outer and inner journeys; every outer/inner motivation has an outer/inner conflict. And every inner parallels the outer.

  1. Outer Journey
    • Outer Motivation – what the character wants to achieve +
    • Outer Conflict – the element that’s stopping him from attaining that goal
  2. Inner Journey parallels the outer
    • Inner Motivation – the reason the character wants to achieve his goal +
    • Inner Conflict – the flaws and/or lies within the character that stand in the way of their achieving their inner motivation

Lakin puts it well: “As the character strives to overcome an antagonist or challenge, so must he overcome himself and his greatest fears. Throughout the arc, the damaged character must face himself and his shortcomings. To emerge healed and whole, he must acknowledge his wound and see the lie for what it is. Once he is able to let go of his false belief, the lie that has motivated his actions to this point will no longer control his life.

“A character does not have to overcome all his flaws during the journey, but if the story is to end with him becoming a stronger, more balanced version of himself, then the fatal flaw must be vanquished, or at least diminished to the point that it no longer controls his life or holds him back. Unless the story intentionally ends in tragedy with the character being unable to face his fear, then his struggle at the story start should be reversed by the end. If he viewed the future with trepidation, now he faces it with optimism. If he once embraced a life of isolation, he now sees value in building community with others.”

C.S. Lakin’s “Getting to the Core of Character Motivation

Character Development Definition: Uses a character’s characterization, their traits, as they react and/or change according to what happens along the storyline to create compelling and multidimensional stories.

The character either remains the same throughout the story, static, or they change, dynamic.

Virtual Lit

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A character’s hostility may be directed in anger toward another character or event.
Static versus Dynamic Development Definition: The changes the character does (or does not) undergo. Keep in mind that the change(s) may be good or bad.

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Static Dynamic
One who does not undergo important change in the course of the story, remaining essentially the same at the end as he or she was at the beginning.

Does not mean boring.

One who undergoes an important change — changes in insight or understanding (of circumstances, for instance), or changes in commitment, in values. The change (or lack of change) at stake in this distinction is a change in the nature of the character — in the course of the story.
Most characters in any story are static so as not to distract from changes in the main character.
A.k.a., developing character
A character may have a “dynamic” personality or is “full of energy” with “an appetite for action”, for “getting things done”. Perhaps the character is a “great motivator”, able to inspire others to action. A character could be quite full of energy and burning to get things done, but a real put-off as an organizer and/or a miserable motivator of others…

  • If that “mover and shaker” of a character stays that way throughout the story, if a trial or temptation within the story is withstood, if they fail to grow when presented with the opportunity to change — they’re static.
  • If that “mover and shaker” of a character becomes that way (or stops being that way) — they’re dynamic.

If a character inherits a million dollars from a rich aunt in the course of a story:

  • Does this change of fortune change their personality, values, or general outlook on life?
    • A static character stays the same as before the inheritance
    • A dynamic character changes

In Craig Johnson’s short story, “eleven/twenty-nine“, Eddie Byers is very much the dynamic character.

Ivan Ilych, in Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych“, experiences a dynamic change in the course of his dying, but the change is not in his physical health, but in his spiritual growth.

Louis Sacchetti in Thomas M. Disch’s Camp Concentration is dynamic.

All of the characters (except Tessie Hutchinson) in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” are static.

Definition and examples are courtesy of KSU: Static vs Dynamic Characterization.

Character Motivation Can Determine Plot Definition: The primary character (protagonist or antagonist) needs a challenge — an internal or external motivation — for there to be a plot.

The reason(s) your character reacts as they do provides you with direction for your plot, a good starting point for the story.

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The challenge is what enables those change(s) to the character arc. Changes that can be used to raise issues and “tell” the reader why/if these issues are worth our attention. Changes that tell why you’re writing the story in the first place, the focus of your story.

Use the challenge to create a fascinating story that pulls in your reader, to slip in what you want your reader to take away from the story.

Determining the Motivation
Characters need weaknesses, inner demons, insecurities, etc. There must be a struggle so the character can grow, change, whether it’s internal or external, or both.

How your character meets the challenge, what motivates the character into acting, tells a lot about the character: pessimistic or optimistic, straightforward or passive-aggressive, procrastinating or head-on, brave or cowardly, bold or shy, generous or selfish, etc.

Using External or Internal Change to Understand Focus
Change subconsciously provides the reader with your story’s focus and may be achieved through the individual story or throughout the series arc.

It may be a series of changes that lead to the ultimate transformation. It may be external or internal, and the motivation for the external “change” may be different from the internal one.

The important change is with your protagonist — and that does not prevent any of your other characters from also experiencing changes.

Definition and examples courtesy of Kansas State University’s KSU: Classifying Plots and “Classifying Plots in Terms of Characterization“.

Character Conflicts Definition: Literary conflict is a major part of plot; it’s also at the core of character arc.

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While conflict in literature can be complex, knowing the basics is key to understanding how conflict is built and how it affects the story.

There must be at least one conflict in the story; there can be more than one.

A.k.a., narrative conflict, internal/external conflict

Character vs Character Definition: Characters are in conflict with one another:

  1. The antagonist (or other character) tries to keep the protagonist from reaching his goal
  2. The protagonist must overcome the efforts of the antagonist to reach his goal

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The conflict could be dragon against knight, overbearing mother against beleaguered son, power-hungry boss, etc.

A.k.a., man vs man, person vs person, external conflict

Storyboard That’s “Types of Conflict In Literature; Lisa’s Classroom’s “Four Major Types of Conflict

Hamlet in Shakespeare’s Hamlet is involved in a hostile conflict with his uncle, King Claudius, who seeks to have Hamlet killed.

In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the young murderer, Raskolnikov, and the police investigator, Porfiry, engage in a psychological conflict, a battle of wits.

Harry Potter vs. Voldemort in in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter

Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo

Character vs Fate Definition: Character is compelled to follow an unknown destiny, forcing a character to consciously, or subconsciously, act on their fate.

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Sexual stereotyping is one example.

A.k.a., man vs fate, person vs fate, character vs destiny, external conflict

Conflict in Literature

Luke Skywalker in Star Wars is propelled into the life of a Jedi as his destiny, a destiny he is powerless to resist.

Callie/Cal in Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex is an hermaphrodite battling society’s expectations.

Character vs God Definition: Character is forced into conflict with a supernatural force that is outside the understanding of the protagonist, including monsters, aliens, or deities.

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A.k.a., character vs supernatural, man vs supernatural, man vs God, person vs God

Conflict in Literature

William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist

Natasha Rhodes’ Final Destination

Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Character vs Nature Definition: Character is in conflict with their surroundings, some natural obstacle, or condition.

  • The hero must overcome a force of nature to meet his goal
  • Nature can be a force of nature — a storm, earthquake, difficult climate, floods, snowstorms, insects, animals, plague, or famine.

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The hero sometimes meets his goal, but sometimes is defeated.

A.k.a., man vs nature, person vs nature, external conflict

Storyboard That’s “Types of Conflict In Literature; Lisa’s Classroom’s “Four Major Types of Conflict

The men in Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat must strive to reach land or perish at sea.

In Lois Lowry’s The Giver finds Jonas struggling to survive with Gabriel in the snow.

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick

Character vs Self Definition: Character is in conflict with themselves, aspects of his or her personality struggling for dominance:

  • The protagonist must overcome their own nature to reach their goal
  • The protagonist struggles within their own mind
  • The protagonist needs to overcome their struggle to reach the goal

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  • The protagonist chooses an unworthy lover over someone who is devoted.
  • The protagonist must accept or reject their religion, their department’s decisions, etc.
  • The protagonist must choose between honoring family or country.

It may be emotional, i.e., jealousy, loss of identity, overconfidence, intellectual, moral, etc.

Such conflicts typically leave the character indecisive and agitated.

When such conflicts are resolved, the resolution may be successful or unsuccessful.

They may, or may not, succeed.

A.k.a., man vs self, character vs themselves, person vs self, person vs character, internal conflict

Storyboard That’s “Types of Conflict In Literature; Lisa’s Classroom’s “Four Major Types of Conflict

Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Hubert Selby Jr.’s Requiem for a Dream

Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club

Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary

Character vs Society Definition: A protagonist is at odds with a particular social force or condition produced by society, such as poverty, political revolution, a social convention, or set of values and is compelled to act:

  • People in their town or culture don’t like their way of thinking
  • Their bold ideas diverge from tradition or the rules
  • They are ridiculed and threatened

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Our hero may convince the others they are right, but they might be forced to flee town. They may even lose their lives.

External conflicts may be law, justice, corporate policy, etc.

A.k.a., man vs society, person vs society

Storyboard That’s “Types of Conflict In Literature; Lisa’s Classroom’s “Four Major Types of Conflict

Nicholas Nickleby in Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby criticizes the hypocritical education system.

Charles Dickens’ Bleak House puts its protagonist up against the Chancery, charging that it is a corrupt legal system. Although lawyers and judges criticized Bleak House, it did trigger major judicial reforms.

Anne against the Nazis in Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl.

Society in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has restricted women to mere breeders.

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 finds Guy Montag in conflict with a society that forbids books.

Wilbur the pig in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web fights for his survival against a society that raises pigs for food.

Character vs Technology Definition: The protagonist must overcome a machine, technology, or man-made entities which may possess “artificial intelligence”.

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Most often the encounter with the machine or technology is through the character’s own doing.

Over time the protagonist must overcome the technology, in some instances, even destroying it before it destroys them.

It may be technology or a machine that they created, purchased, or owned with the assumption that it would make their life easier.

A.k.a., man vs technology, person vs technology, man vs machine

Storyboard That’s “Types of Conflict In Literature; Conflict in Literature

Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as two astronauts battle HAL

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

George Orwell’s Brave New World

Characterization, a.k.a., Building Character
Definition: Process of revealing your character through their actions, behavior, physical appearance, dialogue, thoughts and feelings, and the types of relationships they have.

Think of it as meeting a real person, encountering a new situation. How would that person react to a thug asking her to dance? To a gun in her face? To a plateful of fresh-baked cookies? To a sale on shoes?

Characterization sometimes runs parallel with character development, i.e., a character’s internal anger (characterization) is directed at another (character development).

KSU: Flat vs Round; Static vs Dynamic

Flat versus Round Characterization Definition: Uses a character’s traits, i.e., his/her actions, behavior, appearance, thoughts, or way of speaking:

  • Main characters are well-rounded: the three-dimensional complexity of real people, complex, and fully developed with the capacity to change. They should engage the reader.
  • Secondary characters will be rounded as well, but less complex
  • Minor characters are usually types or caricatures defined by a single idea or quality

CAUTION: It is not the richness of detail, but of the traits these details express.

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Flat Round
Have more than one trait Green check mark in a box Green check mark in a box
Complexity (many facets) in his/her character Green check mark in a box
Subject to internal stress, as the result of adherence to values that are not easily reconciled and may be the result of inclinations and appetites that pull in contrary directions Green check mark in a box
Sometimes too “rich” to be reduced to a simple formula Green check mark in a box
Tangled and conflicted Green check mark in a box
Can be summed up in one sentence Green check mark in a box
May be contradictory Green check mark in a box
Capable of surprising in a convincing way Green check mark in a box
Richness in a character is details and can include:

  • Self-centered with strong physical appetites and short-sighted

A Mary Sue / Gary Stu (also a author surrogate POV) is generally considered a flat character, usually employed in fan fiction.

Michael Corleone was not jus’ a mafioso, but a family man. A man who walked the knife’s edge to preserve his sanity.

Gollum in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is flat with one obsession.

Almost all the characters in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol are flat.

Genly Ai in Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is one of many round characters.

Show, Don’t Tell Definition: Creates depth and pulls your reader into the story and the character(s), makes it come alive for the reader.

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Tell the reader that Mary is a good and virtuous girl.

Show the reader through an anecdote (short story) or vignette (scenario) with the character’s actions, behavior, appearance, thoughts, or way of speaking, etc., that Mary is good and virtuous.

A.k.a., indirect versus direct

Tells Shows
Mary is a good and virtuous girl. Anecdote:
“I’m not that kind of girl,” Mary cried, as she hauled back and slapped Jim for taking liberties.
My father was easygoing about religion. Anecdote:
Every spring, my father let me skip catechism class so I could play baseball.
Shaq was tall. Vignette:
Shaq ducked to get through the door.
Helen was wearing black shoes. Vignette:
Helen was wearing black engineer boots with knotted laces, huge silver grommets, and dangling silver chains.

Examples courtesy of Rick Meyer’s “14 Tips for Building Character“.

Revealing Details Definition: Part of characterization is creating a unique individual and creating specific details that helps create that distinct character, one who has both good and bad sides.

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Details that a reader remembers: Jamie’s long red hair and his brogue, Claire’s curling brown hair and whisky-colored eyes, the cleft in Eve Dallas’ chin, the face of an angel with the sound of Ireland in his voice, Alex Cross and his piano playing, Harry Potter fiddling with the hair that can cover his scar…

Show the reader these personal quirks, the unique characteristics that make this character different from everyone else, don’t just tell the reader. J.D. Robb does an excellent job of showing her characters in her In Death series as does Diana Gabaldon in her Outlander series.

We don’t need to know every detail about the character, just the ones that distinguish them from everyone else AND remember that no character is perfect. Be sure your character has positive and negative characteristics.

Ways to Build Your Character:

Character Traits

Physical Description
Social Environment and/or Relationships
You know Eve Dallas (J.D. Robb’s In Death series) doesn’t care about fashion with those battered boots, totally unconscious of what goes with what — it’s a shirt, what’s wrong with it?, their clothes, a person’s gotta wear clothes, her insistence on working past her endurance and hatred for any kind of medical professional or prescriptive aids

Ian McNab’s electrifying wardrobe

Nadine Furst slipping through the bullpen through bribery

Peabody’s need to constantly fuel up

Roarke’s teasing of Eve and taking care of her when she neglects to

Summerset’s needling Dallas, using it to bring her out of her funks

Character Traits Definition: A trait is something that defines a character and may be mental, emotional, moral, their thoughts, personality, their strengths and weaknesses.

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Character Descriptions

  • Weirdly spelled and/or unpronounceable names are anathema to readers
  • Provide characters with distinct names that are nothing like another characters, i.e., Linda and Leila, Robert and Bobby, Mary and Margaret. I know I get confused when different characters have names that start with the same first letter or are too similar in some way. Clarinda and Patrice, Juliet and Maggie, Peter and Doug, different sounding, different initial letters, make it easy on your reader


  • No one is perfect and having a personality trait that irritates friends or family gives the character something to overcome in the character arc. Just don’t go overboard as you still want the reader to like the character.
  • They may be self-centered, competitive, lazy, too compliant, demanding of others


  • must have breakfast at the Eat Me Café every morning
  • when the character loses his glasses, they’re always on top of his head
  • likes to play in the mud
  • can’t function without coffee

Likes, Dislikes:

  • hates to drink milk
  • adores pizza and shrimp

Intelligence level, what/how they think:

  • two cans short of a six-pack
  • mentally brilliant, but socially inept
  • bimbo, dork, etc.
  • fascinated by women
  • distracted by their own internal thoughts
  • reacts without thinking about the consequences
  • lies to others but is always truthful in their own thoughts (or deludes themselves)

Check out Now Novel’s post on mannerisms with its examples on show and avoiding clichés.

  • scrubs her hands through her hair
  • how he reaches for his gun, what sets him off
  • even when he straightens up from a slight stoop
  • Show those “dirty glasses” with “always too busy to clean them”

Psychological Attributes:
Take a shortcut and “put your character through” a personality test: the NEO-PI, the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator, VIA Survey for 24 character strengths, the Hexaco Personality Inventory

  • Agreeableness / Anger explores the kinds of interactions an individual prefers from compassion to tough/tender mindedness:
    • Varying levels of altruism, compassion, trust, sympathy, forgiveness, cooperativeness, modesty, straightforwardness
    • How they respond to interpersonal conflict
    • How compliant they are
  • Conscientiousness:
    • Varying levels of self-discipline, determined, and a preference for planned events versus spontaneity
    • Low-scorers are easily distracted by “shiny objects”
    • Belief in one’s abilities to get the job done, of fulfilling one’s moral obligations
      • Ambition:
        • Your character’s passion in life
        • Their goal in this story
        • Unrecognized, internal need(s)
      • Morals:
        • Would betray his own grandmother
        • Would die for her principles
    • Degree of personal organization and competence
    • Need for personal achievement and sense of direction
    • Tendency to think things through before acting or speaking
  • Extraversion is the quantity and intensity of energy directed at the social world:
    • Extroverts are generally considered sociable, talkative, optimistic, and assertive. Comfortable as the center of attention with a love of parties and social gatherings.
    • Introverts are more reserved and independent, preferring their own company and inner contemplation.
    • Consider the level of a character’s warmth, gregariousness, assertiveness, types of preferred activity, excitement seeking
  • Honesty-Humility:
    • Varying levels of obedience to rules, manipulation of others to further themselves, the importance of wealthy, luxury, and social status
  • Neuroticism addresses psychological distresses:
    • Varying levels of emotional instability, anxiety, envy
    • Angry hostility, frustration, bitterness, sarcasm
    • Depression with feelings of guilt, sadness, despondency, loneliness
    • Self-consciousness due to shyness or social anxiety
    • Impulsiveness and how likely the character is to act on urges or in delaying gratification
    • Susceptibility to stress and mood swings
    • Humor, happiness, joy, fright
    • Pretension
    • Impatience
  • Openness to New Experience is the active seeking and appreciation of experiences for their own sake:
    • Varying levels of imagination, art appreciation, adventurous, intellectual curiosity
    • Practical thinker
    • Openness to inner feelings and emotions
      • Emotions or temperament, what they feel:
        • Easily angered
        • Cheerful disposition
        • Easygoing
    • Open to re-examining their own values and those of authority figures

Phobias, fears, fantasies:

  • Terrified of snakes, spiders, rats, etc.
  • Afraid of the dark
  • Fascinated by thoughts of a sexual threesome
  • Thrown back to that day in her childhood as she stabbed her father over and over
  • High on drugs and seeing a wall of fire destroying the city
  • Shy, brazen, confident, etc.
Dialogue Definition: What the character says and how they say it tells the reader a lot about them.

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Your character’s communication style should be distinctive, unique with certain words or phrases they use continually. Decide on the sound of their voice.

It’s all about diction, individual syntax, how the character expresses themselves orally.

Use dialogue to:

  • Advance the plot – “What’s going to happen to George?”
  • Reveal and express character emotions and traits – “You’re such a lazy, little bitch!”
  • Allow characters to confront one another – “What did you do that for?”
  • Crystallize situations and relationships – “I love you.”
  • Comment on the setting – “Why are we meeting in this alley?”
  • Introduce a motif, symbol, or allusion – “Your skin is as soft as rose petals.”
  • Transition to a new scene or narrative summary – “We’ll do this tomorrow.”

As with any action, scene, or character, dialogue must advance the plot.

You may want to explore the post on “Dialect“. Now Novel has two useful posts on using speech to incorporate their background, situations, and personality with gestures and character voice with their world point-of-view and creating effective dialogue.

Diction (word choices):

  • Uses jargon, slang, swears
  • $5 words
  • Mispronunciation, precise pronunciation
  • Eloquent, spare

Speech pattern (how they express themselves orally):

  • Soft-spoken
  • Drawl, twang
    • A lot of people talk slowly, but when I talk you can watch grass grow.
    • A lot of people say hell. When I say hell, it has two syllables and sounds like I’m talking about pellets of frozen rain.
  • Clear, mumble
  • Clipped
  • Silence or pause

Syntax (how chosen words are used to form a sentence):

  • What’cha gonna do?
  • What do you think you are doing?

Definition and examples courtesy of Rick Meyer’s “14 Tips for Building Character“.

Epithet Definition: A literary device that uses an adjective, noun, or phase to express some characteristic quality of a person or thing or a descriptive name applied to a person.

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It usually indicates some notable quality about the character, whether it’s a positive or a lack or a nickname.
Richard the Lion-Hearted
Charles the Bald
The Jackal
“Crash” Davis and “Nuke” LaLoosh
Physical Description Definition: Are not traits as they have nothing, in principle, to do with that person’s “character”, but with how they look.

They may, however, be used to emphasize an impression of their character.

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Now Novel.com has a number of posts on writing physical descriptions: faces, hands, eyes, and posture.

There are:

Physical Descriptions
What they look like:

  • tall or short
  • pimpled or smooth-complexioned
  • spindly-legged or stout
  • female or male
  • 16 years old or 60 years old

What they feel like:

  • Hands as soft as a baby’s bottom
  • Chapped, a workingman’s hands
  • A firm grasp

What they smell like, personal hygiene:

  • Hasn’t showered in days
  • Like a forest in spring
  • T-shirt smelled like sour milk

What they sound like:

  • I sound like gravel rolling down a tin roof.
  • High-pitched, like a woman’s
  • Laughs like a braying donkey
  • In the In Death series, McNab prances, Peabody clomps, Roarke is the wind, Nadine clicks, and Feeney shuffles
  • A character doesn’t “shout”, “his voice splits the morning like an ax”

What they taste like:

  • When you kiss them — minty? scotch? garlic?
  • Lick a body part — musky, peaches and cream

What their health is like:

  • Blind or short-sighted or far-sighted or possessed of 20/20 vision
  • Healthy or ill
  • Hypochondriacal
  • Addict

Types of clothes they wear:

  • Styles they wear – classic, grunge, goth, preppy, high school
  • How do they wear it – with panache, slouching, etc.

How they move, how they behave:

  • Body language
The Physical Can Enhance the Internal
Definition: Physical descriptions can enhance a character’s internal character.
Someone being handicapped visually, i.e., blind, may also be blind to the moral characters of those around him, blind to his/her own circumstances, or he may be more mindful of his circumstances, more acutely aware of truths behind the words.

A healthy person may have a well-rounded approach to life, his/her work or friends while an ill person may be grouchy toward others OR more compassionate because of his/her own problems.

A pimpled person may be more aware of another’s inner beauty while the beautiful person may be ugly on the inside OR it may be a case of like seeks out like, as in an ugly person may be ugly in nature, etc.

A spindly-legged person could indicate someone who pays heed to his/her health OR that they’re a stingy character while a stout person could be happy, greedy, stubborn, or piggish, etc.

Social Environment and/or Relationships Definition: People have interests and jobs, and with these interests and jobs comes environments and interaction with others. All part of what makes an individual singular.

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Social Interactions…

  • Born and raised in the Midwest, slums, in a fishing port, lap of luxury, etc.
  • Constantly moved during childhood because of their parents were military, diplomatic corps, con artists, etc.
  • Events that shaped their personality or choice of career
  • Parents’ careers, behaviors, actions, levels of participation at home
  • Siblings
  • Abusive, loving, dysfunctional family

Educational achievements:

  • high school dropout
  • five Ph.D.s by the time they were 22
  • mechanical whiz


  • Quilting
  • Woodworking
  • Putting puzzles together
  • Fishing, hunting, ice fishing, etc.
  • Playing poker, etc.
  • Playing football, soccer, basketball, etc.

Job / Career:

  • Police detective, FBI agent, special forces
  • Football player
  • Techno-geek
  • Lecherous professor

Where do they live:

  • Apartment, house, Victorian, warehouse loft, etc.
  • City, suburbs, countryside, at the beach

Relationships (people can be defined by the company they keep):

  • Personal relationships, such as friends and acquaintances the character has
  • Workplace relationships
  • How does the character relate to any of these people?
  • Sexual orientations: heterosexual, homosexual, bi, trans
  • Man-whore, monogamous, etc.

Social status/class:

Archetype Definition: Universally recognized models of people, behaviors, personalities, images, mythic characters, animals, or object types recognized within the collective unconscious of people all over the world, no matter the historical time period or culture.

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The most common list of archetypes are the Pearson-Marr Archetype Indicator.

Others have expanded upon this list and a number of sites have created their own lists based on the same concepts: eWriter’s Coach’s “Big Bold List of 52 Character Types“, Caroline Myss notes “Appendix: A Gallery of Archetypes“, “Jill’s List of Character Archetypes“, Humble ISD has a list that includes images and more.

Why Use Archetypes
Using an archetype is a jumping-off point that speeds up the process of building well-defined characters — protagonist, antagonist, or minor characters — that distinguish those characters from the others. Do note that any one character will have one dominant archetype AND may include some of the others.

Basing your character on an archetype(s) helps the reader identify more readily with them, make them feel as if they know someone just like that.

Use the archetypes to create characters that conflict with each other, making it easier to create dramatic tension between them.

You don’t have to choose just one per character.

A.k.a., stock character

Jungian Archetypes Definition: Our modern archetypes are based on two different concepts of Carl Jung’s archetype: the three parts that make up the individual psyche and the individual archetypes that he splits into three categories: events, figures, and motifs1.

1 Jung notes that the categories are endless; these are simply a sampling.

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The Individual Psyche Consists of Categories
Events Figures Motifs
soul (anima / animus)
separation from parents
the union of opposites
great mother vs the maiden
the hero
the trickster
wise old man
wise old woman
the apocalypse
the creation
the deluge
The Individual Psyche Definition: Jung stated that the individual psyche holds a combination of Self, Shadow, and Soul archetypes.
Self Definition: The identity we project to others, what we believe others expect, and which can lead to inner conflicts and repressions.

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The resolution of these repressions and the reconciliation with their true self could be this character’s character arc.

A.k.a., ego, the conscious mind, persona

A man may believe a father self is serious or disciplining

A person may believe an artist is supposed to be flamboyant

Believe that a prison guard is hard

Shadow Definition: A Jungian archetype of sex and life instincts, which exists as part of the unconscious mind (the darker side of the psyche) and is composed of repressed ideas, weaknesses, desires, instincts, and shortcomings — the black side of the self personality.

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Shadow represents wildness, chaos, and the unknown.

Typically, the individual does not consciously acknowledge shadow, but projects their own blackness onto others. Because the character does not see this shadow as something within themselves, the blackness is seen as a moral issue coming from outside that they must battle. The character arc will evolve through encounter, battle, realization of it being an internal issue, and resolution.

If the character has to face this blackness alone, the challenge is huge.

If the character undergoes self-analysis, the shadow will be the first challenge.

Until the character acknowledges their shadow, it can appear in dreams or visions of bad women or witches, of women with personal high power and destructive impulses affecting man’s mind, the phallic mother, and eros. It may take a variety of forms. It might appear as a snake, a monster, a demon, the devil, demonic symbols, a dragon, or some other dark, wild, or exotic figure.

A.k.a., the black side, the black shadow, Freudian personal unconscious, personal unconscious, memories

Carl Jung: Archetypes – Shadow

Often presented as a villainous character:

Soul Definition: The true self, which is divided into anima and animus. It represents the opposite gender to a person’s self, the real person the character has repressed as they develop their gender identity.

The combined anima and animus is known as the syzygy, the divine couple, and represents completion, unification, and wholeness.

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The anima and animus represent those repressed idealized aspects.

Anima Animus
The female in man’s spirit or mind The male in woman’s spirit or mind
Soul, sensuality, relational between men and women Reason, rationality
Positive archetype of birthing, nurturing, comforting, and care giving, the comfort she brings to all souls, her readiness to sacrifice her life for the sake of her child, the savior of the decayed men Archetype of reason and spirit in women, which can turn into excessive criticism and stubbornness
Projected as the mother, which rules over the mother-son relationship, Virgin Mary, Mother Earth, the Sophia, the Wisdom of God, fairy godmother Projected in various male images and characters like great artists, heroes, warriors, sportsmen, philosophers, etc.
Negative archetype of devouring mother, seductive aspect of mother-son relationship, which prevents the son from evolving into a mature person May need to overcome a lack of self-confidence
Projected as the Gorgon, She (That Must Be Obeyed)
Animus-inflated women with a strong interest in intellectual matters need to impose and maintain their own concept of values and have the urge to impose them on others.

A.k.a., collective unconscious

Mr Darcey is the idealized anima archetype in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

A man may allow his empathy to show more after the development of his masculine persona

Men repress their feminine side, women repress their masculine side

Pearson-Marr Archetype Indicator (PMAI) Definition: A list of archetypes based on Jung’s concepts with heavy influences from Joseph Campbell and his description of the archetypal monomyth in his The Hero with a Thousand Faces and a derivative of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

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A character will have one archetype that dominates their personality and usually have several archetypes within their personality. An aid in gaining personal insight into behaviors and motivations.

Joseph Campbell refined the concept of hero and the hero’s journey in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. (George Lucas used Campbell’s writings to formulate the Star Wars saga.

Archetype also applies to various literary elements and as a symbol.n

Other Archetype Types

  • Animal Archetypes:
    • serpent
    • lion
  • Object Archetypes:
    • gold
    • the castle
    • the forest

Carl Golden’s “The 12 Common Archetypes

Caregiver Definition: Their core desire is to protect and care for others with the goal and intent of helping others through their compassion and generosity — love your neighbor! Their weakness is martyrdom and being exploited by others, which is easily done through their greatest fears: selfishness and ingratitude.

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They fulfill their ego type, their desire, through meeting the needs of others, a social orientation.

A.k.a., saint, altruist, parent, helper, supporter, nurturer

Mary Poppins in P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins

Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird

Elinor Dashwood in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility

Creator Definition: Creative, imaginative — if you can imagine it, it can be done — their greatest desire is to create things of enduring value. To create culture and express their own vision, to realize their vision, they need artistic control, develop their skill(s), and have an inspired way of approaching truth. Their greatest fear is of having a mediocre vision and/or execution, which ties in directly with their weaknesses of perfectionism and/or bad solutions.

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They fulfill their soul type, their desire, by producing their vision.

A.k.a., artist, inventor, innovator, musician, writer, dreamer, visionary

Jo March in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women
Everyman Definition: Believes that all men and women are created equal and want to connect with others. They have a need to belong with their greatest fear being left out or to stand out from the crowd, which plays into their weakness of losing their self through their effort to blend in or for the sake of superficial relationships; it may well be a mask and pretense we show others. The everyman develops ordinary solid virtues, is down to earth, and has the common touch through their own realism, empathy, and lack of pretense.

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They fulfill their ego type, their desire, by being accepted by their fellow man.

A.k.a., the good old boy, the person next door, the realist, the working stiff, the solid citizen, the good neighbor, the silent majority, regular guy/gal, orphan, persona

Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers


Frogo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

Huckleberry Finn in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Harry Potter in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter

Jane Eyre in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre

Tarzan in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes

Drug addicts and alcoholics are common shadow traits of an Everyman.

Explorer Definition: Wants to experience a better, more authentic, more fulfilling life and desires the freedom to find out who they are through exploring the world. They intend to accomplish this by traveling on a journey, seeking out and experiencing new things. They fear boredom, conformity, inner emptiness, and or getting trapped. They are autonomous, ambitious, and are true to their soul — don’t fence me in! Their weakness is aimless wandering and/or becoming a misfit.

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They fulfill their soul type, their desire, by having the freedom to find themselves by exploring the world.

The journey is a representation of the quest towards self-realization.

A.k.a., seeker, iconoclast, wanderer, individualist, pilgrim, self

Amelia Earhart

Huckleberry Finn in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Zorro in Johnston McCulley’s The Mark of Zorro

Hero Definition: Aye, where there’s a will, there’s a way for the hero to prove his/her worth through courageous acts, pursue a quest to achieve their destiny. They intend to be as strong and competent as possible, and they intend to achieve expert mastery in a way that improves the world…fortunately, they are competent, perseverant, and courageous with boundless ambition. Their greatest fear is of being weak, vulnerable, or “chicken”, which leads to their weaknesses of arrogance and always needing another battle to fight.

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They fulfill their ego type, their desire, through courageous action that proves self-worth.

A.k.a., warrior, crusader, rescuer, superhero, soldier, dragon slayer, the winner, team player, champion, defender

Hero as…
Anti-Hero A non-hero, given the vocation of failure, frequently humorous
A protagonist of a story who embodies none of the qualities typically assigned to traditional heroes and heroines and whose failings are typically used to humanize him or her and convey a message about the reality of human existence.
Homer Simpson

Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars,
Man with No Name, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road

Apocalyptic Hero who faces the possible destruction of society Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels
Defiant Anti-hero Opposer of society’s definition of heroism/goodness Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
Denied Hero The protagonist whose status or essential otherness makes heroism possible Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man
Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club
Lover A pure love motivate hero to complete his quest Prince Charming
Proto-Feminist Female heroes Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
Romantic/Gothic Hero/lover with a decidedly dark side Mr. Rochester in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre
Scapegoat Hero suffers for the sake of others Jesus
Superheroic Exaggerates the normal proportions of humanity; frequently has divine or supernatural origins. In some sense, the superhero is one apart, someone who does not quite belong, but who is nonetheless needed by society. Mythological heroes
Iron Man, etc.
Transcendent The hero of tragedy whose fatal flaw brings about his downfall, but not without achieving some kind of transforming realization or wisdom Greek and Shakespearean tragedies:

Unbalanced The Protagonist who has (or must pretend to have) mental or emotional deficiencies Shakespeare’s Hamlet
Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Warrior A near god-like hero faces physical challenges and external enemies Odysseus in Homer’s The Odyssey

Rebecca McFarlan’s “Character, Setting, Plot, Point of View: Meat and Potatoes of Literary Analysis

Innocent Definition: They are boring for all their naive innocence with a need to do things right, the Innocent wants to be happy with a fear of being punished for doing something bad or wrong. They want to be free to be themselves while their core desire is to get to paradise, and they have a great deal of faith and optimism. On the plus side, they are a breath of new life and fresh ideas with all their potential in front of them.

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There is a longing for innocence, rebirth, and/or salvation.

They fulfill their ego type, their desire, by finally achieving nirvana or reaching paradise..

A.k.a., utopian, traditionalist, naive, mystic, saint, romantic, dreamer, innocent child, child

Mary Poppins in P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins


Dorothy in Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Definition and examples courtesy of The Character Therapist’s “Character Archetypes 101: The Innocent“.

Jester Definition: They only live once and intend to live in the moment with full enjoyment. Joyous, they want to have a great time and lighten up the world through play, jokes, and being funny. This desire also leads to their greatest fear of being bored or boring others. Their need to live to the full also causes them to be frivolous and waste time.

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They may be a rascal agent pushing us towards change.

They may wander off in confusion and with faulty directions.

They fulfill their self type, their desire, by having a good time..

A.k.a., fool, trickster, joker, practical joker, comedian, deceiver, liar, trouble-maker

Puck in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The carpet in Aladdin

Lover Definition: They believe they’re the only one with a core desire for intimacy and experience, which they hope to achieve through being in a relationship with the people, work, and surroundings they love. They work at becoming more and more physically and emotionally attractive using their “talent” for passion, gratitude, appreciation, and commitment. Their fear of being alone, a wallflower, unwanted, unloved, can become an outward-directed desire to please others at the risk of losing their own identity.

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They fulfill their soul type, their desire, through intimacy and experience.

A.k.a., partner, friend, intimate, enthusiast, sensualist, spouse, team-builder

Marianne Dashwood in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet


Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

Magician Definition: A mysterious character filled with intrigue, they have a strong desire to understand the fundamental laws of the universe and makes things happen, makes dreams come true with a talent for finding win-win solutions. They develop a vision and live by it, which leads to their greatest fear: unintended negative consequences. It’s a fear that leads to their becoming manipulative.

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They are knowledgeable of the hidden and of the transformation needed.

They fulfill their self type, their desire, by understanding the fundamental laws of the universe.

A.k.a., visionary, catalyst, inventor, charismatic leader, shaman, healer, medicine man, wizard

Merlin in the Arthurian legends

Gandalf in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

Rebel Definition: Hah! Rules are made to be broken and they intend to overturn what isn’t working. Outrageous with a sense of radical freedom, they intend to disrupt, destroy, or shock to achieve revenge or revolution. They’re greatest fear is of being powerless or ineffectual, which can lead to the possibility of their crossing over to the dark side, of committing crime(s).

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They fulfill their soul type, their desire, is revenge and revolution.

A.k.a., outlaw, revolutionary, wild man, misfit, iconoclast


Robin Hood

Lord Voldemort in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is the shadow rebel

Ruler Definition: Authoritarian, unable to delegate, believing that power isn’t everything, it’s the only thing, the ruler needs to control and exercise power to create a prosperous and successful family or community. While they do have a sense of responsibility and are good leaders, their greatest fear is of being overthrown, of chaos. Others may fear him/her as that authority figure.

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They are stern, powerful.

They fulfill their self type, their desire, by being the keeper of order and sanity in a chaotic world.

A.k.a., boss, leader, aristocrat, king, queen, politician, role model, manager, administrator, great father, father, authority figure

Don Vito Corleone and Michael Corelone in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather are both shadow rulers

Aragon in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

Katherine in Shakespeare’s The Taming of The Shrew

Fitzgerald Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

Sage Definition: Intelligent, stoic, contemplative, they’re wise and can study details forever and never act. Their core desire is to find the truth and believe that the truth will set you free. They seek out information and knowledge, understand thought processes, provide guidance, and engage in self-reflection with the goal of using their intelligence to understand the world. Their greatest fear is of being duped or misled — or to be ignorant.

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They fulfill their self type, their desire, by finding the truth.

A.k.a., expert, scholar, detective, advisor, thinker, philosopher, academic, researcher, thinker, planner, professional, mentor, teacher, contemplative, wise old man

Gandalf in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

Professor Dumbledore in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter

Professor Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion

Types of Archetypal Journeys Definition: The archetypal journey sends the protagonist in search for some truth of information necessary to restore fertility, justice, and/or harmony to the kingdom.

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The journey includes the series of trials and tribulations the protagonist faces along the way.

Usually the protagonist descends into a real or psychological hell and is forced to discover the blackest truths, quite often concerning their faults.

Once the protagonist is at this lowest level, they must accept personal responsibility to return to the world of the living.

Types of Journeys include:

Epic Journey to Find the Promised Land Definition: Journey to the promised land or the founding of a great city.

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The Bible

Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Fool’s Errand Definition: A simple-minded person saves the land or the princess just because of their own unawareness to their foolishness.

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In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, it’s Huck or Tom off to find adventure.

David Newbatt’s Parzival: The Quest for the Holy Grail is one example of Parsifal’s quest

William Goldman’s The Princess Bride sees Westley off to seek his fortune and win the hand of the princess.

Grail Quest Definition: The quest for human perfection.

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Arthurian legends

Justine Korman Fontes’ The Lion King

Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King

Journey in Search of Knowledge Definition: Character tries to gain insight or knowledge about something.

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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories

Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew series

Deborah Bee’s The Last Thing I Remember

Quest for Identity Definition: The character goes on a journey to discover who they are and what makes them.

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Veronica Roth’s Divergent

Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity

Quest for Vengeance Definition: The character want to enact revenge on another.

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Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo
Quest to Rid the Land of Danger Definition: The character must save a land from an evil force.

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C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

Elizabeth George Speare’s The Bronze Bow

Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games

Search for Love Definition: To rescue the princess or damsel in distress.

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Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

Jessica Martinez’s The Vow

Tragic Quest: Penance or Self-Denial Definition: The character is trying to make things right again either with themselves emotionally or with someone else no matter how hard it is and whether or not they have to suffer.

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Mark Dawson’s John Milton series in which a former assassin roams the world, making amends for his former profession.

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey as he holds that torch for Harriet.

Warrior’s Journey to Save Their People Definition: The character must destroy a threat to their people.

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Pittacus Lore’s I Am Number Four

Timothy Zahn’s Quadrail sends Frank Compton on a desperate journey to stop the aliens

Timothy Zahn’s Cobra universe consists of a series of subseries as the Moreau-Broom family must battle against aliens and their own kind to save their worlds.

Literary Devices Used
Assorted literary device are used to bring characters to life.
Foil Definition: Usually a secondary character whose qualities contrast with the qualities of the major character with the objective to enhance the importance of the major character.

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It’s very handy in fiction for character development, as it helps readers understand their personalities AND comprehend the importance of their roles.

Foil may also be used for any comparison that is drawn to portray a difference between two things.

God versus Satan

Harry Potter and Ron Weasley in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series

Kurt Austin and Joe Zavala in the NUMA Files

Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Cassius vs Antony vs Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

Katie Powell is the foil to the protagonist, David McCombe, in Connie Willis’ “The Last of the Winnebagos“.

Juxtaposition Definition: A literary device in which the author places a person, concept, place, idea, or theme “next to” another to compare them or to highlight the contrast between the two.

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It’s useful in portraying characters in great detail, creating suspense or lending a rhetorical effect.

It is a human quality to comprehend one thing easily by comparing it to another. It can surprise readers, evoking their interest with the added vividness given to an image, controlling the pacing of a poem or a narrative, and providing a logical connection between two various vague concepts.

A writer can make readers sense “goodness” in a particular character by placing him or her side by side [with] a character who is predominantly “evil”. Consequently, goodness in one character is highlighted by evil in the other character.

Useful in the development of characters.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Milton’s Paradise Lost uses juxtaposition to draw a parallel between the two protagonists, Satan and God, who he discusses by placing their traits in comparison with one another to highlight their differences.

Examples courtesy of Literary Devices and Literary Devices.net.

Personification A figure of speech, it uses comparative metaphors and similes to give human qualities, attributes, or abilities to an animal, an object, or an idea to create imagery.

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It can also refer to “a person who is considered a representative type of a particular quality or concept”.

Taafe, 120; KSU

The angry wind knocked over the chair and slammed the shutters.

“And the meeting-house windows, blank and bare,
Gaze at him with a spectral glare
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Paul Revere’s Ride”

“When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath,” – Emily Dickinson, “There’s a certain slant of light”

“She sweeps with many-colored Brooms
And leaves the Shreds behind
Oh Housewife in the Evening West
Come back, and dust the Pond!” – Emily Dickinson, “She sweeps with many-colored Brooms”
Anthropomorphism Definition: Gives animals, objects, deities, or other non-human beings human characteristics, enabling them to behave and appear as if they are human beings.

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Used in fairy tales, fables, satire, artistic purposes, animations, comic books, etc.
Pinocchio, the famous wooden doll was given the ability to talk, walk, think, and feel like a real boy.

a talking rock – think Terry Pratchett’s Discworld

Ents from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

George Orwell’s Animal Farm

The Three Little Pigs

Little Red Riding Hood

Bremen Town Musicians

The Cowardly Lion in L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz

C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia

Doppelgänger Definition: Refers to a character in the story who is actually a counterfeit or a copy of a genuine character and usually seen as a harbinger of bad luck, frequently seen as an evil twin.

Literary Devices

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in Robert Louis’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Steven Bannion and the Incredible Hulk

Hubris Definition: An extreme pride and arrogance shown by a character who believes he’s better than others, crosses normal human limits, and violates moral codes because he believes he has the right. This flaw eventually brings about his downfall.

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Making use of hubris is one way to achieve a moralistic end with the character being punished and readers wondering if this punishment will happen to them if they do the same horrible things.

A.k.a., hybris

Found in major characters of tragic plays.

Young men and the rich are hubristic because they think they are better than other people.

People indulge in crimes like sexual misconduct and maltreating others only to fulfill their basic desire to make themselves feel superior to others.

The mad scientist, Victor, in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein exhibits Hubris in his endeavor to show them all what a great scientist he and creates a “monster” which brings about his downfall.

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the main character is overfilled with ambition and arrogance, allows his hubris to think he would be able to kill the valiant Duncan without penalty so he can claim the throne of Scotland for himself.

Hamartia Definition: A tragic flaw in an initially rich and powerful hero that leads to his tragic downfall.

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It is commonly understood to refer to the protagonist’s error or flaw that leads to a chain of plot actions culminating in a reversal from their good fortune to bad.

What qualifies as the error or flaw can include an error resulting from ignorance, an error of judgement, a flaw in character, or sin.

Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex killing his own father because he doesn’t understand his true parentage.
Pathetic Fallacy Definition: A type of personification in which human feelings are attributed to nonhuman objects or nature or phenomena.

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It’s more accidental than purposeful.

Two Types of Pathetic Fallacy

  1. Reflects a character’s mood in the atmosphere or inanimate objects
  2. Attribute human emotion and conduct to nature and is usually found in poetry:
    • sullen clouds
    • leaves dance
    • rocks are indifferent
The softly whistling teapot informed him it was time for breakfast.

Encouraged by the smiling skies, Mary skipped off to school.

The somber clouds, the angry storm, and the bitter winter winds brought Jenny’s spirits down.

Air hates to be crowded, and, when compressed, it will try to escape to an area of lower pressure.

The cruel, crawling foam rose up over the sides of the boat.

Prosopopeia Definition: A powerful form of personification in which an inanimate object gains the ability to speak.

A.k.a., prosopopoeia

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The Anglo-Saxon poem, “Dream of the Rood“, has the wooden cross verbally describe the death of Christ from its own viewpoint.

Eco-critical writers might describe clear-cutting from the viewpoint of the tree.

Used car salesmen might write an advertisement from a car’s viewpoint.

Cars with Owen Wilson


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Resources for Character

Character Arc

Michael Hauge’s Writing Screenplays That Sell: The Complete, Step-By-Step Guide for Writing and Selling to the Movies and TV, from Story Concept to Development Deal and Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler’s The Hero’s 2 Journeys as a seminar on CD/DVD are recommended for character arc and how it fits into story structure.


Victoria Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters and John Trub y’s The Anatomy of a Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller are both useful. Have some fun with Archetypes.com; it’s so easy to get lost in their site!

The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism (ARAS) is an “archive [that] contains about 17,000 photographic images, each cross-indexed, individually mounted, and accompanied by scholarly commentary”, which includes “its modern psychological and symbolic meaning, as well as a bibliography for related reading and a glossary of technical terms”. ARAS has also published The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images, which includes 800 images from all over the world and from all eras of history. On Google Docs, there’s a completely different list of archetypes. Dictionary.com has a different perspective on Archetype Examples that includes situation, symbolic, setting, and a different list of character archetypes. The protagonist’s journey is bulleted out in stages in Venngage’s infographic “What Your 6 Favorite Movies Have in Common“.

Wikipedia has lists of stock characters or archetypes which include Stock Characters, Chinese Opera, Strong Female Characters, Ancient Rome, Plautus who has his own variation on the ancient Roman list, and Ancient Greek. You’ll have to dig a bit for the list in Japanese Comic Characters in Kyōgen and Commedia dell’arte.

Nancy Lamb’s The Art and Craft of Storytelling.

Through Dialogue

Sarah Blake Johnson’s article, “The Prism of Roles“, is excellent with ideas on how to create a developed character. You’ll want to dive right in and start working up their histories. Jack Hodgins’s A Passion for Narrative: A Guide to Writing Fiction.

Create your own character map or storyboard through Storyboard That. Faye Kirwin at Writerology.net suggests taking a personality test from the POV of the character to help build them up. She also suggests you click the button that requests they hold the data private. Fiction Writer’s Mentor.com has a single-word List of Character Traits” that may inspire.

Pinterest Photo Credits:

“Anime Girl” is User:Niabot’s own work under the GFDL or CC BY 3.0 licenses, via Wikimedia Commons.