Monthly Archives: May 2022

4 Ways Your Protagonist Is Sabotaging You (And How to Fight Back)

By Marissa Graff

We love our protagonists. We spend a ridiculous amount of time, blood, sweat, and tears championing their stories. But what if they’re undermining us by behaving in ways that drive readers away? What if they’re not-so-secretly sabotaging us despite all our efforts to advocate for them? Let’s discuss four ways your protagonist is working against you and, more importantly, how you can fight back.

1. They’ve got a case of “chatty narrator syndrome”

Whether a book is in first-person point-of-view or third, narrators who talk at the reader beyond what is needed threaten to wreck your reader’s experience. With every word the character says to the reader, they’re stopping the flow of an active scene. They’re stealing work from your reader. They’re doing the analysis or overly controlling what your reader thinks or feels. They’re hovering like a helicopter parent and not allowing the reader the freedom to engage with the scenes and draw their own conclusions. And oftentimes, they’re pointing out the obvious and giving us way too much information.

Solution: Scrutinize each and every line of narration/interiority. Is what your character/narrator says to the reader something the reader can see through action and dialogue instead? Is it crucial information your reader needs for the scene to make sense? Is the line revealing something the character is hiding from other characters and something we might otherwise not know? If the line is needed, is it done as briefly as possible? When you look at any given scene, are these stops done sparingly so as to not hit the “scene brakes” too frequently?

2. They’ve booked a tour and your secondary characters are their guide

The protagonist is allowing other characters to show them around new settings–new towns, new planets, new schools, and so on. Your beloved character is along for the ride instead of driving the action. They go into the scene with no identifiable goal and follow the path that the other character(s) set before them. Don’t get me wrong. Mentor characters are a great way to world build and orient your character (and reader) with new settings and experiences. But be careful not to let these “tour” scenes effectively stop the plot. All “tour sites” need a purpose, whether it’s to glimpse a place your character will need to utilize later. Or to introduce a plot point that deepens the way the character understands the conflict or other characters or themselves. Or perhaps the new setting contains some sort of purpose. A need or a want the character is pursuing.

Solution: If another character is mentoring or guiding your protagonist, particularly in the first half of your story, craft tour stops that yield plot development or emotional development. Maybe a stop gives rise to a flashback we need to see, or introduces a character we need to meet, or hints at a location that will be relevant later. But as much as possible, find ways to let your protagonist hand-craft their tour. Where do they want to go and more importantly why? How does that setting or new character represent a need the protagonist has? Do they hold information or an object your character needs to keep working on their novel-length goal? Do they face an obstacle on that stop, one that has them pushing through and earning a win? Or one that thwarts them and forces them to reconfigure their plan? Be sure your protagonist is planning their own tour as much as possible.

3. They’re too good of a listener

One of the common concerns I see in client manuscripts is crafting the protagonist’s lines of dialogue in a way that allows other characters to teach them and pass along exposition. The lines are of the tell-me-more variety or even the wow-that’s-cool variety. These types of hollow lines allow the other characters to fill them in with how the world works, its history, and more. We may think this counts as an active scene because this exposition is hiding inside lines of dialogue, but it’s not. The reader can see this information dumping for what it is.

Solution: In any given scene, read your protagonist’s lines out loud and test them for conveying intent. Do their lines reflect a specific need they have? Their scene goal? Do the lines evoke an emotion beyond curiosity? Are their lines hiding how they really feel or what they think? Are the things they ask necessary to formulate a plan for their next action? If you’re feeling extra brave, have someone else read your dialogue to you. Nothing reveals weak dialogue like having to hear it yourself.

4. They’re swimming in a pool of self-pity

Your protagonist tells us how bad they have it. How messed up their situation is. They make sure we know all that they lack or they point out how someone else has it better. They are a victim and they know it. But research shows readers are turned off by self-pity. If the character is all-too-aware that they are a victim, the reader doesn’t want to identify with the character. They don’t want to see themselves in that self-pitying state. They don’t want to identify with them, which reduces the efficacy of the reading experience and the potential for emotional growth in the reader.

Solution: Allow the reader to see the protagonist’s situation for what it is or for who they are. Show their situation honestly through action and dialogue (scenes), but don’t let the narrator/protagonist point to pity. Instead, let their reactions to their circumstances hint at how they feel, how their situation is leading to a lack of what they need, and giving rise to reader empathy.

Comb through your work-in-progress and see if your protagonist might be guilty of these four efforts that undermine your efforts. Consider how you might revise in ways that have you regaining control of your story and the way your reader experiences it.

Can you think of other primary ways a protagonist might sabotage a story? Chime in!


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When You Feel Like a Hack

By Christina Delay

Recently I’ve been reading Marcus Sakey’s BRILLIANCE trilogy. Yes, I know I’m behind the times, but OMG have you read these books yet?

I’m enjoying them immensely, both from a reader and a writer perspective. Mr. Sakey’s use of descriptors is like none other, and while I revel in his genius, it also makes me wonder what I’m doing writing.

Because I know I’ll never be able to write like him.

Has this ever happened to you? You think you’re doing great, then BAM an amazing book or author comes and slaps you upside the head with their talent or story or characters and suddenly, you’re not doing so great.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt like a hack. It won’t be the last. And after the appropriate amount of self-pity and eating my feelings, I turn toward the tactics I know will help me regain some confidence.

Remember Your Brand

First, it helps to remember who you are as an author. What kind of stories do you write? Do they even fit in the genre of who you’re fanpersoning over? In Marcus Sakey’s BRILLIANCE case, the trilogy is a police procedural with a sci-fi twist. And yeah. I don’t write that.

Second, consider your authorial voice. Is it a close match to the author who is unintentionally making you feel inferior? More than likely, not so. In fact, you may be enjoying the writing because it is so different from your voice.

Third, list your strengths. What are the things you really excel at in your stories? What are the things that readers or critique partners or contest judges call out again and again about your writing and your characters?

Pro tip: It really is okay to print these accolades and place them where you can see them. Writing is hard and sometimes, we need the reminder.

Take A Class

Feeling better yet?

If so, gently analyze what it is about the writing style that you so admire. For me, Mr. Sakey has a very natural way of dropping phrase twists that live within the character’s voice that are so well done that I have to go back and reread the little miracle I just read.

I’ve taken plenty of writing classes before, but perhaps I could use a refresher in cliche twists or character voice. Even if I’ve heard it all before, hearing the information again when I’m at a different point in my writing journey could reveal fresh insights.

What elements do you find yourself admiring in recent reads? I can almost guarantee that there’s a class or book for improving that skill.

Surround Yourself With Other Authors

The best cure I’ve found for the I’m-A-Hack feeling is to get around other authors. It’s one of the reasons I founded Cruising Writers. And it’s one of the reasons I’ve planned a new writing cruise next spring. Being with other authors not only gets the creative juices flowing, it also allows for your craft to grow by an exponential leap. (Also, this particular writing cruise will have Becca Syme teaching about Strengths for Writers and Kirsten Oliphant of Create If Writing teaching about marketing, so you know, it’s a good place to be.)

Sharing struggles and triumphs with authors who understand is one of the best ways to remember that you’re not a hack. Every creative goes through this cycle, and most authors feel that their craft isn’t good enough…yet. That’s important to keep in mind. The yet. It keeps us striving for the next level, and when we reach it, oh man, it’s brilliant.


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Fear Thesaurus Entry: Change

Debilitating fears are a problem for everyone, an unfortunate part of the human experience. Whether they’re a result of learned behavior as a child, are related to a mental health condition, or stem from a past wounding event, these fears influence a character’s behaviors, habits, beliefs, and personality traits. The compulsion to avoid what they fear will drive characters away from certain people, events, and situations and hold them back in life. 

In your story, this primary fear (or group of fears) will constantly challenge the goal the character is pursuing, tempting them to retreat, settle, and give up on what they want most. Because this fear must be addressed for them to achieve success, balance, and fulfillment, it plays a pivotal part in both character arc and the overall story.

This thesaurus explores the various fears that might be plaguing your character. Use it to understand and utilize fears to fully develop your characters and steer them through their story arc. Please note that this isn’t a self-diagnosis tool. Fears are common in the real world, and while we may at times share similar tendencies as characters, the entry below is for fiction writing purposes only.

Fear of Change

Most people are averse to change at some level, and a certain amount of unease when it comes to change is normal. It only becomes a problem when a person is so determined to keeping things the same—possibly because they don’t want to give up control or are afraid of the unknown—that their quality of life is impacted, relationships are damaged, and they’re unable to grow and evolve in a healthy manner.

What It Looks Like
Dismissing new ideas without considering them
Humoring people; giving the appearance of considering something new but always rejecting the opportunity
Avoiding making decisions that require change (so the status quo can be protected)
Reacting emotionally rather than logically
Using outdated sources or ineffective arguments to make a point
Becoming emotionally activated when new ideas are being considered
Clinging tightly to “old school” methods: resisting technology, ignoring scientific advances, rejecting tools that deviate from what they’re used to, etc.
Loyalty (to people, a job, a community, etc.)
Repairing and fixing material objects rather than replacing them
Living in the same house even when it’s falling apart or the property value has skyrocketed
Sticking close to home; not traveling far or taking long trips
Frequent strife with family members who want to make changes the character is resistant to
Resenting others for moving on and leaving the character behind
Going to extremes to avoid change (manipulating others, lying, being mean or lashing out at someone who is suggesting a change, etc.)
Being more interested in the past than the future

Common Internal Struggles
Disliking being left alone/behind but being unable to embrace the changes required to keep up with others
Feeling obsolete
Feeling selfish for being so unbending but not knowing how to be more flexible
Wanting to go back in time to when things were happier or simpler
Struggling with anxiety or depression
Feeling stuck in a situation but being unwilling to make changes

Flaws That May Emerge
Confrontational, Controlling, Cynical, Defensive, Evasive, Hostile, Ignorant, Inflexible, Irrational, Judgmental, Nervous, Obsessive, Oversensitive, Paranoid, Possessive, Resentful, Stubborn, Uncooperative

Hindrances and Disruptions to the Character’s Life
Staying in a situation that makes the character unhappy or is unhealthy because it’s preferable to facing the unknown
Difficulty making even small changes to a daily routine
Missing out on meaningful activities with others (a trip with friends, a family reunion, dinner at a friend’s house, etc.)
Becoming isolated from others
Difficulty utilizing modern advances that most people enjoy because the learning curve is too great
Always having to make excuses for turning down an opportunity
Avoiding people who are likely to suggest activities or changes that threaten the character
Always needing to do things their own way; resisting new methods or ideas that would make their life easier

Scenarios That Might Awaken This Fear
New technology or processes at work that must be learned and used
A scenario requiring the character to move (the house being condemned, no longer being able to pay rent, etc.)
A spouse having to move into a retirement home, leaving the character on their own
Grown children moving across the country and asking the character to come with them
The culture shifting to embrace ideas the character disagrees with
Being given a new phone, a computer, or some other tool the character isn’t comfortable with but must learn to integrate into their life
The character’s children wanting to deviate from a long-held tradition



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One Quick Reason Readers Cheer For Unlikable Characters

By Lisa Hall Wilson

How do we get readers to cheer for unlikable characters? We cheer for anti-heroes and characters who are surly, have anger issues, and even questionable morals. Why? They all have one thing in common but it means we have go right back to the basics.

I came across this post from Writers Helping Writers on 10 Ways To Make Your Character Likable. You could do some of your own research into any of the methods mentioned there to strengthen your writing.

Locate The Main Story Thread

Sometimes we make things more complicated than they need to be, don’t we? I am prone to creating complicated plots with huge casts and then I get tangled up in my own fictional web. Most of the time, what I need to do is simplify. Get back to the basics and find the main story thread and pull on that. Which other story threads are unaffected by this central thread? Those unconnected threads have to go.

Creating a likable character is directly tied to this main story thread. When I read the above post, I agreed with everything there, but those techniques must be employed with a lot of art and subtlety. I like to go back to the basics first, and in the editing phase, add in some of those other techniques if I feel they’re needed.

So let’s get back to the basics.

What’s The One Quick Way To Create A Likable Character?

Some of the characters I have found hard to like would be: Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games), Scarlett O’Hara (Gone With The Wind), Clary Fairchild (Immortal Instruments), Jack Reacher, James Bond, Ross Poldark, Wolverine, Walter White (Breaking Bad), Bella Swan (Twilight)… I could go on.

Now, you may have loved some of those characters. There’s a lot of personal taste involved in this. I found these characters hard to like, but have wholeheartedly cheered for them at the same time (OK – maybe I didn’t cheer for Scarlett… Mostly I just wanted to smack her). How could I cheer on and root for characters I don’t actually like all that much?

They were the underdogs.

These are all characters who face what seem like insurmountable obstacles. They could turn tail and run and live happily ever after — take the easy road, but they chose the hard thing. They put their lives and hearts on the line because of something they believed to be right. I can cheer for that.

Think of the school-yard bully. This could be the most attractive, smartest, best-dressed kid in school, but you’re probably going to root for the little nerd who has no power, no influence, and no voice but stands up to the bully anyway because somebody has to. Because enough is enough. Because it’s the right thing to do.

“Turns out likability, or niceness, is often the least important factor in convincing a reader your character is worth his time…characters who ooze nothing but niceness are often saccharine, exasperating, and anything but charismatic. Think of a handful of the most memorable characters you’ve encountered in literature and film. I’m willing to bet a good-sized chunk of money that the characteristic that stands out most is not niceness. Rather, we connect with the characters who are interesting…Dichotomies drive fiction. When we write characters who are fighting both their circumstances and their own natures, we create characters who are instantly real. And, thus, instantly interesting.” K.M. Weiland.

Some Examples…

Katniss is a loner, at times irrational, romantically-stunted (in my opinion), and is often the author of her own misery. However, she steps up for her sister. She takes on President Snow and the Capitol because it’s the right thing to do even though she doesn’t seem to have much chance at all of succeeding. She goes out of her comfort zone and puts herself on the line for the good of others. I can cheer for that.

Wolverine is surly, has anger issues, is a loner, and you can’t count on him to stick around. However, against his better judgement he goes back and stands in for others. He can’t stand to see kids in danger or bullied. He takes the skills and gifts he has and he uses them for good. I can cheer for that even though I think he’d make a pretty lousy friend day to day.

James Bond. *shakes head* Where do I start? He’s an adrenaline junkie, a womanizer, takes irrational risks, is an alcoholic (probably), and likely has some kind of mental health issue (depression, manic — there’s something there). But he does whatever is necessary, even at great personal physical and emotional risk, to take down the bad guy. He’s often alone and because of that faces impossible odds. I can overlook a lot of traits I don’t like because I can cheer for what he chooses to stand up for.

Did the writers who crafted the above characters use any of the above-mentioned ten tips for creating likeable characters? Of course, they did. Wolverine, Clary, Katniss (and probably a few others too) have tragic backstories. They all have a save the cat (or pet the dog) moment at some point early in their stories and they all struggle with their own personal demons. But when you boil everything down to the basics (when you pull on the main story thread — the obstacle they face in the climax), they chose to stand up to the bully. They take on impossible odds to see right done.

Find the basic story thread and give it a tug — what is your character up against? Is it impossible? Put your character up against a situation, an obstacle, a villain, they have no realistic hope of overcoming. Your reader doesn’t have to like your character to cheer for them to win. Sometimes getting down to the basics is the easiest way to get unstuck!


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Want Readers to Connect to Your Character? Include this Element.

Some characters have more shape and weight than others, feeling so authentic we can almost believe they walked right out of the real world. Their emotions, vulnerabilities, needs, and desires ring so true, we can’t help but be pulled in by them. These characters hold us hostage while we read, and as writers, we start analyzing why we care so much so we can duplicate this magic in our own stories.

So, what’s the secret sauce that creates such a powerful connection?


When readers see something within the character that resonates, something they themselves think, feel, or believe in, it becomes common ground that binds them to the character.

But wait, you say. That makes no sense! What does my thirty-two-year-old, baby Yoda collecting schoolteacher-slash-reader have in common with the fiery, laser-zapping sky captain in my steampunk sci-fi?

Oh, not much, except maybe…

  • The pain of a loss
  • Making a mistake that can’t be fixed
  • The agony of hurting a loved one
  • How time stretches in a moment of humiliation
  • Knowing a love so pure they’d sacrifice anything for it
  • The dark thoughts that accompany a desire for revenge
  • Failing and letting others down
  • The chest-expanding rush of pride or validation
  • The relief that comes with getting a second chance
  • Experiencing the sting of betrayal
  • Worrying the past will repeat itself
  • Finding the courage to live one’s truth

…and so on.

Experiences, Good and Bad, Connect Us All

No matter who your character is, human or not, protagonist or antagonist, they will have experiences in common with readers. These may look very different, but in the hands of a strong storyteller, they will be recognizable, holding a core truth that stirs a reader’s thoughts and emotions. In some form, readers feel an echo of having lived the same moment, stood at the same crossroads, or felt the same thing, as the character.

Recognition is a powerful tool, hooking readers and keeping them engaged. By thinking about what it is to be human, and how to use that to find areas of common ground, we can create mirrors within our characters that draw readers in and trigger their empathy.

Two of the best places to look for common ground experiences that will really resonate are Emotional Wounds and Meaningful Goals.

Emotional Wounds

Trauma is an unfortunate side effect of life. We all carry the burden of painful experiences – you, me, and readers. People can hurt and betray, they can let us down, and we can do the same to them or ourselves.

Anything that is a big part of the human experience is something we should weave into our character building. By brainstorming a character’s emotional wounds, we make them authentic, and it gives us a powerful way to reveal their vulnerabilities to readers.

Emotional wounds come in all shapes and sizes: Betrayal. Humiliation. Rejection. Injustice. Neglect. They cut, bruise, and most importantly, change the character. Just like us, the person a character was before a traumatic event and who they become after will be different. In the aftermath they carry scars in the form of unmet needs, fears, and false beliefs. They may believe they are less worthy, less capable, or somehow at fault. A wounding event can also reshape how the character sees reality, causing them to think people can’t be trusted, that the world is callous and unfair, or believe life’s cards are stacked against them.

Watch how the Character Builder helps you uncover your character’s backstory wounds.

As readers, we may see all the ways their thinking is flawed, yet still understand why they believe what they do. Their experience informs their opinions, just as ours inform us. And even as we root for them to see the truth and be free of their pain, we recognize and relate to the experience of missing what’s right in front of you.

We’ve all experienced wounds and seen loved ones be swallowed up by fear these events create. We’ve witnessed their dysfunctional behavior and unhealthy coping mechanisms cause problems. So when a character misbehaves, lashes out, or holds back because they are afraid of being hurt again in the book we’re reading, we get it. We connect to their struggle. Their fear is our fear. We carry the burden of it together.

Meaningful Goals

Imagine a line where an emotional wound is on one end and the other, a meaningful goal. One represents fear, the other hope. And as powerful as fear is, hope can best it, which is why we give characters goals to aim for.

Hope is having trust and belief that something can change. In the story, hope tips the scales in the moment when a character decides what they want is more important than what may hurt them. They hold to hope, step out onto the ledge, and move forward despite fear.

Your character’s goal can be anything: To find a lifelong partner. Succeeding where they once failed. Forgiving themselves. Pursuing justice, Protecting a loved one. The only qualifier is to make this goal meaningful so they have strong motivation to achieve it. When obstacles appear, or adversity and conflict batters them, hope that they can get what they need most keeps them on course.

And beside them as always is the reader, willing them to succeed. Neck bent, readers consume words, desperate to know the outcome because the biggest recognition of all is unfolding: a shared journey.

Character Arc: Where Readers and Characters Collide

Why are readers so fascinated by the character’s journey? After all, it’s only fiction right, a bit of entertainment, an escape.

Or…could it be something more?

Okay, that’s a trick question. A character’s journey to leave behind a hurtful or limiting past and cross into a better, more fulfilling future should remind you of something because life is a series of journeys. Like the character, we are always moving toward a better tomorrow. We yearn for internal completeness just as they do, so when we read, we recognize the steps they take, and the courage, growth, and sacrifice along the way. We root for characters to win because deep down, we are rooting for ourselves to win, too.

So, when you write, find common ground. Put those shared experiences on the page for readers to recognize! Readers should see themselves in the character’s vulnerability and uncertainty, their wounds and fears. But most of all, showcase the character’s hope and goals. These remind readers what’s worth fighting for both in fiction, and in life.



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What’s Your Character Hiding?

Being able to write realistic, consistent, multi-dimensional characters is vital to gaining reader interest. Doing so first requires we know a lot about who our characters are—you know, the obvious stuff: positive and negative traits, behavioral habits, desires, goals, and the like. But it’s not always the obvious parts of characterization that create the most intrigue. What about the things your character is hiding?

Everyone hides. We hide the goals we know are wrong for us, opinions that may turn others against us, or feelings and desires that make us feel vulnerable—basically anything with the potential for rejection or shame.

The same should be true for our characters. When characters are cagey out of a need to protect themselves from emotional harm, readers understand that. It makes the characters more authentic and can pique your readers’ interest as they try to figure out the secret or worry over what will happen when it comes to light.

7 Things Your Character Is Hiding

To add this layer of depth to your characters, you first need to know what’s taboo in their minds—not only what they’re hiding, but why. Here are some common things your character may feel compelled to conceal from others.

1. Desires

Desires are an important part of who your characters are. These desires drive their actions and decisions in the story. While these wants are often transparent, there are situations in which the character may not feel comfortable sharing them.

Maybe she’s secretly pining for her sister’s ex, or she longs for a career forbidden by her parents, or she wants to fight her boss’s unethical behavior but is afraid of losing her job.

Forbidden or dangerous desires can add an element of risk, upping the stakes for the character and making things more interesting for readers.

2. Fears

Everyone has fears. Many of those fears are perfectly acceptable, which makes it safe for us to share them. It’s the ones that make us feel weak or lessen us in the eyes of others that we keep in the dark.

Think about really debilitating fears, such as being afraid of a certain people group, physical intimacy, or of leaving one’s house.

Fears like these should always come from somewhere—maybe from a wounding event or negative past influencers. Make sure there’s a good reason for whatever your character is afraid of.

3. Negative Past Events

Speaking of wounding events, we each have defining moments from the past that we’re reluctant to share with others or even acknowledge ourselves.

What’s something that could have happened to your characters that they’ll go to great lengths to keep hidden? What failures or humiliating moments might they alter in their own memories to keep from facing them?

Wounds are formative on many levels, so it’s important to figure out what those are and how they may impact the character.

4. Flaws and Insecurities

Being flawed is part of the human experience. There are things about ourselves we don’t want to examine too closely and which we definitely don’t want others to know about.

For characters, these flaws often manifest as insecurities or negative traits (such as being weak-willed, unintelligent, or vain). Whether these weaknesses are real or only perceived, characters will try to downplay them.

But part of their journey to fulfillment includes facing the truth and acknowledging the part their flaws play in holding them back. To write their complete journeys, your need to know what weaknesses they’re keeping under wraps.

5. Unhealthy Behaviors

Sometimes characters exhibit behaviors or habits they know aren’t good for them. Maybe these behaviors stem from a wounding event or an unhealthy desire. Maybe they really want to change, but they don’t know how.

Whether it’s an unhealthy relationship with food, a gambling addiction, or a compulsion to self-harm, they’ll expend a lot of energy to keep these behaviors hidden.

Revealing these behaviors to readers, while hiding them from other characters, is a great way to remain true to the human experience while also building reader interest.

6. Uncomfortable Emotions

While it’s healthy to embrace and express a range of emotions, characters are not always comfortable with all the feelings. This may occur with emotions that are tied to a negative event from the past. It may be an emotion that makes the character feel vulnerable or is culturally unacceptable.

The character will want to mask any uncomfortable emotions, often disguising them as something else: embarrassment is replaced with self-deprecation, or fear manifests as anger. This duality of emotion is important because it humanizes characters for readers and adds a layer of authenticity that might otherwise be missing.

7. Opinions and Ideas

Everyone wants to be liked. To gain the respect of others, we often go so far as to sacrifice honesty.

If an opinion isn’t popular, your characters may keep it to themselves. If they have good ideas others won’t appreciate, they won’t share them—or they’ll get the ideas out there in a way that allows them to avoid taking ownership.

Peer acceptance is important to everyone; that need, and the secrets that accompany it, are something that every reader will be able to relate to.



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Using Crisis to Reveal Character

By September C. Fawkes

In the writing community, a crisis (also known as a “dilemma”) happens when a character has to choose between two opposing things. And he can’t have both.

Shawn Coyne, author and creator of The Story Grid, breaks crises down into two types:

a. The Best Bad Choice

The character has to choose between two negative options.

Ex. Katniss Everdeen has to either kill Peeta, or risk killing herself.

b. Irreconcilable Goods

The character has to choose between two positive options.

Ex. A protagonist has to choose between the job of her dreams, or the man of her dreams.

While the categories are helpful when teaching and talking about crises, in many stories, the options may not be obviously “good” or “bad.” For example, in The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins gets called on an adventure. He has two options: Refuse and continue to live his predictable life, which invites a sort of personal stagnation, or accept and risk danger and death, which include gaining personal experience and growth. From the audience’s perspective, we may say that going on the adventure is the best, and obvious choice, but that isn’t how it looks to the character. Each option has both negative and positive stakes tied to them: Stay safe and alive, but somewhat stagnant, or risk danger and death, and grow through experience.

While traditionally crises are talked about with pairs of options, it’s technically possible to have more than two things to choose from—the keys are that the choice needs to be difficult, irreconcilable, and hard—if not impossible—to reverse (at least not without significant ramifications). It’s also possible that in some crises, not making a choice is an option, but for that to work, it needs strong stakes.

The crisis is a moment where we lay out current stakes and the directions the story could go, depending on what the character chooses. This reinforces the character’s agency, and what the character selects will reveal a lot about him or her. In fact, a crisis is one of the most effective ways to reveal true character.

When Katniss chooses to risk killing herself over simply killing Peeta, it reveals that, when it gets down to it, she’s more willing to sacrifice herself in an effort to protect the innocent, than others to benefit herself. In contrast, President Snow and the Capitol repeatedly pick the opposite. When a character chooses her dream job over her dream man, it shows she values her career more than her romantic relationships. And when Bilbo accepts Gandalf’s invitation, it reveals he’d ultimately rather risk danger and death to experience adventure.

A crisis helps indicate a character’s true belief system. It’s easy to proclaim we will do something when there are no stakes or competing choices. I might insist repeatedly that I always tell the truth . . . but if telling the truth could get me fired, leaving my family with little to eat, I face a difficult decision. Do I value honesty or food more? To dig a little deeper, we may ask why I value one over the other, or how I came to value one over the other.

Crises can also be very effective in character arcs. If you are writing about a protagonist who changes because of the story, you may use a crisis at the beginning of the story to reveal what the character initially values. For example, I may show our protagonist choosing her work over her boyfriend. At the end, you may choose a similar crisis to show how the character now believes differently. Our protagonist chooses the man of her dreams over the job of her dreams. If you are writing a steadfast (also known as a flat-arc) protagonist, you will show how the protagonist ultimately chooses the same option, despite the added pressure of the climax. Katniss initially chooses to risk sacrificing herself to protect Prim. Regardless of what the Games have tempted her to do, she ultimately makes the same choice to try to protect Peeta.

Because crises emphasize agency, they also put responsibility on the protagonist. When he chooses an option, he’s also choosing its ramifications. If Katniss killed Peeta, she’d have to live with that, but she’d be safe. Because she didn’t, she puts herself, family, and ultimately all of the districts at risk. She now has to deal with the consequences of that.

Crises can be a great way to create internal conflict and also plant seeds of doubt and regret, as the character may be haunted by her choices and the accountability they bring.

Using crises will strengthen any story, particularly by revealing character.


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Fear Thesaurus Entry: Agoraphobia

Debilitating fears are a problem for everyone, an unfortunate part of the human experience. Whether they’re a result of learned behavior as a child, are related to a mental illness, or stem from a past wounding event, these fears influence a character’s behaviors, habits, beliefs, and personality traits. The compulsion to avoid what they fear will drive characters away from certain people, events, and situations and hold them back in life. 
In your story, this primary fear (or group of fears) will constantly challenge the goal the character is pursuing, tempting them to retreat, settle, and give up on what they want most. Because this fear must be addressed for them to achieve success, balance, and fulfillment, it plays a pivotal part in both the character arc and the overall story.
This thesaurus explores the various fears that might be plaguing your character. Use it to understand and utilize fears to fully develop your characters and steer them through their story arc. Please note that this isn’t a self-diagnosis tool. Fears are common in the real world, and while we may at times share similar tendencies as characters, the entry below is for fiction writing purposes only.

Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder that causes people to be afraid of places or situations that could bring on a panic attack. Their fear of being unable to get help or escape during one of these attacks can make it difficult for them to navigate open spaces, elevators, crowds, concerts, church services, movie theaters, or any place where a panic attack might come on. In extreme cases, a character suffering from agoraphobia may reach the point where they’re uncomfortable leaving their home at all.
What It Looks Like
Frequent panic attacks or elevated anxiety in certain places
Consistently avoiding certain locations or situations
Making choices that enable the character to stay at home (working from home, having groceries delivered, etc.)
The character often declines social invitations to certain places (amusements parks, church services, weddings, etc.)
Only venturing outside with a companion
Clinging to the friends or family members who are supportive
Becoming isolated
Common Internal Struggles
Want to not be limited by fear but it is too strong to ignore
Knowing the fear is irrational but being compelled to give in to it
Feeling guilty for making excuses about not being able to attend certain events
The character feel like they can’t trust their own mind or emotions
Feeling defective or broken
Becoming depressed
Slipping into despair—believing that things will never change or get better
Wanting to seek help but feeling too overwhelmed or incapable
Feeling misunderstood and alone, as if the character is alone in their suffering
Worrying about what others think
Flaws That May Emerge
Addictive, Compulsive, Cynical, Defensive, Evasive, Inhibited, Insecure, Needy, Nervous, Obsessive, Self-Destructive, Timid, Withdrawn
Hindrances and Disruptions to the Character’s Life
Being unable to do things the character would like to do
Having to lie or make excuses for why they can’t attend an event
Missing out on interactions with others
Not being offered (or not being able to accept) job advancement opportunities
Settling for a career that isn’t exactly what the character wants because it enables them to work from home or a certain location
The character’s outings are contained to a finite area because they’re unable to drive or use public transportation
Being dependent on medications with undesirable side effects
Depending on others; the character have to arrange their day and outings around the people who can go places with them
Being exhausted and mentally depleted after an outing
The fear of a panic attack bringing on panic attacks
Scenarios That Might Awaken This Fear
Losing someone who understood and cared for the character
Experiencing a stressor (getting in a car accident, being victimized, losing a job, etc.)
Having to go to a location that is a known stressor for the character
A change in circumstance that makes it harder to avoid stressors—totaling a car and having to rely on public transportation, for instance
Feeling the beginnings of panic or an elevation in anxiety
Seeing looks of pity or disdain from others when the character is struggling with panic or anxiety.


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