Part 7: Characterization – How to Make Your Readers Love ‘em Instead of Leave ‘em


Today brings the 7th and concluding post in our series on “The Art and Craft of Characterization”

Part 7: A Sum in Excess of the Parts  

One of the reasons writers get confused about these separate elements of storytelling is that, at the end of the day within a story that works – and let’s be honest, that’s what we, as consumers, spend our time reading – the lines between them blur.

Rest assured, the creator of that work reached clarity through one of two processes: they understood the elements and separate processes of development, and knew how to blend them… or, they either got lucky or they’re intuitive enough to make them work without knowing how.  Good luck with that.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to leave my storytelling, or my career, to luck.  And while I’m often intuitive as hell, I sleep a lot better knowing there’s a structure, a process and a paradigm for storytelling that – contrary to the belief of some pantsers – doesn’t remotely compromise the creative process.

I am often asked to clarify the difference between concept and plot, between concept and theme, and between character arc and story structure.  There are plenty of posts here on Storyfix that directly address those issues, but I’d like to offer a powerful mental model for the last one: the melding of character arc and story structure.

When done right, they mirror each other.

Earlier we’ve discussed story architecture as a 4-part structure, with significant milestones within and between each part.  All of that remains true: Part 1 is the set-up… Part 2 is the hero’s response to their new quest… Part 3 is the hero’s proactive attack on the obstacles that stand in their way… and Part 4 is the resolution in which the hero applies what they’ve learned and overcome (which is character arc, pure and simple) toward the solving of problems, the slaying of dragons and the out-witting of the bad guys to create an ending that satisifies on multiple levels.

Endings don’t have to be perfect.  But they should be perfectly satisfying.

All this remains gospel truth.  Don’t mess with it.  But you can swap out some words and view it through a character-focused lens and see that this sequence is nothing other than character arc applied to a series of story points.

So rather than think of structure as Parts 1 through 4, think of the four sequential “realms” of your story as discreet segments of character status, presence and growth, which become the mission of those four segments/parts/realms as they relate to the storyline. 

Now, with this new perspective, each part has two congruant missions.  Which is plenty of guidance for you, the storyteller.  The plot-driven approach to structure – parts 1 through 4 – has four seperate  missions in place, as does character-driven structure, thus allowing the writer to understand the critical context of what goes into them… what scenes need to appear within those sections, and how they are written contextually, now from two seperate perspectives.

Let’s see how this looks.  Remember, this is story structure with a new coat of paint, one that focuses on character context as well as plot-exposition. 

Part 1 becomes the Orphan stage.

We have defined Part 1 as the set-up, wherein we meet our hero and see what she or he is doing, what she/he is pursing in their life, before the introduction of the primary conflict-driven quest unleashed at Plot Point 1.

Think of this as the hero being detached – or orphaned – from their old life in the face of the task they are about to be given.  What is ahead for them will be a shift, a change, a new life, propelling them toward a new home, a new existence, a new life.  In Part 1 they are loose and unconnected to the forthcoming story, orphaned from their destiny.

Part 2 is the Wanderer stage.

After Plot Point 1 falls from the sky to end Part 1, the hero now faces a whole new set of problems, objectives, obstacles and needs.  A new quest.  During this stage, per our  plot-driven definition of Part 2, they are responding to this new situation, reacting to it, running from it, investigating it, challenging it, disbelieving it… but not really attacking the problem yet, at least in an informed manner.

It could be said that the hero is wandering here, disconnected and unsure.  This is where their old patterns and inner demons – the starting point of their character arc – bite them in the butt.  They learn that what they’ve been doing won’t work anymore, at least not in a way that is sufficient to meet the need at hand.

Something needs to change, and quickly, or they’ll fail.  In many stories, they might even die.

Part 3 is the Warrior stage.

What changes in Part 3 is that they evolve from a wanderer into a warrior.  Which blends perfectly with the plot-driven context of Part 3, which is to become a proactive attacker of the obstacles that block their path.

Ever seen a warrior who is not ready and willing to attack?  Didn’t think so.

Here again their inner demons may hinder them, but because they are now being proactive — frankly, they’re just plain smarter now — they begin to recognize what it was about their old ways that haven’t been working so well.  Realization kicks in – they need to change, to step it up, to be better than they were.  This is where they learn, which is the essence of character arc.

Part 4 is the Martyr stage.

So now, here in the concluding context of Part 4, the hero is better equipped to square off with the antagonist and its inherent obstacles, because they’ve learned their lessons.  They’ve changed, grown, evolved.  They have courage where once they were cowardly.  They engage where once they were isolated.  They’ve conquered inner demons that had tempted and haunted and filled them with doubt and dread, and now they’re prepared to apply that learning toward the implementation of heroic decisions and acts – even to the point of martyrdom – to save the day.

Blend and Stir, Cook Until Done

Like a great recipe, all the parts reside as separate as they sit on the kitchen counter awaiting the attention of the cook and the heat of the oven.  The person preparing the meal has the latitude to change and add nuance, all within their responsibility to observe the major principles of the meal at hand.  

Certain rules still apply: you can’t serve the meat raw if it’s not sushi, and if that’s your creative choice, then I hope you enjoy eating alone.

At the end of the storyteling day, all the arguments about character begin to sound the same.  Story is plot.  Plot is character.  Character is theme.  Story is structure.

Yes, yes, yes and yes. Because the heat of your story melds theme into one seamless narrative.

Just don’t think for a moment that the cook had no clue how this would happen.  A real cook beholds all the ingredients set out before them… and where the masses see a bunch of groceries and raw food, she or he envisions a glorious, multi-faceted feast.

Bon appetit.

Image credit: Country Boy Shane

(Click HERE for an incredible reader review of this site, and of my 101 Tips ebook.)


Filed under Characterization Series

10 Responses to Part 7: Characterization – How to Make Your Readers Love ‘em Instead of Leave ‘em

  1. Blend and Stir – Cook Until Done: Man, that’s profound. This is what the rewrites are all about and why they’re so agonizing, I think. It’s when the line of dialogue just isn’t saying what is should because it’s not combining character arc with plot or touching on theme.

    My outlines are going to be a LOT different from now on. There’s so much info here that it takes a long time to absorb it, you know, really let it sink it and become part of my writing process. In the future, I’m going to think of all these elements prior to writing Chapter One. Thank you for this. Please keep sharing! I really value it.

  2. Mary E. Ulrich

    I’ve been following, but wonder if this formula works for a romance. In my reading, consensus is Chapter 1 starts with action in which the heroine and hero meet. This doesn’t sound like your “set-up” stage. The rest follows nicely.

    Any ideas welcome. I just am struggling to figure out your part 1.
    Thanks. Mary

  3. @Mary – another good question (thanks for keeping me on my toes this morning!). Actually, I hestitate to label this model a “formula” at all, it’s more of a suggestive guideline that clarifies the flow of character arc and the context of the character relative to plot exposition.

    Romances aren’t immune to the 4-part structural flow, which means there is a Part One set up that lead us to a First Plot Point, at which the story shifts into another context and the heroine finds herself on an unexpected path. The metaphor of an “orphan” for her in the first part is, admittedly, a little vague (for me it’s always been the least clear of these four descriptors), but you can rationalize that it works because while she does indeed meet and become emotionally vested in her target during Part 1, she is still “orphaned” from her destiny as it pertains to him.

    At the end of the day it’s all just a pile of guidelines and principles and helpful models, and when something doesn’t stick to your wall there are lots of other approaches that help us understand how to build our stories.

    Again, hope this helps clarifiy. Just pour all this into your intuitive storytelling machine (think of this as the oil that make it run smoothly), then turn yourself loose to create your story on the page.

  4. L.B

    I love this series. I’m already brainstorming a new story and I’m going to start from scratch with allot more knowledge of where I’m going. I know this one will be better than the last, even though I still love my first…(Some times I hate it but hey…it’s ok.)

    Being a semi-decent baker, I completely get the cooking metaphore. To make a great apple crumb pie you need to follow the recipe..but if you’re good you can add just a pinch of extra love into it that makes everyone rave. Its all in the mix, not just the recipe or the ingrediants or even just the person who bakes it. Its all of them, put together.

    My son wanted to make a chocolate cake but if I didn’t make him follow the recipe it would have been a pile of brown goop.

    We teach ourselves the steps to succeed in everything else we do in our lives, why should writing be any different? Even though we take the same steps we’re all unique, just like each story and writer finds thier own path along the same road.

  5. Larry, this series — your website actually — has done more to improve my writing than any single piece of writing advice or instruction I’ve ever received. Just one question, which may be irrelevant:

    Is this information on the story structure/character arc 4-part architecture also applicable to short stories? Does this work regardless of word count or is this mostly for novel-length (or screenplay, or theatrical presentation) material?

    Thanks! You’ve got a fan in me.

  6. Kaillean

    Another great post, Larry! Really enjoying this series, and benefitting so much as I plot my novel. It’s been such great timing for me to find your site when I did.

    As an aside to Mary . . . Mary, unless you are writing for Harl/Sil whose short 50K word format demands the hero/heroine meet in CH 1, please don’t take that as a romance “rule.”

    Browse your bookstore shelves and you’ll find many exceptions to this oft-repeated rule (which I’ve never heard/seen quoted by an actual editor, btw. Have you?).

    My current romance novel is meshing wonderfully with the four part structure. My CH 1 is all set up. We meet both the h/h in their current lives, but they do not meet each other.

    I think if you’re careful to ensure your setup grabs the reader, and keeps things clipping along to the meet romance readers anticipate you’ve got some wiggle room. I think the rule grew out of the caution not to do a big backstory dump in the beginning.

    So, what’s up next, Larry?

    Could really use some help on generating plot turns. I have confidence in my writing abilities, but none whatsoever in my plotting/storytelling abilities.

    Does anyone else ever worry they’re not imaginative enough to be a really good storyteller (as distinct from a good writer)?

  7. @Kaillean,
    “Does anyone else ever worry they’re not imaginative enough to be a really good storyteller (as distinct from a good writer)?”

    All the time! As I keep wailing to Larry, I can predict the most complex plots in films before they happen and pinpoint why some films work and some don’t, why some characters make us die of empathy and others have us reaching for the remote, but I don’t have plots in me. Half a century of life experience and some personal history that would make an arty, foreign, angst-ridden film, but no riveting, imaginative plots!

    Hi, Larry,
    This post gave me unexpected clarity. I maybe have it in me to write the book equivalent of of Love Actually or She’s Just not That Into You, a series of smaller stories interwoven around overlapping characters and a binding theme. It’s the common thread in the dramas I love, which are all as dependent on the evolution of beautifully created and well drawn characters as they are plot based.

    What did it for me was asking myself which meals I cook most confidently and intuitively. I lived and worked in Greece for many years and I can whip up an informal but homely, robust feast with homebaked bread, dozens of different salads, dips, and mezedhes that folk can dip into and enjoy at their leisure and their own pace. The ingredients are very basic and homely (in Scots/UK English, homely=good!) and have changed little over the years, but the beauty is that the eater creates their own meal from what’s on offer. Greek meals demand presence, engagement and connection. Add the wine and the music and you get the passion.

    Thanks, Larry! By the way, this is a plea. Please get the plugin called Subscribe to Comments so we can read the replies you leave for commenters. As writers visit you, it might also be an idea to get Ajax Comments Editor which gives folk 5 minutes to edit their comment after the post it.

  8. PS I just read your interview with Aggie. As an instinctive writer, a musician who can play by ear and someone who’s learned languages by living in the country they’re spoken in, I loved this bit! It’s exactly how your work has made me feel.

    “Story structure in particular is like letting someone in on a secret, and once learned, it immediately and forever changes what you see in the work (novels and movies) of others, very clearly and powerfully. It’s like suddenly hearing a language being spoken that’s been there all along yet you’ve only felt the results without hearing the words themselves.”

  9. Trish

    Another incredible series, Larry. I cannot believe how much I’ve learned from you in the last couple of months.
    Thank you!

  10. Pingback: Link Feast, vol. 25 – NaNoWriMo Special | Reetta Raitanen's Blog