As someone who has written by 'seat of my pants' for many years, I've come to realize that for longer works of fiction—novels—in order to successfully create characters and plot that were compelling for more than fifty pages, I needed to give my story a solid structure. The first book I studied was Robert McKee's The Story, which has great insights, but McKee's work is for seasoned professionals looking to reinforce their good habits and strip away what they are doing wrong. My skills were not established enough yet to apply his methods, but I continued to search for a better guide for my storytelling.
Much later, I was introduced to The Writer's Journey—a mythic approach to crafting characters and plot. This really resonated with me because I had been a fan of Joseph Campbell's writing since college. If you are not familiar with Joseph Campbell, he distilled all world myths into one simple pattern called the Hero's Journey, in which a mythic hero is called into another world to fix something of the mundane world, is aided by supernatural help along the way, reaches an impass where he loses all hope, returns to the fight with fresh insights, defeats his enemy, and returns to his home to teach what he has learned.
After reading The Writer's Journey, I found these patterns everywhere, particularly in movies. I decided to test it on a novel. I chose The Shining, and discovered it followed this structure almost to the page. In the middle of the Hero's Journey, the hero is supposed to experience a 'dark night of the soul' where he loses all hope. It is also called the 'belly of the whale' moment. In Star Wars (Episode 4) it corresponds to the trash compactor scene. In Stephen King's novel, on page 204 of the 413-page novel, the family looks out at the results of the blizzard that traps them at the Overlook Hotel, and King describes them feeling like they were 'tiny creatures in the belly of an enormous white beast'. I'm paraphrasing, but it was clear that Stephen King followed the Writer's Journey when he constructed his novel. Again, this guide to storytelling was more accessible to me than McKee's, but I found it difficult to make all the pieces fit. I needed to find something else.
John Truby's book, 'The Anatomy of Story', integrates all of the storytelling methods mentioned above, but provides you with the means to build a 'spine' to your long form narrative from the inside out. Your characters drive the plot (as it should be), and Truby's methods teach how to build characters that are multi-dimensional—with psychological and moral flaws—which drive their motivations.
Whether you have a story already written, or have one brewing in your notebooks, if you apply these techniques to your characters, they will become real people with real needs and reactions. That, in turn, will make your story that much more detailed and compelling.
What Do They Need?
Every character wants something. That is mentioned in every How To book I have ever read. But beyond a superficial goal for the character—what that character thinks he or she needs in order to achieve happiness—they must have a deep-rooted psychological flaw that they need to overcome. What is the big, gaping psychic wound at the core of your hero? I've found the best way to find out what that might be is to write a little background history of your hero. Who raised him? Under what kind of conditions? What are some key events that shaped him into the person he is today? Write this solely for yourself. Some of this backstory you may use in your novel if it becomes necessary to advance your story, but think of this as an exercise, nothing else.
How many times have you read a peer's work and found bits of information that are probably more interesting to the writer than to you, the reader? Many times these details, what I call vestigial passages, are sentences or paragraphs that the writer threw down in their first draft in order to figure out who their character was, or to find out what was unique about the situation they were in. They may add detail to the world and the character, but unless they directly add to the plot, these details only distract the reader from experiencing your story as a cohesive narrative. If you put all these background details in documents aside from the story you intend to write, you will spare your reader from these sections of blah blah blah which plague genre writing, and do no more than announce to your readers, Look how clever I am! Trust me. I'm still trying to stop myself from doing this.
Once you have an idea of where your protagonist comes from and what he wants out of life, you can begin to focus on what they need to complete their psychological maturity. I won't go too deep into psychology here, but knowing a little about personal development can only help you become a better writer. Buy an old textbook about Social Psychology or read some articles online. Your characters will seem more real if you have a better understanding about social dynamics and general psychology. Without a grounding in believable psychological structures, dialog and actions may seem artificial—existing only to move the plot to a place the author wants it to go. Characters that act or speak inconsistently can immediately cause your readers to lose trust in you as a storyteller. Get to know your characters. Talk to them. Yeah, you heard me, talk to them. Interview them. They may surprise you with their answers. Now take what you know about them and try to figure out what they need to become whole beings. What are their character flaws? What do they do that hurts the people around them?
Your hero need to accept his flaws. Show us those flaws. Show us how he manages to avoid dealing with the truth and carries on by distracting himself with something he thinks he needs.
What Do They Want?
Within the world you have constructed for your story, what specifically does your character want to achieve in order to be happy? This should be a superficial and potentially achievable goal. I say specifically, because the more focused your character is on a target, the more cohesive your story will be. Be more specific than getting through life without much bother, give your hero the desire to go out on a date with the girl with the cool glasses he met on the bus, or to win first place in a tournament he's been training for, or to get back his toy from a bully. Whatever it is, be specific. His efforts to achieve that goal will force him to confront with what he actually needs to overcome his flaws.
Enter The Opponent
Since you don't have a story without a conflict, the opponent in your story should be the one to have that exact same goal as your hero, but has a different way of achieving it. Creating a bad guy is the easy part. What is difficult is making the opponent interesting. Make him realistic by using the exact same techniques as you used with your hero. What is your bad guy's history? Parents? Life events? Psychological flaws? The more realistic you make the antagonist, the more realistic the interaction between he and your hero will be. But keep in mind that both the hero and his opponent want the same thing, but have different flaws. These flaws should complement each other. The hero and his opponent can learn from each other.
And that's the core of your story.
Each character needs different specific things to overcome their flaws, but their needs should all relate back to one common moral theme that connects them all in the same emotional universe.
What is Your Moral Theme?
The Moral Theme to your story should be the thematic focus around which all of your supporting characters orbit. It could address an issue about society and how people treat each other. For example, your Moral Theme could be, True love means caring for your partner as if they are an extension of yourself. With that in mind, all the characters in your story will have unique ways they react to this theme: one man may have an obsession for a girl he has never talked to, and stalks her. We all know this is not true love, but it is on the continuum of our Moral Theme of what true love is and isn't. This character may choose to stalk women he knows he could never be with so that he feels in control. At a distance, anonymous and deluded that he is in control, he never has to invest into a real relationship. He has to face his own flaw that he hates himself and therefore inevitably hates what he cannot have. He is treating the object of his obsession the way he feels about himself.
Each character in your story should represent distorted fun house mirror reflections of your hero, showing him how the Moral Theme can be reflected in different ways. Another character in this story does everything he can to make his wife happy. He gives up his own sense of dignity to give her what he thinks she wants, smothering her with his attention and never asking her for what he needs because he does not know what he needs. With all his attention on her, he is distracted from having to face his own flaws. Despite all his seemingly loving behavior, she feels disconnected from her husband. He has put her on a pedestal, alienating and objectifying her, and she feels unworthy of his attention. She resents him. She has an affair with the hero, teaching him another distortion of our Moral Theme. That husband becomes this hero's opponent.
The primary opponent in your story should express his form of the Moral Theme in a way that your hero reacts to and retaliates against. Somewhere, your hero must come to a revelation about himself. Don't stalk women, don't put them on a pedestal. Deal with your flaws. Construct a plot around this flaw/goal/moral theme so the readers will want to follow the hero's evolution—and now you have a story!
The Character Change
Your hero must have a weakness—a flaw in his character he ignores that causes him to not realize his potential. This is a flaw that causes people around him to be hurt by his action or inaction. Show the reader what the consequences are if he does not overcome his weakness (many people will be hurt), but make your hero at first refuse to change. Through the course of him pursuing his desire (that goal he wants to achieve that he believes will make everything in his life better), his weakness is mirrored by the characters around him (by their adaptation to the Moral Theme of your story). As he gets closer to achieving his goal, your hero will make a choice between continuing along his existing path and hurting people, or realizing just how he hurts people around him and changing himself. This revelation can manifest just before he achieves his goal, or just after.
The best way to make this transformation clear is to challenge him to become the opposite of whatever his weakness is. For instance, if a terminally shy man is your hero, and his goal is to talk to a girl he saw on the bus, force him into the company of rowdy karaoke singers.
A Little About Archetypes
At the core of your story, you want your readers to resonate with your hero and his struggle, and these archetypes are hard-wired into the human brain, just like Joseph Campbell's mythic Hero's Journey. If you use these patterns as a guide to flesh out your characters, your readers are more likely to recognize them, because these archetypes will be familiar to them. Built into this personality model are weaknesses and desires.
Picture each of these archetypes visiting a local pub. The King, for instance, (#12 below) will treat the patrons like his subjects. The bar stool will become his throne, and he will demand to be treated like a king—reinforcing his DESIRE to be in control. But if for some reason he was locked inside that pub for an extended amount of time with these people, he would see how the everyday folks mingle and chat and laugh with each other. He may become jealous of their informal familiarity and may demand that the rowdy table of drinking buddies be silent in his presence. The King's psychological NEED is to find a way to connect to his people and his kingdom. His challenge would be to transform himself so he will be accepted by the villagers and be welcomed to sit and drink with them.
The common DESIRE of these types is to fix what is wrong, or pursue immediate, short-sighted goals like winning the tournament or getting a date with an attractive partner. They pursue ego-fulfillment through interacting socially. Their psychological NEED is to become more self-trusting and find a grounded depth in self-acceptance and embracing self-reflective solitude.
1. THE INNOCENT
Superficial desire: to get to paradise / lose self in something greater than self
Core need: to become more internal and thinking, planning, discriminating, stronger sense of self
Goal: to be happy
Greatest fear/ shadow: to be punished for doing something bad or wrong
Strategy/ Path: to do things right
Weakness: boring for all their naive innocence
Talent: faith and optimism
2. THE EVERYMAN
Superficial desire: connecting with others
Core need: Strengthen sense of self-empowerment, trust self to act/be alone / explore creativity
Goal: to belong
Greatest fear/shadow: to be left out or to stand out from the crowd
Strategy/ Path: develop ordinary solid virtues, be down to earth, the common touch
Weakness: losing one's own self in an effort to blend in or for the sake of superficial relationships
Talent: realism, empathy, lack of pretense
3. THE WARRIOR
Superficial desire: to prove one's worth through courageous acts
Core need: humanize his 'enemy' and act out of empathy
Goal: expert mastery in a way that improves the world
Greatest fear/shadow: weakness, vulnerability, being a "chicken"
Strategy/ Path: to be as strong and competent as possible
Weakness: arrogance, always needing another battle to fight
Talent: competence and courage
4. THE CAREGIVER
Superficial desire: to protect and care for others
Core need: self-respect to say no and do what is better to improve themselves instead of another
Goal: to help others
Greatest fear/shadow: selfishness and ingratitude / sacrifice not appreciated
Strategy/ Path: doing things for others
Weakness: martyrdom and being exploited
Talent: compassion, generosity
Their DESIRE is to realize their self worth by externalizing themselves onto another person, place, or object. Their NEED is to feel secure with themselves without reaching outside of themselves, to stop running from their weaknesses by distracting themselves.
5. THE EXPLORER
Superficial desire: the freedom to find out who you are through exploring the world
Core need: be grounded in the moment, be centered and content with what they have
Goal: to experience a better, more authentic, more fulfilling life
Greatest fear/ shadow: getting trapped, conformity, and inner emptiness
Strategy/ Path: journey, seeking out and experiencing new things, escape from boredom
Weakness: aimless wandering, becoming a misfit
Talent: autonomy, ambition, being true to one's soul
6. THE OUTLAW
Superficial desire: revenge or revolution
Core need: not react immediately, appreciate the flaws in what they experience in people/structures
Goal: to overturn what isn't working
Greatest fear/ shadow: to be powerless or ineffectual
Strategy/ Path: disrupt, destroy, or shock
Weakness: crossing over to the dark side, crime
Talent: outrageousness, radical freedom
7. THE LOVER
Superficial desire: intimacy with another person
Core need: strengthen sense of self / protect own individuality
Goal: being in a relationship with the people, work and surroundings they love
Greatest fear/ shadow: being alone, a wallflower, unwanted, unloved
Strategy/ Path: to become more and more physically and emotionally attractive
Weakness: outward-directed desire to please others at risk of losing own identity
Talent: passion, gratitude, appreciation, and commitment
8. THE ARTIST
Superficial desire: to create things of enduring value
Core need: connect to the common man / be more aligned with humanity / less isolated
Goal: to realize a vision
Greatest fear/ shadow: mediocre vision or execution
Strategy/ Path: develop artistic control and skill
Task: to create culture, express own vision
Weakness: perfectionism, bad solutions
Talent: creativity and imagination
Their DESIRE is to feel superior by reinforcing they are alone and unique—judging others as less than them. Their NEED is to be accepted by everyone.
9. THE TRICKSTER
Superficial desire: to be more clever than others
Core need: to be able to see himself as flawed and alone / integrated in society
Goal: to have a great time and lighten up the world
Greatest fear/ shadow: being bored or boring others
Strategy/ Path: play, make jokes, be funny
Weakness: frivolity, wasting time
10. THE SAGE
Superficial desire: to find the truth.
Core need: learn to act out of instinct instead of knowledge / feel emotions / wander aimlessly
Goal: to use intelligence and analysis to understand the world.
Greatest fear/ shadow: being duped, misled—or ignorance.
Strategy/ Path: seeking out information and knowledge; self-reflection and understanding thought processes.
Weakness: can study details forever and never act.
Talent: wisdom, intelligence.
11. THE MAGICIAN
Superficial desire: understanding the fundamental laws of the universe
Core need: sacrifice self for another, detach from rigid rules
Goal: to make dreams come true
Greatest fear/ shadow: unintended negative consequences / losing control
Strategy/ Path: develop a vision and live by it
Weakness: becoming manipulative
Talent: finding win-win solutions
12. THE KING
Superficial desire: control
Core need: to allow someone to take care of them / be nurtured / lose control
Goal: create a prosperous, successful family or community
Strategy/ Path: exercise power
Greatest fear/ shadow: chaos, being overthrown
Weakness: being authoritarian, unable to delegate
Talent: responsibility, leadership
There are other patterns of archetypes out there that can help you generate characters and get the brainstorm crackling, but I have found that by following these twelve archetypes—at least for your core characters—it has been most rewarding in establishing a story structure. To add layers of complexity to your hero or his allies and opponents, try combinations. For instance, Darth Vader is a King/Magician. Luke Skywalker is a Innocent/Warrior. Since being introduced to this way of thinking about storytelling, I try to match characters in movies to these archetypes. It's geeky fun.
For more on character and plot development, I highly recommend 'The Anatomy of Story' by John Truby.