Character Grid

Recently, I attended a wonderful class called Presenting Story Magic by Laura Baker and Robin Perini, hosted by the Heart of Carolina Romance Writers. I highly recommend this workshop if it comes to a writers group near you. It focuses on how to write a story based upon who the characters are, which resonated with me. Their approach (which I won't describe totally here) is to create a grid for each character, including most of your secondary characters.  The grid basically forces you to answer why questions that are central to who your character is, and why, therefore, the story progresses as it does, based upon the characters' driving forces.

Deb Dixon's book on Goals, Motivation and Conflict, is also useful as well, but I felt it focused too much on conflicts (internal and external) without addressing the why. Even the internal conflicts don't necessarily get to the why--why someone does something, and that's what you really need to understand.

If Lady Lucy kills her lover after he spurns her, the question is:  Why did she decide to kill him instead of simply refusing to ever speak to him again, or devising some other ingenious form of revenge, e.g. publicly humiliating him?  What makes her do what she does?

Why does your character act the way s/he does? What is that person's driving force? Once you know the person's driving force, then you can set up your other characters so there is a dynamic between the driving forces that sets the stage for the story.

Here's an example. Okay, it's a stupid example, but it's still an example:

You have a protagonist who has a deep-seated need for stability. Once you identify this core personality force, you can then extrapolate to identify how this trait will be both positive and negative. Sort of like the old Star Trek episode where Captain Kirk was split into two: Kirk 1 was a really nice guy but lacked decisiveness and aggressiveness. Kirk 2 was aggressive and decisive, but he wasn't very concerned about other people. Both were halves or views of a character who needs to be a leader. Leaders are concerned about people, but they also must be aggressive enough to make the hard decisions.

So, back to the protagonist. If this person, let's say it's a man, needs stability, this can express itself positively through traits such as being systematic and careful, good at weighing alternatives and selecting the one with the least risk. Good at risk management. Could be very good in a job involving security.

On the negative side, this person could also be perceived as too rigid, or a stick-in-the-mud, unwilling to take risks. May even be domineering in order to suppress activities going on around him that may cause change. Can be very uncomfortable with any kind of change.

Already, you can see how this guy is a prime target for a story involving the necessity to accept change.

Now, for an antagonist, you have a couple of interesting paths you can take. You can do the opposites attract thing, like Dharma and Greg (I never watched that show, so forgive my spelling), or even more interesting, you can use a heroine which also resists change, but force the two into a deadlocked situation where one or both of them is going to have to take risks and accept change.

What I found compelling about this, is that once you start going down this path, plotting becomes ridiculously easy because you have a built-in theme (some risk and change is necessary: Life is change) and you can build secondary characters who will actually have a purpose in highlighting this change or even forcing the protagonist's final realization: Life is Change.

Cool, huh? Sure, it's still not easy, and I've left out a bunch of stuff from the class, but this was the major bullet-idea. Robin and Laura called this the character flaw, but I don't like that term, although it does harken back to the basics of writing as expressed by the Greeks. This term, however, rings with negative connotations and it doesn't really encompass all the functions it is serving.

This isn't so much a flaw as the character's driving force. It is:

  • The Character's driving force, the source of what is both good and bad, strength and weakness in the character. It answers the question of why this character is who s/he is, and why this character acts the way they do, and will act in a certain way in a given situation. I think of this as a character force because it is so intrinsic to the character's personality, that they have very little control over it. It is a driving, essential force to the character, and the book.
  • The Theme's basis, the source of the overall theme of the book will derive from the dynamics of the essential forces in the protagonist and other characters playing against each other.
  • The motivator: it's why the character does what s/he does and why the minor characters even exist, in order to expose this essential quality and prod the main character into achieving enlightenment or realization (or the reader may be the one enlightened, if the main character fails to achieve realization in the end).
  • The goal in each scene: Each scene in the book will then "fall into place" as a necessary scene in order to force the character to come to terms with this driving force and either change the case of literary fiction...just get deeper into the hole because the character never realizes what is wrong, or right, with them. There are always multiple aspects to a driving force, good and bad, strong and weak, so it is the job of the writer to generate sympathy for the character by exposing the good aspects of the quality while still forcing the character to change or control some of the bad aspects of the essential forces driving them.

Remember, this is an driving force within the character, so they can't completely change it, however through the story you weave, they can come to recognize this quality and move toward the more positive end of the force's spectrum. In the case of the example I gave, you could never really have a character who completely "overcomes" his need for stability and become an Evil Knieval risk taker, but you can have him realize that some change is inevitable and instead of resisting it, s/he can view it with an open mind and accept or even strive actively for change, while still maintaining a core of stability within.

I highly recommend taking Laura and Robin's class, and I don't want to risk "stealing their thunder" but I will include some of the things you need in your character grid, just to get you started.  You need to create a grid for each character, even minor ones, because it will not only help you keep the characters consistent, but it will open up opportunities for you to bring into the story characters which will play well against the main characters' driving forces.

Grid Questions

  1. What is the character's main driving force?  This will be something like:  a need for stability; a need to be right all the time; or fear of loneliness.
  2. What are the character's short term, and long term goals? These may be very different.  In the case of a detective, the short term goal may be to solve a murder, but his long term goal may be to get promoted into a management position so he can get out of the field work and have a more regular schedule.
  3. What is the incident which gets the story's ball rolling?  In a murder mystery, this may be the murder itself, that gets the detective involved in the case.
  4. What is the character's darkest moment?  What is the lowest point the character will face, that will ultimately cause the change/revelation to occur?  Obviously, this must be tied to the character's driving force and perhaps in conflict with their long term goal.  The detective may face death or believe he is unable to solve the case, or he solves it but credit is given to another detective who then gets the management position.
  5. Resolution.  What is the final outcome, or the lesson learned by the characters?  Perhaps the detective learns that he doesn't want to be a manager at all, and that he would prefer another career entirely so he can spend more time with his family.

So that's it. Easy, right?  Not really easy, because you'll find that it can be very difficult to really define the driving forces.  I often start out with something like:  fear of loneliness, but then I have to keep refining it because while that's close, as I work with the characters, I may discover it's not so much fear of loneliness but a lack of self-confidence that translates into dependency upon others. 

You'll know it when you finally get a handle on your characters, and things start to fall into place.  When that happens, writing their story is magic.

As for me, I'm going back through my manuscripts, making sure that I have a clearly defined driving force in all my characters and that these forces give meaning to the stories woven around them, instead of plots just "happening" to clichéd characters.




Books by Amy Corwin
The Dead Man's View