Today’s Story Grid Bonus is about how to create believable three dimensional characters.

After deciding what the core WANTS (the conscious objects of desire) and NEEDS (the subconscious objects of desire) are for your protagonist and antagonist, you should turn your eye to each character’s traits as compared to their true character.

A quick definition here. Characterization is not to be confused with character.

Characterization is the sum total of a character’s traits, not the deepest expression of his humanity.  That core humanity is his Character.

We’ll all agree that it is the writer’s intention to create three dimensional characters, at least the illusion of them.

How do you do that?

You do it by creating a disconnection between characterization and character.


Consider the yin and yang of humanity.

Every one of us struggles between our better angels (who we’d like to be) and our more craven selves (who we really are from one moment to the next). What we appear to be is not really who we are. We’ve all met the accountant who is really a sculptor or the lawyer who deep down considers himself a writer. Or the hypocrite who thinks he’s principled.

The most obvious example of a disconnection between characterization and character is our behavior during the Late November through early January Holiday seasons. At this time of year, we often drink too much and eat too much and stay out too late and generally indulge. Come January 2nd, we’re 5 to 10 pounds heavier than we were in September, a bit dim witted, sluggish and slothful.

Our appearance does not match who we are the other eleven months out of the year.

We can’t help but notice our bloat and resolve to get back to our regular rhythm. We go back to the gym in the morning, we cut way back on the drinking and eating and we get to bed at a decent hour. The cookies and cakes are in our past too. Come March, we’re back to our old selves. Our outward appearance matches our inner stoic.

If you think of a story as a transformational progression, like the one we do every year post Holiday season, you can see the requirement of contradiction in your lead character’s traits and characteristics. They begin the story behaving one way, and end it behaving another. They arc.

If we’re writing a thriller, our lead character must be become heroic, that is, he must (by the end of the story) be committed to sacrificing himself for the greater good of humanity. So if you begin your story by having your lead character behave heroically–you lead with that deep character revelation from the get-go–the reader will not find themselves all that attached to your protagonist. They won’t “see themselves” in him or her.

The reader may find him cool or attractive like we all find James Bond attractive, but he won’t really relate to that character. Sure he can fantasize about being James Bond, but he won’t ever really believe in Bond as a real live human being. A man who can drink Martini after Martini, bed one woman after another, chase bad guys, fight, shoot etc. and never tire is not a three dimensional character. While the action adventure and comic book genres embrace the superhuman as lead, the more nuanced genres require a far more idiosyncratic center of good.

But even comic book stories have merged with a more humanistic approach of late. Take for example Batman or Superman. While comic book characters, these protagonists at least have to put on a costume in order to step out of their everyday realities.

Bruce Wayne has to take care of paying his electric bill and must behave in ways appropriate to his philanthropic reputation.  But as Batman he can dispense with his social requirements, put on a costume and fight evil without having to worry about the consequences of his actions. Likewise Clark Kent at The Daily Planet has to do what his boss says and balance his inner humanity with the realities of everyday life. Superman doesn’t. He too puts on a costume and miraculously can then fly above human frailty.

The most recent James Bond movies though, SKYFALL and QUANTUM OF SOLACE, have also stepped into the three dimensional protagonist requirements of the modern thriller. Today’s James Bond is riddled with internal battles and the division between good and evil in his world has become ever more gray.  Just like ours.

So how do you create three dimensions?

What is required for deep dimensionality are contradictions. Like our tubby selves in January, your lead character must take actions at the beginning of the book that reveal themselves to be false markers by the end.At the beginning, he acts one way (he eats cake). At the end, he acts another (he doesn’t eat cake).

A lead character who behaves like a coward at the beginning of the book, ends up heroic. A protagonist who is cruel becomes compassionate. A cynic becomes an optimist. And so on. The more arcs you create for your lead character, shifts from one kind of behavior to its opposite, the more “real” they will be.

For example, in William Goldman’s brilliant novel, MARATHON MAN, the lead character Babe, played by Dustin Hoffman in the movie, is a nebbish intellectual at the beginning of the novel who morphs into a cunning hero.

The metaphor for this transformation that Goldman uses to such great effect is that of the long distance runner. Babe plays at being a runner at the beginning of the novel, but when his side begins to knot and the course proves rocky, he quits. He wears the runner’s shoes, but is a faker. He doesn’t really live the runner’s life.

He’s also reluctant to act on his intellect. When he’s in class with a preeminent professor of History who asks his students to reference a certain turn of phrase he’d been quoting, Babe writes down the answer in his notebook but does not speak up. He has the smarts but not the courage to display those smarts.

All in all, Babe is a bit of a child, still wallowing in the shame and pain of the suicide of his father, incapable of putting his past to rest and finding his own path in the world. He even gets beaten up in the park when he’s with his girlfriend. A helpless little thing.

It is not until he is pressed by extraordinary circumstances that his true character comes out.

His brother arrives on his doorstep, only breaths away from dying, and Babe finds himself now the target of his brother’s murderer. Babe is abducted by the evil Nazi Zell and tortured in the most excruciating way one might imagine. But somehow, Babe finds the resources within himself to escape and eventually bring the bastard to justice.

He’s a three dimensional character because of the changes in his actions. He moves from wimp to crafty vigilante.

Eventually the protagonist will face a “POINT OF NO RETURN” moment when they must throw away their superficial selves and embrace who they really are. For Babe, it is facing a real existential crisis (being tortured to death). He is not his father (who killed himself when he faced a crisis of his own) nor is he his brother (a preeminent assassin who got sloppy and was killed as a result).  Babe, the weak one, is actually the hero of the family. His true self contradicts his characterization.

Essentially your protagonist, as he is pursuing his object of desire at the beginning of the story has to confront unexpected roadblocks. Things cannot go the way he plans. And the stakes he faces must escalate from crisis to crisis. The thriller protagonist is driven by extreme pressure to shed his everyday superficiality and act from his core. (It’s worth noting that all protagonists in Internal Content Genres must arc too!)

If they don’t discover and act from their inner core, they are not heroic.

If you get stuck, remember that what the center of good in your story (the lead character) has a primary, cradle to grave Need.  It is the NEED FOR TRUTH. He’ll sacrifice himself in the service of truth. He comes to understand that he cannot go back to living a lie.

Conversely, the antagonist is all about fulfilling his most craven WANT. The Antagonist likes things the way they are. Because he’s winning. He wants to wear his costume. In fact, antagonists believe in their masks more than do in themselves.

The mask, and the power grab necessary to keep it on, is a way of being “BETTER” than who they really are. The ANTAGONIST has no interest in living in the truth. Because their truth is too difficult to face. They’re cowards, incapable of thinking of anyone but themselves.

Antagonists believe that certain Human beings are capable of controlling their environment and the people around them in such a way as that they can create an artificial utopia, their own private Idaho. Antagonists want to create ORDER in the universe. To set things right…according to their grand design.

While ANAGONISTS are content living lies, THE PROTAGONIST comes to the conclusion that THE TRUTH…no matter how painful, even so painful that it causes the loss of his own life, is the only thing that can bring him peace.

Ironically at the beginning of your story, your protagonist will be the one clinging to LIES, while your antagonist will be the one who is seemingly speaking truth. For example, in CASABLANCA, Humphrey Bogart’s RICK is a drunk malcontent, wallowing in the loss of the Love of His Life, Ingrid Bergman. By the end of the story, Rick has thrown away his romantic notions about how HE was wronged and understands the TRUTH of what it is to really love someone…not just a hot broad who made him feel good about himself, but what it’s like to love all of humanity. Rick comes to the understanding that the only way we can possibly hold back evil is if he recognizes that the truth of life is that the individual human being is not the center of the universe.

Left to his own devices, the egocentric individual will cravenly pursue his own interests like a dog left with an endless supply of kibble. He will gorge himself on self-satisfying pursuits until he dies. Rick discovers his purpose on earth, to sacrifice his own desires in the service of justice.

Remember that your protagonists will embrace TRUTH, while your antagonist will always cling to LIES.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts The Story Grid Bonus Material posts and Storygridding The Tipping Point posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-outs.

7 comments on “Contradiction

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    The payoff for the reader – if the writer is doing her job – is that moment of recognition during the character’s struggle. If the writer can elicit that, the reader feels transformed. Thanks so much for these bonus posts Shawn!

  2. Beginning: he eats cake. End: he does not eat cake.

    I will remember that forever. Every character I ever create, I’m gonna ask myself, did they go from “eating cake” to “not eating cake” ?

    1. Alec Graf says:

      And Joel said, Let them not eat cake and they did not and he found that good whilst they did suffer horribly. 😀

  3. Alec Graf says:

    Seriously though, great post.

    Love that Protagonist/Antagonist dichotomy: Lies to Truth versus Lies, Lies and more Lies — or seen another way, Want to Need versus Want, Want, Want.

  4. Patrick Maher says:

    Shawn, It’s difficult to contribute any more to such a complete picture of the protagonist with the excellent analogy you use of the holiday season and the sobriety of the long recovery other than perhaps a wound – usually given to us by our parents and the story that then becomes how the protagonist heals the wound.
    Most antagonists feel or express no guilt in their reordering of the world – a storm, a Voldemort. But their trajectory can be compelling and I find myself always looking for the shadow of poor potty training in their back-story, and that engagement makes most well written antagonists so memorable.
    Excellent, and another article for my Evernote Treasury of wonderful insights into ‘story’ and the ‘writer’s craft’.

  5. Marvin Waschke says:

    Great post, but didn’t you mean Clark Kent instead of Jimmy Olsen? 🙂

  6. Alec Graf says:

    Might the following be a supplementary way to think of the Wants vs Needs issue?

    Wants are the varied ways in which a character attempts to fulfill his need. A banal example: I want to go to the movies because I need to be entertained.

    Wants, in effect, are Characteristics, while the actual Character is determined by the need. But wants are *conceptual* characteristics, as opposed to other more ephemeral characteristics such as the character’s “knowledge base”, quirks and physical description. They demonstrate what kind of concepts (worldview, mores, Weltanschauung) the character brings to the fulfillment of his need. And different characters will have different ways of fulfilling the same need: Frank wants to go to a bar to fulfill his need for intimacy, whereas Fred wants to enroll in a dancing school to fulfill the same need.

    During the course of a story, a character will exhibit different wants as he attempts different tactics to fulfill a particular need — a need which, being human, we all share. Frank wants to go to a bar because he needs intimacy. He wants to get laid because he needs intimacy. He wants to marry Sue because he needs intimacy. He wants to get a divorce because he needs intimacy.

    The story develops as a result of these changing tactics, each of which fails until, if the writer so chooses, one tactic succeeds. These failures and successes in turn suggest the overall theme of the story: being human, we all have the same particular need as the character — our shared essential Truth — but given the particular conditions set forth in the story — the story’s world and setting — there are unsuccessful (and possibly one or more successful) ways to fulfill that need.

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