So I read a blog from Quintessential Editor a few days ago in which we discussed character or conflict.  He and I may (I’m actually not sure) disagree on what makes a book great.  I’ll vote character every time, and I have my reasons, but the blog inspired me to offer my view on what turns out to be how I evaluate characters.

wx-wordpressbanner-wdtrophy2016I love Writing Excuses.  It’s a great podcast, and they did a podcast a few years ago (back when I had the luxury of listening every week) that helped me understand why I like books.  I’ve said it a few times.  I like sympathetic, proactive characters.  The podcast to which I’m referring is the one on character sliders.  In it, they discuss how to evaluate characters by Sympathy, Competency, and Proactivity.

I’ll let you listen to the podcast for the explanation because they’re awesome, hugely successful authors, and I’m an Indie guy trying to find my way in the world.  I will make one argument.

Sanderson explains that Sympathy is the “how likable a character is.”  He’s my Yoda in every regard, but I don’t know that’s true.  I think Sympathy (at least to me) is how strongly I feel about the character.  Whatever the emotion, if I feel it strongly, I’m drawn to the character.  The formula works regardless, but I see sympathy as “strength of emotional reaction” and not strictly “likable.”

Caught CoverWhat I thought I could add or build from this wonderful tool was how to use it when writing a book.  I don’t see this as a character development tool myself.  Rather, I try to anticipate how readers will see the character.  I’m editing Caught still, so I’d like to use Sal.  In the previous draft, he was proactive and sympathetic.

My editor and I disagreed on his arc.  What I wish I’d argued then is that he wasn’t actually very competent.  He tried several times and several ways to do something before he gained more power.  His argument, in the interest of being fair, was that Sal struggled and failed so many times, and never reacted to those failures.

I kept this in mind while revising.  I kept in in mind while writing for the other characters as well.  I want my readers to say two things when they read my books.  “I (feel strongly) about his characters” and “they’re always moving.”  I hope they hate the characters I want them to hate, and I hope they love the characters I mean for them to love, but as long as they feel strongly, I feel I’ve succeeded.

So how do you do this?  Well, I’m sure there’s a lot of ways, but this is my own spin.  At each major plot point (for me, this is when I check my outline), look at your character and see how the plot point might have effected each of these traits.  Every time a character fails, he or she seems less competent.  Some fans hate incompetent characters.  I’m actually not one of them.

newsletter-naruto3Case study:  Naruto is a moron.  He’s a goof, who’s just winging it.  He can’t do a single normal jutsu and really only has the one major trick.  But look at how hard he works!  Look at how much he cares about his comrades?  Look at how he struggles to maintain his bonds.  In fact, each time he wins, it’s usually DESPITE his competence.  Still, if he NEVER learned anything, he’d eventually get boring.  So at certain points, he becomes ever so much less stupid.  This is how we see his progression as a character. Don’t mistake progression as moving forward.


Art by Seamas Gallagher.  Image used as a character study.

Case study:  Rand al’Thor is one of my favorite characters ever.  In fact, I’d like to compare him to Ichigo from Bleach.  I feel Rand works more because there’s more progression.  Ichigo gets more powerful.  He’s competent, proactive and sympathetic, and he never really changes.  Rand becomes all the more compelling because as he becomes more powerful (and we’ll have to discuss something soon), he becomes more isolated and less sympathetic.  So you see, he devolves in sympathy as he evolves in power.

Is power a slider?  For me it is.  Because competence, to me, is the character’s success rate.  But there are several characters who win a lot, but still don’t feel very powerful.  The first that comes to mind is Ender Wiggin.  He’s incredibly sympathetic, competent, and proactive.  But none of that matters because he’s supposed to fight an alien race that the human race has feared for generations.     Power is a factor in a lot of things, and conflict can be the gauge by which you measure it.  So why do I consider it a slider? Because it can be used as a source of conflict in itself, not just a resolution to conflict.

CoverRevealNow that I’ve done a few case studies, let’s turn that microscope on myself.  While writing Bob, I was very concerned about the first act because the conflict is subtle.  Most reviews regard the first act as the best, which makes me feel good I didn’t cut it from the book.  In the first act, Bob is sympathetic and proactive.  His proactivity is what causes the conflict.  Police notice him, and now he has to evade them.  He’s not very competent.  He doesn’t know anything about his job.  He doesn’t know how to avoid police.  He’s not even very good at covering his tracks.   This leads to the climax of part one.

When I got to Part 2, I checked up on Bob’s sliders.  Sympathy 100%  Proactivity 100%  Competence: 30% (I’m probably being nice).  Power 50%.  This might surprise people.  While Bob talks about how “useless” his powers are, he’s still comparatively more powerful than most of the characters in Part 1.  In Part 2, I introduce Grimm.  Now he’s very competent, very proactive.  How sympathetic is he?  I HOPE readers say they hate him, but I can’t pretend to know.   There’s hardly any feedback on him though, so that leads me to believe I miscalculated here.  So he’s not sympathetic at all.  (otherwise, readers would have said something about him by now).  I can learn from this.  But what he DOES do, is make Bob seem LESS powerful.  That also makes him seem LESS competent.  So the progress for Bob is actually devolving and not evolving.

grimIn Part 3, I make Bob more competent.  I do this by showing him learn.  I had to bring in the “mentor” archetype.  I had to give Bob a few wins.  This made it so when he got to the final conflict, he looked like he stood a chance.

That’s how I use the sliders.  If I ever felt like my sympathy or proactivity values were slipping, I adjusted for it.  I encourage authors to do these checks. When you hand the book to beta readers, ask them to send a chapter by chapter evaluation using whatever sliders you use to evaluate the character, then compare those to your own assessment.  If they’re the same, I’d say you’re doing it right.  If they’re different, that’s when it’s time to find out what you’re missing.

I’ve never really cared much for competent characters.  They bore me.  Oh there are a lot of characters that I love that are ALSO competent, but for my money, if a character doesn’t make me feel and isn’t doing anything, I hate the story.  That doesn’t mean EVERYONE will.  Know your genre.

woman-1428067_960_720That leads me to my last point.  The Mary Sue character.  Corey would be awesome and tell you where that term came from, I just learned it an moved on.  (The difference between a gardner and an architect if I’ve ever seen one).    A Mary Sue is a character that is the most compelling, most powerful, most proactive, most competent character ever.  Dear God, do I hate those characters.  I argue that if a character is too powerful and too competent, the sympathy bar naturally slides down for me.  It’s a risk writers take.  But here’s my twist:

Mary Sues don’t happen when all the bars are maxed; they happen when all the bars are equal.

I get this from photography. I picked up that wonderful skill in the Navy, and I’ll love it for the rest of my life.  In terms of light, if you have equal values of red, blue, and green, you get gray.  You can have 20% of each, or 100% of each.  (Zero..well..then you don’t have any color, so that’s black, which, according to Batman is a very, very, very, dark gray).    I find characters feel like Mary Sues when all values are equal, no matter those values.

Image pulled from a Forbes article.  Oddly enough, it disputes that she is a Mary Sue.  Image and article used for case study with accompanying alternative opinion.

Character study:  Rey.  She’s not that sympathetic.  Really.  She’s just out there in the desert chilling.  You LEARN to care for her, but that’s not the first hour of the movie I saw.  She’s competent, but everyone but me remembers how she got captured (like a chump) and messed up the doors (like a fool) when they were first aboard the Falcon.  If I evaluate Rey right after meeting Han, I’d say she’d measure out at: Sympathy 10% Competence 10% Power 10% and Proactivity 10%.  Remember, Finn is the one who gets her to move.  She wanted to go home through the first half of the movie.

Her arc SEEMS Suish (trademark M.L.S. Weech) because she processes equally across all sliders throughout the movie.  She gains more power and competence.  This makes her more proactive and sympathetic.  I love the movie. I don’t mind Rey, but I don’t love her either, because she essentially sat around the desert until someone forced her to move, and even then she didn’t do much until she got captured.  Watch the movie, let me know if you think I’m wrong.

So that’s it.  Try it on your book.  Toss me a few character studies.  Let’s make a game of it.  Until then, thanks for reading.


16 thoughts on “Character Qualities: How to Analyze Characters and Use Their Qualities to Your Advantage

  1. I love the case studies you’ve done 🙂 I think you’re right in thinking Sympathy is not really the character’s likability. I’ve struggled with putting this sliders to use on my current work in progress. Most of it has to do with the fact that I’m not certain where I want the balance to be. My character is an assassin contracted to the kill a god, and because I used try and fail cycles in the plotting, he’s not that competent. He certainly proactive, but I wanted to give him a sympathetic reason to be proactive, so I made him out as an assassin forced out of retirement to do this job because of his family. And it turned out pretty cliched. But it still doesn’t quite justify him killing a GOD to save his family, so he seemed pretty loony to me. He’s one of the things I plan to really dig into and change when it comes time to revise.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I would argue then, that the sliders worked. The sliders don’t solve the problem, they point the problems out. You’re doing a great job of identifying what works for you and what you want to address. For what it’s worth, a book about an assassin hired to kill a god is one that would have my interest. It’s a great premise that just needs the right character to make it work. From what you wrote, you’re doing everything you can to pull that off. You get that book finished and out…give it some marketing, and I’ll say you have a future reader in me. Also…if my family was in danger, WHATEVER threatened that danger would motivate me to do anything. I sympathize with that. Could it be that the reason it doesn’t feel right has more to do with the possibility you didn’t hone in on how this assassin feels about this family? Star Wars did that. I never bought off on Anikin’s love for Pademe (SP?), so that arch never really worked for me. Not because I couldn’t believe it was possible, but because I didn’t SEE the relationship. I’m sorry to just launch, but that premise really does sound awesome, and I hope you keep with it.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. That’s a good way of looking at it! Having the right character is definitely vital. I have to make sure that his motivations are believable without making him hard to root for. That’s definitely an issue, hurts that his family never appeared “on screen”, since they were only added after I had started writing, so I didn’t really planned for their existence. It’s also part of what I plan to tackle during revision. Thanks for the kind words 🙂 I’m a super slow writer though. I’m almost finish with the first draft of this one and it took me around 7 months, so it will be a LONG while before it’s in any readable form. Haha. Plus, it’ll be the first time I do any serious revision. A little bit intimidated but at the same time excited at the prospect of putting the first draft under the microscope and fixing it. I’ll definitely keep with it.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. This is a neat way of looking at character flaws. If you want a decent character, I’d argue that at least one of the sliders has to be toned down, usually competence is the one that is.

    Also, I’m with you on Rey. She never gained an emotional reaction from me. Finn should have been the main character.

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  3. Another great post Matt. I love this tool, and the case studies you offered are spot on. We are both big Naruto fans and you can never go wrong with some Wheel of Time. I was eventually going to toss together a post that highlights character sliders as defined by Writing Excuses, and now I will have another great source of information to link to (your post here).

    In regards to character vs conflict, the two things are so closely linked, it’s really hard to say one over the other. I would hazard to say the connection between the two is symbiotic. One without the other simply won’t work, especially earlier in a work. The (arguable) exception being that a strong character, once established, has the ability to keep me engaged despite less-than-amazing conflicts.

    I love Naruto (the character and the show). But for me, there was period of time in that series where it was so repetitious (shadow clones being his primary skill and go-to for everything), that I began to get bored with it. However, the characters in the story had been established well enough, due to past conflicts, that I was able to stay engaged throughout. Because of this I was able to stick with the series, which is a good thing.

    Supernatural is another television example. I love Sam and Dean. They are established characters forged through lots of conflict. However, as the series went on the story/conflict began to lack for me. I continued with it, because I loved those characters. But I wasn’t pre-ordering the next season on Amazon and clearing my schedule. I’ll wait until it pops up on Netflix and give it a go. The lack of believable conflict has left me wanting.

    It’s a back and forth argument for the ages. I just can’t think of too many compelling characters who stick out in my mind that weren’t made this way through the application of conflict. Thanks for writing this post and getting my gear moving, Matt. You always have a way of getting me to think.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think you bring up and make a point I agree with completely. One CAN’T live without the other. Character overcomes the lack of a compelling conflict FOR A TIME. Seasons 1-5 of Supernatural are some of the best storytelling ever. But the moment the conflict became less believable..the show’s interest began to suffer. It wasn’t until I’d say mid-way through Season 8, that my interest started to come back, because they remembered the theme conflict that made the show powerful to begin with. So character trumps conflict FOR ME….but only for a limited time. Thanks for stopping by and adding this great discussion. I hope others take the time to weigh in.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Very interesting post.
    In regards to Grimm, I never really thought about it, but now that you mention it I feel rather neutral about him. He feels more like a mindless monster. He functions as a dark foil for other characters, an extreme example of all that can go wrong.
    Rereading the opening chapters, I’m struck by how both Grimm and Bob are introduced in a scene where they are watching someone die, wishing desperately that they had the power to “do more”. Of course the two are diametrically opposed on what they would do with their “more”, but that only places them on opposite ends of the same spectrum.
    I think the fact that Grimm lacks a deeper motive beyond addiction reduces him to a force of nature.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s actually a fair assessment of what I wanted for him. The original concept to the book was to take one of the “everyday” reapers from shows like “Dead Like Me” and put them in opposition to the more mysterious force that is the traditional reaper. The motivation for him, the accumulation of power to become that which everyone already thinks he is, to me is what makes anyone insane. The cost of that design though may have been the sacrifice of his sympathy. Thanks for stopping by.

      Liked by 1 person

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