Character (Story Engineering and Physics #2 of 12)

Part of a series of posts on story engineering based on the book of that title and its companion volume Story Physics.

Story Engineering & Story Physics

I learned a lot about trust from a book called The Speed of Trust, written by Stephen M. R. Covey, the son of the “7 habits” author.

It cleared up some misconceptions and filled some gaps in my understanding of trust. For instance, why can we trust someone to repay a loan, but we wouldn’t ask them to work for us? Why can we take them at their word, trusting their honesty implicitly, but not ask them to watch the dog when we’re on vacation?

Answering those questions taught me about the people in my life (including myself) but it changed how I present the people in my books as well. First, some details about the psychology of trust, and then, how this informs your writing.

Trust is a Tree

Covey compares trust to a tree with four elements matching the roots, trunk, branches and leaves.

The roots are our integrity, who we really are. It’s hidden from others, invisible, like roots underground. No one can look inside us and see who we really are; they can only see the visible manifestations.

Next is our intentions, our agenda, what we really want. Partially hidden below ground, mostly visible, like the trunk of a tree.

Do we know what we’re doing? Competence is an aspect of trust that grows from our intentions. Our agenda leads to our capabilities and competence.

The most simply visible aspect of our trustworthiness is the results we deliver, floating over us like a halo of leaves on a tree. Do we get things done? Do these results display altruism or selfishness? Are they complete or unfinished, quality or junk?

Character’s Multiple Layers

Ever heard a character described as “one dimensional” or “flat” ? It’s not a compliment.

The people we write will not ring true, evoking genuine emotional responses from our readers, if we don’t display these levels of character:

  1. The outwardly visible — what they say and do, how they act, how they treat others. This may imply things about their integrity, motivations, and competence, but as you know if you look in your own heart, there are times that what you’re doing and saying isn’t aligned with your core. Give your characters the same ambiguities and contradictions.
  2. Backstory — where they came from and why the are who and what they are. Loved or neglected as a child. Properly nourished or constantly hungry. Lonely or smothered. The backstory connects their outermost displays with their innermost feelings, and is a source of both. This is where their demons live; this is where they hate being interrupted when they’re speaking, where they won’t hurt animals but they’ll torture their enemies if it suits their ends.
  3. Worldview — who they really are; the roots, their integrity, or lack thereof. They may act like money and showy display means everything to them; we may know about their deprived childhood and hatred of their father’s cheap junky cars, but if we see them wreck their brand new car to avoid hitting a kitten on the highway, we’ve seen past the upper layers into their worldview: this is the kind of person who’ll endure great personal sacrifice to avoid running over a helpless animal.

All that “show, don’t tell” stuff you’ve read? This is how you do it. Your character’s actions and words set a certain stage for them to act upon. Establish the visible portions of their character — but foreshadow that second layer, their backstory and demons, the things they can’t shake which drive the inner conflict which is the support structure for their arc in the story.

And then, at crunch time, haul out their true level of integrity and surprise (or delight) your readers when who they really are becomes their personal salvation and the resolution of your story’s conflict.

Villains Are Characters, Too

If your villain wants to destroy the world, but we never know why, you’re in trouble. A flat villain gives your hero nothing to play off. When your conflict is pure black and white, it will always come off as unreal.

Your hero has flaws. Everyone knows to write a flawed hero.

How often have you read the advice to write a villain we can respect?

It happens in real life. It’s why we can respect someone we completely disagree with. We may not like their results, may question their competence and capabilities, but when we see genuine integrity and an unselfish agenda, we cannot fail to feel respect, grudging though it may be.

Make us want to like your villain. Make us feel sympathy. Hey, make us sorta wish he could win, except, y’know, he wants something we just can’t get behind. Respect his integrity but hate his agenda.

Go Wide.Dig Deep.

Story Engineering spends multiple chapters describing other aspects of character and detailing how to implement them in your writing. Trust me, this article is the very lightest brush across the top. Do the research to understand the psychology behind what makes us human and how to put that on the page.

Your readers will care about your characters, and when readers care, selling books is a whole lot easier.

It’s also deeply emotionally fulfilling, in case you’re into that sort of thing.

If you enjoy the posts in this series, please do me a favor and buy Larry’s books. This blog is free, of course, but I couldn’t be teaching you these things without Larry’s writing and blog. The $25 it will cost you to buy the books will be more than repaid by the information you get from them.

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