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Creating 3-D Characters For Your Novel

What if the characters in your novel don’t want to do what you want them to do? How do you motivate them to do the right thing? How do you do that believably?

Kate posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy! I love the website and all the books, all the information I’ve read has been very helpful. But I need help. I’ve been reading a lot of books (maybe to many) in regards to characters. For endless days and weeks, I have been trying to figure out how to develop a realistic character arc (external conflict, external motivation, but the inner conflict, inner motivation and figuring out the theme is confusing me to no end! I’m in need of a better understanding (more simplified) and guidance to a characters internal NEED and external motivation. I have the beginning of the protagonist arc. Which is a callous lieutenant who fears abandonment which causes him to stray away from relationships of any kind and also provided him the inability to forgive anyone for any kind of wrongs they did to him. I have the WANT which is surviving an invading army by any means necessary (EXAMPLE: avoiding survivors so he doesn’t have to care for them.) I have the main GOAL which is to return home, and a sub-plot GOAL (or maybe this is considered the external motivation) which is my MC wanting to return home to tell a woman that he loves her. I have the ending of the novel where the MC saves a survivor because he’s regretful for not saving anyone else and is willing to sacrifice himself in order to prevent the invading army to further their agenda of world domination.

But I can’t figure out the NEED that will drive my character to the conclusion of sacrificing himself rather than saving himself and what’s the internal conflict that will make him resist the realization.

I also can’t figure out what external motivation is considered. Is the goal of my MC’s wanting to confess his love to the woman the external motivation? Or am I missing a key factor?

As I’m sure you can imagine, since I’m missing key pieces to a beautiful puzzle, I can’t figure out the theme.

Can you help me Randy?

Also, what formula do you use when figuring out the character arc for every character?

Randy sez: Good questions, Kate! It sounds like you’re well on your way to designing a strong novel. You’re very close, in fact.

The problem you’re facing is that your lieutenant really, really wants to get home to the woman he loves, so he can tell her (and hopefully something will come of that). So why in the world would he do anything to jeopardize that Goal? Why would he risk his life right at the end of the story, to save somebody he doesn’t know?

That doesn’t make sense. As a novelist, it’s your job to make it make sense.

Here’s how you do that.

The missing link in your explanation above is something I call “Values.” Values are the magic key to creating 3-D characters. What’s a Value? I’ll give you an example, and then the definition will be clear.

The Godfather is Mario Puzo’s classic novel about a Mafia kingpin, Vito Corleone. Vito is a complicated guy. He runs a small underworld kingdom with ruthless efficiency. Vito rules by helping people. If a poor widow comes to him in tears because she’s being evicted from her apartment, Corleone can make the evil landlord change his mind. All he asks is that the widow gives him honor. Why? Because honor is the currency of his kingdom. A man who has honor has everything. Money, power, happiness, all come from honor. Nothing is more important to Vito Corleone than his honor. He would kill to maintain it.

But Corleone is also a Sicilian, and therefore his family is supreme. He would do anything for his family. Vito has three sons, each with problems. The oldest, Sonny, is impetuous and quick-tempered and insolent. The second, Freddie, is a bit of a sissy. The third, Michael, is bright, intelligent, disciplined—but he scorns the family business and plans to make his own way in the world without his family and without being a criminal. Still, Vito Corleone loves all of his sons. Nothing is more important than family. He would give up his own life for any of his sons.

But that raises a terrible problem early in the novel. A seedy thug named Sollozzo comes to Corleone with a business proposition. Sollozzo wants help in getting police protection for his heroin operation. And long-term, he’ll also need help from the corrupt judges in Corleone’s pocket. Sollozzo offers a generous cut of his profits in exchange for the protection that only Vito Corleone can give him.

Corleone believes that this will endanger all of his other operations. Corleone’s consigliori and his oldest son (Sonny) are at the meeting, but Corleone doesn’t consult them in this decision. He simply refuses Sollozzo’s offer, explaining his reasons—that it would destroy all that he has worked to build.

But Sonny doesn’t like this, and he blurts out a question to Sollozzo that makes it clear that he’s interested. This is a huge mistake. Sonny has just dishonored his father by questioning his judgment.

What should Vito Corleone do? He loves his son. But his son has just violated his honor. His son should be banished from the organization—immediately. Corleone must make an instant decision. He chooses to make a joke of his son’s rash comment and then repeats his decision—no, he will have nothing to do with narcotics.

That decision drives the entire novel.

Three months later, Sollozzo’s henchmen shoot Vito Corleone in the street, nearly killing him. Their hope is to get Vito out of the way so they can do a deal with Sonny. But Vito survives, barely, and the rest of the novel tells how he claws his way back to power, pulling his youngest son Michael into the family business.

All because of one decision. One very difficult decision. Difficult because of Vito Corleone’s two clashing Values:

  1. Nothing is more important than honor.
  2. Nothing is more important than family.

Those can’t both be the most important thing. When they conflict, Corleone must choose between them. And nobody knows what that decision will be until he makes it.

Now let’s define a Value. A Value is anything that your character would put in the blank in this sentence:

“Nothing is more important than ____________.”

When your character has only one Value, then he’s boring and one-dimensional. When he has two or more Values that can conflict, then the character becomes vastly more interesting.

Kate, you’ve already given me enough information to define two of your lieutenant’s Values:

  1. Nothing is more important than avoiding abandonment.
  2. Nothing is more important than the woman I love.

To that, I’d add a Value that most people have:

  1. Nothing is more important than staying alive.

Note that #1 and #2 are in conflict, so that’s good. But it’s not enough. None of the Values above will explain why your lieutenant would endanger his life to rescue somebody he doesn’t know. If you’re going to explain that, you’ll need to give him a fourth Value that would drive his decision. And then you’ll need to show your reader that Value throughout the novel, giving enough reasons for the reader to believe it’s a strong Value. It’s your choice exactly what that Value should be, and it’s your choice why he should hold it so strongly. The art of fiction is the art of making those choices.

Once you do that, then at the end, when you have multiple conflicting Values, the reader can’t know how your character will decide, but a choice to be altruistic will be believable.

This issue is discussed at some length in my book How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method, in chapter 6, “Nothing Is More Important Than Characters.”

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

How Should You Start Your Novel?

Do you really have to start your novel with “something happening?” What if your reader desperately needs to know some important backstory? Or some basic facts about your story world? What’s wrong with a little exposition?

Celine posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy, you said a scene has to be either a Scene or a Sequel and that anything that isn’t an MRU must be thrown out; but what about opening scenes, set-ups? Don’t you need some plain old exposition for that? E.g.: I’m writing a story in which the opening scene is of my character riding into the woods to hunt a beast, an angry reaction to something nasty his wife said (which I’m only going to reveal at the end of the story and not in detail). As he rides I need to inform readers about the beast; that people have tried to hunt it before but failed, what it’s like, what it’s done, etc. How, if possible, can I get all this information out with MRUs?

Randy sez: This is a great time to answer this question, because National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) has just started, and tens of thousands of writers around the world are writing a novel this November. I hope many of my Loyal Blog Readers are taking up the NaNoWriMo challenge, and I wish you great success.

A little context will be useful. A crucial part of my teaching on fiction writing has been about Scenes and Sequels. Here are a few places to read more about them, if you want to know much more than I can cover in this blog post:

As Celine noted, I strong recommend that every scene in your novel should be either a Proactive Scene or a Reactive Scene. (These are my terms. The famous writing teacher Dwight Swain called them “scenes” and “sequels”, but those have always seemed to me to be confusing terms.)

So what are these things? We need a couple of definitions:

A Proactive Scene is a scene with the following three parts, which serve as the beginning, middle, and end:

  • Goal
  • Conflict
  • Setback

A Reactive Scene has the following structure:

  • Reaction
  • Dilemma
  • Decision

Now let’s be one clear on one thing. You don’t HAVE to do anything. There aren’t any scene cops who will delete scenes that don’t fit one of these shapes. I’m told that Herman Melville has an entire chapter of exposition on the biology of whales in his book Moby Dick. Sounds pretty exciting, doesn’t it? That’s what you’d like to read first, isn’t it?


Well then. I’d say you should treat your reader the way you want to be treated. Most readers want the story to start out with something interesting. And the result of the last hundred years of analysis by fiction teachers has shown that the two kinds of scenes that work REALLY well to get readers’ interest are Proactive Scenes and Reactive Scenes.

Your goal as an author is first to entertain your reader. Everything else has a lower priority. Proactive Scenes entertain. So do Reactive Scenes. Because they engage your reader’s emotions, not her intellect.

You entertain your reader by creating a movie in her mind.

Now Celine has a second part to her question, which has to do with MRUs. This is another term that Dwight Swain used. “MRU” stands for “Motivation-Reaction Unit” and you can read all about it in Chapter 3 of his classic book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. I love this book. It’s the book that taught me how to write fiction. I also discuss this at length in Writing Fiction for Dummies.

It’s not easy to boil down Swain’s idea of the MRU, but let me take a stab. There are five basic tools you can use that will help create a movie in your reader’s mind:

  • Action
  • Dialogue
  • Interior Monologue
  • Interior Emotion
  • Sensory Description

Dwight Swain’s MRUs just combine these five basic tools in a particular format that alternates between what’s inside the viewpoint character and what’s outside.

There are some other tools you can use: narrative summary, exposition, etc. These cut off the movie that was playing in your reader’s head. Instead of a movie, these things put a piece of an encyclopedia into your reader’s head.

You can do that if you want. But your reader may very well not like it.

One way you can give information to your reader is via dialogue or interior monologue. If you do so, then pass in the information in bits and pieces, and always make sure that they serve the conflict in the scene.

Because fiction is about conflict.

Celine, you might ask yourself the question, “How would James Patterson write this scene about the hunt?”

My guess is that James would start it out with the beast charging wildly at our hero. He’d have our hero fire twice and miss. Then his gun would jam, and he’d frantically try to clear the jam. Then the beast would be on him, and he’d whip out his knife and stab at the beast’s eyes. The beast would claw him, writhing in agony. A pitched battle would go on for a few pages. After a ferocious struggle, our hero would kill the beast–and then collapse because the beast nicked his artery. As the scene ends, our hero realizes he’s got about twenty seconds before he bleeds out. Then the next scene would be back at home, where the wife is still mad at our hero. Maybe she’s gossiping with her friends. Maybe she’s poisoning hubby’s underwear. Maybe she’s seducing the butler. Or whatever. You get to choose. Whatever she’s doing has CONFLICT in it. Meanwhile, the reader is dying to know what’s going on out in the woods where our hero is BLEEDING TO DEATH.

Celine, here’s one question to think hard about: Exactly how much information does your reader need to know before she can enjoy these two scenes? My advice, and the advice of most fiction teachers, is to give the reader just that information.

Now you might choose to be a bit more restrained than James Patterson and that’s fine. But there’s a reason James is the best-selling author in the world. Because he plays a movie in your mind.

The nice thing about being a writer is that you get to decide. Nobody can force you to not start your novel with exposition and backstory. But nobody can force the reader to read your work, either. The reader decides what to read based on what she likes. So it seems like good advice to write what readers like.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

Four Act Structure Or Three?

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, thanks to a very long research trip to Israel this summer, where I worked on a couple of archaeological digs and generally ignored all my responsibilities. After getting home, I’ve been catching up for what seems like months. In fact, it HAS been months.

Kaitlyn posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy,
I’ve been struggling with a particular plot line for quite some time and I had a crazy idea about adding a fourth act to the structure to make things flow more smoothly. I have always been committed to the three act structure prior to this particular dilemma and I was interested to find a fairly significant number of writers who have shared articles about a four act structure and the idea of splitting the second act in two parts.
Naturally I wondered, what would Randy think about this?
Can you share some thoughts?

Randy sez: The second act of the Three Act Structure naturally splits into two halves. The dividing line between them comes at just about the exact midpoint of the story.

James Scott Bell calls this “the midpoint moment” in his recent book Write Your Novel From the Middle. It’s a good book, highly recommended.

Stan Williams has a book called The Moral Premise, in which the midpoint of the story is the point where the protagonist stops working from a false moral premise and starts working from a true moral premise. This is also a good book, well worth reading.

In my book How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method I spend a whole chapter talking about this midpoint of the story. (Chapter 9, “Your Second Disaster and Your Moral Premise.”) And of course this chapter comes at the midpoint of the story of Goldilocks, who is trying to write a novel. And of course Goldilocks has a crisis that forces her to stop working from a false moral premise and start working from a true one. Very meta.

In my mind, it’s just a matter of convention whether you say your story has three acts or four. So far as I can tell, in the Three Act Structure, the second act is just Acts 2 and 3 of the Four Act Structure.

So to my way of thinking, it’s not all that important what you call these large pieces of your story. What matters is how well you execute them. Which means how well you give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience.

Do that, and your reader won’t care what you called your story structure.

Have fun!

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

The Unsafe Road to Writing Fiction

So you’re writing a story and you know it’s a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, except that … it isn’t. In fact, it’s bad. But the reason it’s bad is NOT that you’re a bad writer. The reason it’s bad is because you’re using a technique that’s not familiar to you. What do you do?

Hamish posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:


Ben reading your blog for around two years now, it has helped me greatly, thank you!

My question is this: I love first person, I despise third person. I love the knowledge of a single character, knowing them like the back of my hand, creating them however I want. I love being able to make my reader feel! Which, is something I’ve found I can’t do in Third Person.

This, however, is where I run into a problem. The stories I want to write my ‘staggeringly heartbreaking work of genius’ is best written in third person.

The real problem is that, when I write in Third Person I feels if my writing is poor of quality, and I hate it. So, how do I overcome this? When my story i best suited to third person? But, I myself am dismal when writing third person?

Apologies if this is a question asked many times.


Randy sez: Well, now, there’s a dilemma. You’ve got a story that’s screaming to be written in third person, but you are better at first-person than third-person. What do you do?

Tough question, and there’s no easy answer. This is why we call it a dilemma. This is a judgment call, so I’ll give you my judgment, even though I can’t prove it’s correct.

Let’s look at your options.

The Safe Road

You can take the safe road and write it in first person. This is what you’re familiar with. You believe you’ll do your best work in first person. The only problem is that you think the story would work better in third person.

There’s a possibility you might actually be wrong. It might be that this story would work just fine in first person. You could probably find that out by writing a few scenes or chapters and see how it’s working.

But let’s assume that you’re right—that the story would best be told in third person. If you take the “safe road,” what’s going to happen is that you won’t do this story justice because you’re using the wrong tool for the job. And that’s just not acceptable, at least not to me. I don’t want to work on a story unless I can do my best. So this is not the road I’d take.

The Unsafe Road

The unsafe road is to write the story in third person, even though you believe that you can’t do it well.

I suspect that if you give it a chance, you might find that third-person isn’t any harder than first-person. It’s different, but it’s not harder. You can give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience in third-person just as well as you can in first-person.

Writing in third-person is not harder. It’s just less familiar to you, Hamish. Which means that at first, it won’t feel right. But I’d bet that if you try it for a few scenes, you might start getting more comfortable with it.

Third-person lets you do interior monologue and interior emotion just as effectively as you could do them in first-person. (These are two of the five standard techniques novelists use in writing fiction. All five techniques are explained in great detail in my book Writing Fiction for Dummies, so I’m not going to try to repeat all of that here.)

But in third-person, your interior monologue can be indirect—it doesn’t have to be an exact verbatim transcript of the character’s thoughts. Instead, it can be a summary of those thoughts, which is sometimes an advantage.

Third-person also has another slight advantage over first-person. In third person, your narrative voice can be different from the voice of the point-of-view character. This lets you, the author, use your own narrative voice when you need to. You don’t have to. You can write a whole novel in which your narrative voice is always the voice of the point-of-view character. In first-person, you have to do this. But in third-person, if you want to, you can pull back a bit from the point-of-view character and inject your own voice.

Hamish, it’s not my job to tell you what to do. But here’s what I’d do if I were you. I’d try this story in third-person and see if I can grow into feeling comfortable writing that way. Every writer needs all sorts of tools in his toolbox. One of the most useful is the third-person point of view. If you don’t develop this skill, you’ll be limiting yourself. In fact, you’re limiting yourself right now.

Try it. See how well it works. Study the works of other authors to see what tricks they’re using to make it work. Keep trying.

That’s how you learn in this business—by trying things. Whether it works or doesn’t, send me an e-mail in a few months to let me know.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.


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