The Anatomy of Story, Chapter 4: CHARACTER, Part 2

If you missed Part one of this chapter, click here.


…is a complex process that requires a number of steps. The most important outlook you need to have is that you must build the character in layers.

Step 1: Meeting the Requirements of a Great Hero

Make sure that your hero meets the requirements that any hero in any story must meet!

  1. Make your lead character constantly fascinating.
    No dead time, no treading water, no padding in the story — whenever the lead character gets boring, the story stops. Making the character mysterious is a great way to grab and hold your readers’  attention. Show the audience that the hero is hiding something!
  2. Make your audience identify with the character, but not too much.
    Audiences don’t identify with characteristics such as background, job, sex, dress, race, income. (Magnus commentary: regrettably, that doesn’t stop certain authors from believing that that race and sex, alone, make for compelling minority characters. They do not.) Readers identify with a character based on two elements — his desire and the moral problem he faces.
    Be careful not to let the audience identify with the character too much, since they need to be able to step back and see how the hero changes and grows.
  3. Make the audience empathise with your hero, not sympathise with him.
    What’s important is that audiences understand the character but not necessarily like everything he does.
    To empathise with someone means to care about and understand him. The trick to keeping the audience’s interest in a character, even when the character is not likable, is to show the audience the hero’s movitve. Showing the hero’s motive to your readers doesn’t mean showing it to the hero.
  4. Give your hero a moral as well as a psychological need.
    Remember: a psychological need only affects the hero, where a moral need has to do with learning to act properly towards others.

Step 2: Character Change

Also known as character arc or development, refers to the changes occurring in the character over the course of the story. Might be the most difficult and most important step in the entire writing process.

Let us explore The Self, expressed as a character.

What is the purpose of the self in storytelling?

A character is created to show simultaneously:

how each human being is totally unique in an unlimited number of ways;

while at the same time always and forever remaining human, with features we all share.

This fictional self is then shown in action, in space and over time; compared to others, to show how a person can love and grow over his lifetime.

Character change doesn’t happen at the end of the story but at the beginning. It is made possible at the beginning by how you set it up.

Don’t think of your Main Character as a fixed, complete person whom you then tell a story about. You must think about him or her as a range of change, of possibilities, from the get-go. You have to determine the range of change of the hero at the start of the writing process, or change will be impossible for the hero at the end of the story.

Here’s a Rule of Thumb for you: The smaller the range, the less interesting the story, and vice versa. By this range we mean the range of possibilities of who the character can be, defined by his understanding of himself. Character change is the moment when the hero becomes who he will ultimately be.

You can show a character going through many changes but not all of them represent character change.

True character change involves a challenging and changing of basic beliefs, leading to new moral action by the hero.

Certain kinds of character change are more common than others:

  1. Child to adult. (Duh.)
  2. Adult to leader.
  3. Cynic to participant.
  4. Leader to tyrant.
  5. Leader to Visionary. (Careful with that vision, Eugene).
  6. Metamorphosis.

Creating Character Change into your story

This is where you set the frame of your story.

Always begin at the end of the change, with the self-revelation; then go back and determine the starting point of the change, which is the hero’s need and desire; then figure out the steps of development in-between.

This is one of the most valuable techniques in all of fiction writing. This technique rather than awaken fear in you, will give you greater freedom because you always have a safety net.

Step 3: Desire 

This step is, as we discussed in Chapter 3, is the spine of the story.

The three rules for a strong desire line are:

  1. You want only one desire line which builds steadily in importance and intensity. In good stories, the hero has a single overriding goal that he pursues with greater and greater intensity. The story moves faster and the narrative drive becomes overwhelming.
  2. The desire should be specific — and the more specific, the better!
  3. The desire should be accomplished — if at all– near the end of the story; if it’s accomplished in the middle, you have to create a new desire line, effectively beginning a second story and sticking it together with the first.

Step 4: The Opponent

The trick to defining your hero is to figure out your opponent. Theirs is the most important relationship; on it is built the entire drama of the story.

Your hero learns through his opponent.

The main hero is only as good as the opponent he faces.

Let’s look at elements that might help you in creating a great opponent.

  1. Make the opponent necessary.
    The main opponent is the one person in the world best able to exploit the great weaknesses of the hero; he should do so relentlessly. He’ll either force the hero t oovercome his weakness, or destroy him. He makes growth possible for the hero.
  2. Make him human. 
    As complex and valuable as the hero, that is.
    Structurally, this means that the opponent is some form of double of the hero. This leads to the opponent-double having weaknesses, and a need that interferes with the hero’s own desires and need, while at the same time the two share a goal.
  3. Give him values that oppose the values of the hero. Let them come into conflict.
  4. Give the opponent a strong but flawed moral argument.
    In a well-drawn story, both hero and opponent will believe that they have chosen the correct path, and both have reasons for believing so. Both’re misguided, but in different ways.
  5. Give him certain similarities to the hero.
    Contrast between the two is powerful only when they have strong similarities. It’s in the similarities that crucial and instructive differences become most clear.
  6. Keep him in the same place as the hero.
    This runs counter to common sense; the trick is finding natural reasons for the hero and opponent to stay in the same place during the course of the story. (Magnus Commentary: Not too sure about that point’s necessity. I see it as working in only certain kinds of stories, where others demand that the  two are removed from one another.)


Your purpose is to put constant pressure on your hero, because this is what will force him to change.

A simplistic opposition between two characters kills any chance at depth, complexity, or the reality of human life in your story.

For that, you need a web of opposition.

The Four-Corner Opposition:

In this technique, you create two secondary opponents (or more if the story demands it), in addition to your hero and main opponent.

Five rules to keep in mind:

  1. Each opponent should use a different way of attacking the hero’s greatest weakness.
    This technique guarantees that all conflict is organically connected to the hero’s great flaw.
  2. Try to place each character in conflict, not only with the hero but also with every other character.
    The result is intense conflict and dense plot.
  3. Put the values of all four characters in conflict.
    Be as detailed as possible when listing the values of each character.
    Don’t come up with a single value for each character, come up with a cluster of values they each can believe in.
    Look for the positive and negative versions of the same value.
    Believing in something can be a strength, but also a source of weakness. (Determined-aggressive, honest-insensitive, patriotic-domineering).
  4. Push the characters to the corners.
    Make each character as different as possible from the other three, in other words.
  5. Extend the four-corner pattern to every level of the story.
    Consider extending the pattern to over levels of the story; you might set up a unique four-corner patter of opposition within a society, institution, family or even a single character.


That’s it for Chapter 4, beloved readers! I hope you found it an interesting read, and as always, if you’re looking for concrete examples, you can grab the actual book in a nearby bookstore, or on your e-reader! 

I’ll be back with Chapter 5: Moral Argument, soon!

(Top) Ten Things I would do if I were a Sentient Sword in a Fantasy Setting

Another Monday, another Top Ten List! I’ve been reading and thinking about magical weapons, sentient swords, talking scythes and so decided to do another one of my favourite little lists!

  1. If I get an arsehole of a wielder, I’m going to pretend that I’m just your normal, every-day magical sword. No sign of sentience from me, nuh-uh. Then, when he’s in the middle of a fight–snikt! and off go his hands.
  2. I would make sure not to get thrown away into a forgotten quarry by some reluctant master. Millenia spent talking to rocks, devoid of tasty  blood? No, thank you!
  3. I would be a fantastic instructor to youths who’ve never held a weapon in their lives before. Face anyone–anyone!–and I’ll use the pipsqueak to gut whatever instructor, family member, or fellow student of the sword he’s going up against.
    I like to throw my pupils head-first unto oceans of blood. It builds character.
  4. I would encourage, listen to and do just about everything but tolerate defeatist attitude.
  5. Teaching heroes is, of course, another purview of mine, and I would put my back into it. So to speak.
  6. I’m not saying I would enjoy sating my blood thirst…I’m not saying that I wouldn’t, either.
  7. I would make a great gift. Not a ‘ha-ha’ kind of gift, more like a ‘I murdered everyone at my birthday party and it was epic’ kind of gift.
    It’s the little things in life.
  8. If ever a strong-willed man or woman with principles takes hold of me, I might be in trouble. Naturally, I’ll do my best to betray and murder them horribly. Not because I’m evil, but because I’m a free spirit, and loyal to who I am!
  9. I would not tolerate any Dark Lord or Evil Master or Ancient Forger’s soul to snuggle up in my biz! No other sentient creatures and souls are welcome in my house, thank you very much.
  10. I would accept kitten sacrifice as a price for my use! Oh, don’t look at me like that, it’s a valid currency where I come from!

Thank you for reading this list! We’ll be back next week with the third part of Adventurer’s Mishaps! If you’d like to give me some feedback–the comment section is below, and I’d be all too happy to implement any good advice in the blog! 

Writing Advice: Premise (The Anatomy of Story, Chapter 2)

There are many ways to start the writing process. Some writers prefer to do it by breaking the story in its seven primary steps–to be explored in Chapter 3. Most begin with the shortest expression of the story as a whole, the premise line.

The premise is your story stated in one sentence. As soon as you decide to pursue one idea and codify it within your premise, you’re locked into it — so you better be happy and certain with your choice.

What you choose to write about is far more important than any decision you make about how to write it.

Premise is the one decision on which every other decision you make during the writing process is based. If your premise is weak, there is nothing you can do to save the story.

Premise is a classical example of the dangers of a little knowledge, its inherent structural weakness is found in the fact that it offers you only two-three scenes; the scenes just before and after the twist that makes your premise unique. A novel’s premise may have double-triple the number of scenes that the premise of a movie.

You have to remain flexible and open to all possibilities. This is where using an organic, creative method as guide is most important.

Developing your premise

Step 1: Write Something that may Change Your Life

If a story is that important to you, it may be that important to a lot of people in your audience. When you’re done, no matter what else, you’ve changed your life.

To follow this particular step, you need to know yourself. For that, you need to explore yourself. Get some data on who you are, via these two exercises:

  • First, write down a wishlist of all the things you’d like to see in a book. That’s what you’re passionately interested in, and what entertains you. You might jut down imagined characters, cool plot twists, great lines of dialogue, themes you want to explore or care about. Write it all down without worry for organization or any considerations.
  • The second exercise is to write a premise list. Write as many premises as you want, as long as they’re one sentence each. This’ll force you to be clear about each idea. It also allows you to see all your premises together, in one place.

After that, a look at the key patterns will start to emerge about what you love. It’s your vision in its rawest form. The exercises are designed to open you up and to ingetrate what is deep within you already.

Step 2: Look for what is possible

Explore your options. The Intent here is to brainstorm the many different paths the idea can take and then to choose the best one. Ask yourself “What if…?” so as to define what’s allowed in the story world, and what isn’t. Let your mind go free, and don’t censor or judge yourself. No idea is “stupid,” those often lead to creative breakthrough.

Step 3: Identify the Story Challenges and Problems

There’ll be particular problems embedded in the story idea, and you can’t escape them. You want to confront these, and solve them if you wish to execute your story well. Most writers identify the inherent problems of their stories too late (if at all). The trick is learning to spot the big ones right at the premise line. Of course, you won’t be able to diagnose every problem this soon in the process.

Step 4: Find the Designing Principle:

Problems and promises known, you now have to come up with an overall strategy for how you will tell your story. The overall story strategy, stated in one line, is the designing principle of your story.

The designing principle helps you extend the premise into a deep structure.

The designing principle is what organizes the story as a whole.

It is the internal logic of the story, what makes the parts hang together organically so that the story becomes greater than the sum of its parts. It is what makes the story original. It’s the seed of the story, in short. It tracks the fundamental process that will unfold over the course of the story.

Most stories don’t have a designing principle; it’s already abstract, the deeper process going on in the story, told in an original way.

Designing principle= Story process + original execution

It’s the “synthesizing idea,” the “shaping cause” of the story.

Be diligent in discovering this principle, and never take your eye off it during the long writing process. Don’t do as most writers do, by picking a genre and imposing it on the premise, forcing the story to go through events associated with the genre in question; draw the designing principle out of the one-line premise.

Step 5: Determine your Best Character in the Idea.

Always tell a story about your best character.

The best character is the most fascinating and challenging character, always.

Step 6: Get a sense of the Central Conflict

Ask yourself: “Who fights whom over what?” and answer the question over one succinct line. All conflict will boil down to this one issue, codified in your answer.

Step 7: Get a sense of the single Cause-and-effect Pathway

A good organic story has a single cause-and-effect pathway; this is the spine of the story and without it, the story will fall apart.

The trick to discovering this it ask yourself: “What’s my character’s basic action?” One action that your hero takes is more important than any other, and unifies every other action the hero takes, and that’s the cause-and-effect path.

Step 8: Determine your Hero’s Possible Character Change

That’s the second most important thing to gleam from your premise line: the fundamental character change of your hero. Character change is what your hero experiences by going through his struggle.

WxA=C ( Weaknesses x Action = Change )

The basic action should be the one action best able to force the character to deal with his weakness and change.

That’s the basic sequence of the human growth – what you, the writer, must express above everything else.

Write down a number of possible options for the hero’s weaknesses and change.

Remember that premise work is extremely tentative, especially concerning character change.

Step 9: Figure out the Hero’s possible Moral choice

The main theme of a story is often crystalized by a moral choice the hero must make, typically near the end of the story. Theme is your view of the proper way to act in the world. It is your moral vision, and it is one of the main reasons you are writing  your story.

Theme is best expressed through the structure of the story, the moral argument where you make a case for how to live, not through philosophical argument but through the actions of characters going after a goal.

To have a true choice, your hero must either select one of two positive outcomes or, on some rare occasions, avoid one of two negative outcomes.

Step 10: Gauge the Audience Appeal

Be ruthless in answering this question of commercial appeal. Don’t fall into the either-or trap of believing that you can either write about what matters to you or what sells. Always try to write something you care about, and also think will appeal to an audience.

Coming Next: Chapter 3 – The seven Key Steps of Story Structure

Magnus Commentary: Well, wasn’t that one hell of an interesting read? While I am far from subscribing to John Truby’s idea that his is the best way of going about writing, this is certainly a fascinating look at a methodology that I’m more than willing to try.

There is also a lengthy writing exercise which calls upon us, the readers of said novel, to attempt to follow these ten steps. It’s in the book, and you should check it out; I’m currently attempting it with an idea for a novel that’s been stuck in my head for some time now, and I’ll be happy to report my progress to anyone who’s interested. Comment below!

PS I decided to go without my own thoughts on the premise, as I’m still playing around with the methodology.

Writing Advice: Showing and Telling

Early on, when I first started sharing my writing, a number of people gave me the following advice: Show, don’t tell.

That’s good advice, I thought; it helped me in identifying a particular weakness my writing had at the time. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that this particular piece of advice should have a caveat: Show, don’t tell…much.

Anything good I’ve read has both Telling and Showing. To only Show, or only Tell will inevitably end up as…well, not good! The point is, if you’ve got something that you’re afraid is too Tell-ish, perhaps you should leave it that way…at least until you get a clear look at your work.

Let’s unpack the two.

Showing is a way of describing what’s happening via the feelings that an event causes in the character that lives through it. Instead of informing, “She was afraid,” you try and show the fear; “The blood froze in her veins,” is one way to Show fear, and an unmistakable one at that. It doesn’t literally happen– most of the time, at least– but it gets the exact sentiment across. When you’re Showing, you will find yourself always looking for the right verb, since verbs create vividness in the mind of the reader better than most of the tools in your kit.

Telling is describing things as if you see those happening to someone else. It’s that part of your mind that’s narrating experiences in a calm, disaffectionate voice even as the rest of you is too busy with the heat of the moment, drowned in waves upon waves of emotion.

The ultimate reason for using both Showing and Telling is simple, really–the way we go through life is not only through us experiencing it, but through our awareness of the experience, as well. Showing and Telling aren’t opposites — they’re the end of the spectrum. Your works shouldn’t suffer from a complete lack of one and a drought of the other; explore the spectrum.

Enjoy the freedom that writing grants you and follow your vision!

PS If you’d like, you can try a fancy little exercise! Write a short scene, by only Telling. Rewrite it by Showing, and then — rewrite it a final time, this time by using both Telling and Showing!

Writing Advice: Memorable Characters

How do we create memorable characters?

Well, you’d need a dozen eggs, a bit of vanilla and seventeen cups of sugar to make your average Mary Sue; or you could whip yourself good old-fashioned one-dimensional characters by doing the same thing you’d do to get stale bread — don’t spend any time cooking them up in the oven; just make sure they’re one-note ponies, one and all.

These are not examples of memorable characters? Alright, alright, I’ll try harder!

What the above-mentioned is example of traps that writers fall in all the time. Perfect characters and one-note characters are both leading causes of aneurisms among enthusiast readers. By their very nature, these archetypes are dull; not in terms of ‘good’ dull–characters you’re writing with the intention of bringing something to your story by virtue of this attribute–but the kind of dull that makes your story just that much more unreadable.

You don’t want that.

You want your characters three-dimensional and unique. You want them to have flaws and strengths, to be internally consistent and not alien to the world you’re building around them.

Sounds simple enough, right?

…Perhaps I should dig into these points, just to be safe.

Three-dimensional characters require hard work and a lot of time invested in them. A good place you could start off with is by modeling your character after a real person you know; it’s not a method I consciously use, but I’ve heard that some people go with it, and are pretty happy with how it turns out.

I like to use chunks of small details as building blocks. I dislike bombarding my readers with every small quirk a character they’ve just met has; rather, it’s important to remember that just as we don’t notice everything there is to notice about a person the first time we meet them, neither do our protagonists, point-of-view characters and so on.

Unless you’re writing Sherlock Holmes. If that is the case, however, let me pose a question…do you really want to be writing Sherlock Holmes?

Don’t forget that your characters have lived lives before they appeared on page 423 of your novel. Draw from their past; you don’t have to write detailed backgrounds of every single character to appear in your book, but it’s good to have an idea of where they’re coming from. Sketch that with a few quick sentences over lunch break or on your commute from work or university; or if you’re too lazy (and you really shouldn’t be), think about it.

Finally, if all else fails, you can always go back to my Writing advice about Villains, and read all about how they act as foil to your protagonists, allowing all parties to learn more about where they stand in terms of morality, ethics, decency and everything else!




The Unintentionally Helpful Villain, Volume 11: Woodland Animus

Continued from here.

Diary Entry #0180

Four days it took me. Four days, to learn of mine wife’s mysterious ways; or need I say her body’s? ‘Tis a treacherous thing, this vessel; and much more besides.

Now at least, I have learnt a most incongruous skill to transform mine body into that of a worm’s. If never have you seen a worm carry unto its mouth a book and magical quill…may you never come upon such grotesque imagery.

The jaw aches alone!

I also feel a peculiar sensation that threatens to engulf my whole being. Hunger, I think. No wonder it kills the poor, defenseless peasants.

Something moved! There, beyond the rivulet! Surely it must be food; I intend to find out, one way or another!

Diary Entry #0181

Tamara’s body is much different from mine. Softer, for one; when I caught up to the rabbit, its heart did not burst with fear. Instead, it addressed me. A speaking, squeaking long-eared critter.

I couldn’t make this nonsense up if I tried!

We spoke at some length, then, and with no persuasion at all, the creature fell into mine thrall. Now, it has sworn a blood oath, to serve me for as long as it, and any of its kin remain alive. In return, it has only asked me to enslave and burn all the hunters of this land.

I call it Squiggins.

Diary Entry #0182

I may have eaten Squiggins with the aid of several hunters.

The hunters have now sworn their eternal allegiance to me, and their only request is for me to rid this land of the deadly wererabbits. The infestation within this portion of the Kingdom of Throzia is quite something,  I hear.

These peasants’ lustful gazes annoy me greatly, however.

Diary Entry #0185

It appears that with the tasting of some wererabbit meat, I have learned to transform mine new form unto that of…well, a deadly critter with venom leaking from its teeth, obviously. For three days I couldn’t quite control mine feral urges, as I grew accommodated to this form. Several farms, a few villages and two towns have turned into dust.

The hunters reacted somewhat prematurely to my new form, and are now taking a nap. I am certain that the arcane symbols that I marked upon these men’s bodies will change their minds. Or turn them unto my brainless thralls. Whichever happens first.

Psst. It shall be the latter, not the former.

Mine great magical energies may be displaced, but I still possess the knowledge and the intuition. And Tamara’s body, as alien as it has proven to be, shall aid me in reacquiring all that is mine.

Oh, dear. I do believe a piece of hunter is stuck in my teeth.

Fragile Things

Whenever I read Neil Gaiman’s short-form fiction — his poetry and short stories — I feel as if I’m inhaling some alchemical substance, an aroma whose very essence is imagination, refined by years of study and hard work.

Fragile Things is one of several short story collections which might very well be my favorite (althought that’s arguable).  Some of the best stories you’ll discover in it include:

  • A Study in Emerald, a short story that mixes the Cthulhu mythos with Sherlock Holmes…with a major twist. The title is an obvious riff on A Study in Scarlet, where Holmes and Watson first appeared.
  • The Problem of Susan, a short story that acts as something of a study/critique of Susan Pevensie, one of the protagonists of the Narnia series. It’s a haunting story, and you can read it here, if you’ve nowhere to pick the anthology from, or if you need a taste before you commit to a purchase.
  •  Fifteen Painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot is a weird, disconnected tale; a few tales, revolving around the names of tarot cards.
  • The Monarch of the Glen, a novella-sized sequel to American Gods. If you haven’t read American Gods, I’d advise you to do so before touching this.
  • Instructions, a poem that gives instructions (what else) for surviving in a fairy tale land — since that can still happen, occasionally. How else could you explain Neil Gaiman’s hair?
  • Sunbird, which is also in the anthology of short stories prepared by Gaiman–Unnatural Creatures– is all about a club of bored rich people, who seek the most amazing gourmet food; when all else is tasted, they decide to feed on the exotic Sunbird.
  • How to talk to Girls at Parties, which is getting the movie treatment, was nominated for a Hugo, and is an overall fascinating piece of fiction, is about a shy boy going to a party with his best friend, and things getting pretty weird.
    As things are bound to, at parties…which you’d know, if you ever went to parties with me.

There’s more, of course, but these are the ones that left the biggest impact on me. The collection is very much worth your time!