The Rule Book — by Art Holcomb, Part 2

Part 2 of 2

Okay, you’ve had some time with the Rule Book Relationship Chart …

Remember: you can substitute your characters’ names for the character type across the top, and the change the emotions listed along the side as well.

Once you’re finished making the initially pass, we can start having fun!

#1: Look at any missing boxes.  Are these emotions that your character should have or are they not important to the story? Try putting yourself in the character’s shoes – based on what you know of them already, how would these emotions make them react? If you used someone you already know as an inspiration for the character, imagine them is a similar situation.  Remember, the more you know about the character, the better they will respond to what you want them to do.

#2: Now, highlight the characters that have similar emotional reactions.  Do you have characters that overreact when angry or shame-filled? Or ones that recede into the woodwork when feeling shy? These characters might share qualities that make them potential allies – they have something in common and this might be useful in upcoming scenes.  However, while it might be interesting to have two similar people reacting the same way in the same situation at the same time, it might not make for good drama. Play with it for a while before you commit to it.

#3: Now look at those characters that have emotional responses that are completely different.

This can play out in a couple of ways:

a: The characters could be complementary, such as one that needs to be cared for when          hurt or frightened and another who is happiest when caring for others.  This creates a        natural bond – and may be something you hadn’t realized before. They can make for strong allies.

b: However, characters can also clash and be naturally adversarial if their emotional   responses do not complement, such as when one is deeply embarrassed when confronted             and another is abusive when angry.  This creates organic conflict on an emotional level     and has the potential for exciting drama.

#4:  So, ask yourself:

  1. What makes this character relatable? What will the reader find endearing, interesting and/or vulnerable about this character based of their emotional response?  This is vital because your ability to attract an audience depends upon making this connection, especially with the major characters.
  2. Based on your chart, which characters are driven to move forward but are emotional held back by something? This illustrates their basic humanity and builds that reader-protagonist connection.
  3. In what ways do the emotions of any individual character seem to contradict each other? That is to say, in what ways are your characters broken?  We like our characters, especially the Heroes and Villains to be a bit like broken toys, walking/talking puzzles with a couple of pieces missing.
  4. So, in what way are they strong yet helpless? Happy yet have real shame issues? Frightened yet courageous? This is the real nature of a human being – a collection of contradictions that fight for control in our lives.  Through this, the reader will be able to see something of themselves in the characters.  Seeing those missing pieces put into place makes for satisfying storytelling.  And it’ s what makes a dedicated fan out of a casual reader.

#5: At the heart of every character-oriented story is the emotional arc of the hero – that profound change that makes all the conflict and turmoil of Acts 2 and 3 worthwhile.  And this chart shows you the way to create that. If, say, your hero’s main emotional stumbling block is that he can’t get past his anger, then the change is:

From Angry -> Acceptance

… and each trial that he faces from the First Plot Point through to the Climax peels away at that anger – layer by layer – like the leaves on an artichoke to reveal the true nature that lies at the heart of every character. (Keep in mind that we’re looking for an artichoke here and not an onion: a weak character is one that has nothing deeper than anger to sustain them and it just doesn’t work.)

Similar arcs for the other emotions we’ve talked about would be:

From Hurt -> Healed

From Frightened -> Secure

From Embarrassed -> Self-possessed

From Shy -> Courageous

From Helpless -> Capable

From Guilty -> Vindicated

From Shameful -> Virtuous

From Sad -> Joyful

Play with this awhile and you’ll see how it can deepen your understanding of your characters. The more you know about how they can react, the most fully you can write them.

The Next Step: The next task in the process of understanding characters is to chart out the way each character relates to one other, highlighting and developing the potential conflicts and contradictions we’ve discussed here; there’s a chart I use for this as well.

If interested, I can do a post on that– just drop me a comment here if interested.

These, then, are the tools we can use to build the conflicts throughout the story for both our plotline and our emotional arcs.

Remember: creating three dimensional characters in your story gives the reader someone to identify with and root for.  It creates that vital, emotional bond between the writer and reader.

And it makes your writing a deeper and more authentic expression of who you really are!

So . . . until next time, keep writing ==



If you missed Part 1, read it HERE.

Art Holcomb is a screenwriter and comic book creator.  This post is taken from his new writing book, tentatively entitled SAVE YOUR STORY: How to Resurrect Your Abandoned Story and Get It Written NOW!

He is also a frequent contributor here at  Use the Search bar to the right to find more Art Holcomb gold.




Filed under Guest Bloggers

23 Responses to The Rule Book — by Art Holcomb, Part 2

  1. Pingback: The Rule Book — by Art Holcomb, Part 2

  2. Sara Davies

    Please do post chart on character relationships.

    This is great stuff.

  3. Peter

    I second Sara’s request. And thanks for this ongoing series of blog posts, from the very first one, up to and including this. It has all helped me immeasurably.

  4. Lia

    Thanks for this informative post! Would like to see the other chart as well. Great stuff!!

  5. Phyllis

    Your direction is the nectar of the gods!! Keep the charts coming…

  6. Lynn

    You (and many others) talk about character arc and show the beginning and then end, but what do they do/feel in the middle to get to the end?

  7. @Lynn — no real way to answer your question succinctly, but here’s a general guideline that I hope helps: every story challenges your hero in some to solve a problem and/or reach goal. When they begin that journey they bring all their backstory and baggage and inner demons with them, and those things often become part of the obstacle in terms of reaching the goal. There are external obstacles (forces, villains, etc.), certainly, but often the hero is her/his own worst enemy. What worked before isn’t working. So… in the middle of the story the hero realizes, or is shown, that something about THEMSELVES needs to CHANGE. They need to let go of something, forgive, forget, or try something different. Maybe their world view or moral compass needs a tuneup. That middle ground is when the hero transitions from a responder/wanderer/victim into an attacking/proactive warrior, and only when they apply a productive view of their inner selves will those efforts become efficient and helpful, rather than hindering the progress toward the goal. They middle is where they either begin to figure it out, or at least realize they NEED to figure it out and do something differently… if, that is, they can hope to succeed. Hope this helps — L.

  8. So, don’t leave us dangling, please. We are waiting with bated breath for the next installment and chart. Thank you for these helpful posts.

  9. Robert Jones

    Art, I would like to see your other chart as well…and look forward to your book.

  10. Art Holcomb

    As always, I couldn’t agree more with Larry here. This is the heart of the story- the hurdles and challenges of Act 2. This is where the real story lives. You must use and understand each of Larry’s core concepts to make that leap from broken – to -whole protagonist here. Use the plot and pinch points as crucibles, each one burning away the broken parts of the character until the needed change can be made.

    Great question.

  11. Sara Davies

    Character arc(s) are not the plot, but are propelled by the plot? Or do they drive the plot? Both? Either? But it sounds like the plot and pinch points are where it’s necessary to heighten the relationship between the events of the story and the inner life of the characters.

  12. Yes please do continue Art, this is wonderful stuff.

  13. Gillian hill

    These posts have come at a GREAT time for me as I plot my novel using Larry’s concepts and an thinking about adding character emotional depth to the story. I would also love to see your chart in the relationships between characters – I am only now realizing that I have a theme emerging where each character has a different backstory and worldview – and I found it using the rule book chart. Thanks!

  14. Thanks so much for all this info, Art. It’s really useful and interesting, very helpful in developing my own stories. Yes, I second, third, etc. what the other commenters are saying, pleeeeeeze put out your chart for character interrelationships. I’m saving all this material in the hopes it will help make me a better writer.

  15. Art, looks like there’s several of us saying “please.”

    I write memoir but the character chart is so helpful to me because I knew I wanted to write true – and true means the good stuff as well as the bad. If there wasn’t “good stuff” in those we become involved with, we wouldn’t have become involved. So having the chart has been helpful to think through why a person was in my life at a particular time and how to show it wholly. Thank you!

  16. PS: ordered “Story Engineering” last week.

  17. Liz

    Thanks for these two great posts. I’d love to see the next installment please.

  18. Julian

    Please post the chart on how the characters relate to one another

  19. Norm Huard

    Thank you Art for helping us move along on our “writer” arc. Your posts always contain valuable lessons. Yes, please chart out the way each character relates to one another for us.
    Norm Huard

  20. Robert Jones

    Using myself as a personal example of just how valuable Art’s information is (not to mention timely for me), I’ve been trying to make sure the emotional impact and relationships are working in my WIP as I narrow down the final stages of planning.

    With what might be phrased as, Just how much self torture am I willing to endure?, after the results of my questionnaire came back from Larry, expressing a few concerns about my villain and his rationale for doing what he does to the hero, I ultimately decided not to just fill in those gaps with the answers I already had. And there were several that didn’t make it into my already crowded questionnaire. But did I stop with reasurances that a few tweeks would fix any doubts once I began drafting? Hell no.

    I did a lot of new research, reviewed my villain’s history (which I had previously written) and ended up with an expanded universe around the character. It was like doing another entire draft just based on this guy. And what I ended up with was a ton of information and new possibilities to sort through and digest in order to see what worked within the context of my story. UGH! But how that new information lead to taking my villain to the next level was the high point.

    I’m about halfway through reordering everything for the umpteenth time. And though I can’t stop in the middle of one thing and do another without loosing momentum and having to begin all over again, before I begin drafting, I plan to use Art’s charts (hopefully the next one will be listed before I’m finished ordering my scenes) to review and take new notes based on my current progress.

    Should prove to be a nice test to see how my answers come together–and see if I learn anything I haven’t discovered yet. I bleive that until such answers come easily about the hero and villain, my story model still needs work. A previous writing mentor said that anything new you add to your story requires another draft…either in planning, or scripting your story, depending on how your story has progressed. With this in mind, writing can be a helluva lot of work, and a test of both character and commitment to the cause for the author.

    How much planning is too much planning?

    I think for the experienced author, where the situation of understanding craft and structure have matured, the answer might be–“Much less.” For the rest of us, diving in with uncertainty means the story search is still an ongoing process. As maddening as it may be to have to blow out yet another draft of planning, research, scene selection. If I had to do as many drafts done by a traditional drafting process, as many times as I’ve ran a character, or part of the plot as far up the flag pole as I could reach, what has taken me 6-8 months in planning, would’ve taken me two years minimal in drafting. But how much better will the writing go now that I understand my universe and the intentions of the players involved?

    Is there a quicker method, or a better way to go about planning? I’m working on it. Meantime, Art and Larry have helped a great deal in closing the gap and moving the craft of writing several steps along the path from being an experiment where people become lost in the minutiae, to something more of a science. And that’s no small task.

    Thanks guys, for all your efforts!

  21. Sara Davies

    @ Robert:

    An in-depth plan allows us to not only hit the major plot points and align story elements with the four part structure, it enables us to optimize our choices artistically. Is the scene we’re thinking of including the right scene? Would another idea better express what we’re going for? Where does it belong in relation to others to get the most out of it?

    Art’s posts on this show me that planning could be creative. The difference between logical, dry, methodical, life-sucking, soul-deadening analysis and an inspiring and living outline could come through delving into the emotional lives of the characters, charting their growth along with plot elements, including how you want them to change at each milestone, and the emotional flavor or direction of each scene.

    At some point, you do have to commit and write the thing, but you’ll know when it feels right. If it doesn’t yet, that means there are still questions to be resolved. But I think we would both be doing ourselves a favor if we accepted the fact that even the best plans don’t turn out exactly as envisioned – and to just not freak out about it. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

  22. Robert Jones

    @Sara–I think I’ve got it, or am heading for it. Few details to hammer out in terms of how it all comes together, but I think I’m just about ready. Game plan is to be drafting by September. Fall is my favorite time of the year and I want to spend it watching the leaves turn and my story “fall” onto the written page. At last!

  23. Pingback: Writing Resources 17 August 2013 | Gene Lempp ~ Writer