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Equip Your Characters

March 17, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified March 17, 2011

You may have heard fiction writers likened to God because of the way they create individuals to people their worlds, to not only live in them but to thrive in, fit neatly into, the setting and events of the fictional universe. As an omniscient God knows what humans will face in their lifetimes, writers are in a position to know what their characters are going to encounter on their adventures. Writers know what characters will face and which tools they’ll need to handle their world.

Give your characters what they need to succeed or at least what they need to try to succeed.

Characters can have any combination of traits and skills. Which, working in combination, will best fit your characters and allow them to navigate your fictional world in a way that seems both realistic and inevitable and at the same time satisfies your reader?

Your characters are going to be facing circumstances, adversaries, emotions, and events they’ve never encountered before.

How will you equip your characters to handle your story?

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The first step is to remember that they need to be equipped. Your characters—especially the protagonist and the antagonist, the hero and heroine in romance, the lead and his or her best friend in a suspense or adventure story—cannot and do not step into your world without equipment.

I’m not talking shovels and gear here. I’m talking about what is intrinsic to them, what is always with the characters because it comes from within.

These tools that they bring to your story don’t just appear. You have to write them into the character. You have to create the traits and skills and interests that will serve the character and the story. And once you dole them out, you need to make use of them. Maybe multiple uses in varying degrees over the course of a story.

As the plot takes shape, you may need to tweak the tools you’ve given a character to better fit the story and the other characters. You may find yourself cutting out some of the equipment you’ve saddled a character with, discovering he doesn’t need it and has no room to carry it. Some tools, especially unnecessary ones, get in the way. They weigh a character down. Be bold about dropping a character’s tools by the wayside if he can’t make use of them on his adventure.

Since these tools aren’t physical ones, you might be wondering what kinds of equipment you can give to characters. Let’s look at some examples of tools your characters might need, tools that will help them face the obstacles you purposely create to test, best, and thwart them. Obstacles that, when overcome or challenged, will show what the characters are made of and the strength of their determination to succeed.

Read the list, asking how each trait or ability could be used by your character, used to draw him into the adventure; to keep him pushing forward; to make him care about the challenges he faces and the possible consequences were he to fail; to create the mood or tone you want to convey; and to bring about the outcome you intend, an outcome that’s both inevitable for the story and satisfying for the reader.

Partial list of character tools

curiosity
endurance
humor
compassion
hope
stubbornness
fear of failure
fear of success
integrity
sense of justice
pride
(im)patience
confidence
street smarts
faith

the ability (or inability) to

dream
make friends
think on his feet
put others at ease
be cool or dispassionate in times of danger or stress
connect the dots
see the big picture, see five steps ahead
imagine consequences
ignore consequences
see details
direct/command/lead/manipulate others
hide his emotions
take a hit for the team (family, company, country)

This is by no means a complete list, so take time to devise a list of your own for your characters, to equip each of them—at least the major ones—with tools that will allow them to deal with the events of their lives. 

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Can you see how these traits or abilities can help your character make his way through your story?

You’ve got events that will test a character; what tool(s) can you give that character to help him? What tools will fit the story and the genre and the tone you’re trying to create?

How could you put a character’s curiosity to work for the story?

You might begin with a character being nosy about a co-worker and then stumbling upon a crime. That nosiness then leads to your lead breaking into the co-worker’s house and finding the body of a stranger in the bathtub. Curiosity can lead the character deeper and deeper into the story.

How about a character’s ability to see the big picture? Such a tool could lead an accountant to suspect directors at the top levels of national or international corporations of collusion and fraud.

Characters need such tools to make their way through a story. Yet any one of these tools may be the impetus for a character’s dive into his story.

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What is your role as creator?

You have to match tool to character, tool to story, and tool to genre.

You have to give your characters convincing tools, logical tools, tools that match their personalities and histories.

A few tips—

1.  Don’t let readers be surprised by these traits and abilities and gifts. You can’t pull them out only at a critical situation. Reveal character strengths, skills, and motivations through action, dialogue, or exposition before the character needs them.

2.  Give the reader hints, allowing the character to use the skill or trait early in the story—perhaps to a lesser degree than he will use it later in the story—and/or make him use the skill for a story event of minor importance.

3.  Give your protagonist a deficiency or weakness so he must seek help outside himself, so he has to trust (or at least use) others.

4.  Give your lead character a sidekick or friend with a strength that complements the lead’s weakness.

5.  Give your lead character an antagonist with a strength that exploits the lead’s weakness.

6.  Give your protagonist a history of success at something that will allow the reader to feel the inevitability of his success at story’s end. (Make it inconsequential enough that the protagonist isn’t certain his former success will ensure future success.)

7.  Equip your leads—protagonist and antagonist—with motivation to seek their prize and achieve their goals. Make it strong enough to withstand setbacks.

8.  Give your lead character experiences that made him the person he is when the reader meets him for the first time. (You don’t need to spell out every detail of these experiences, but do make the reader aware of who your characters are and what they’ve done, and give readers a hint of what they’re capable of.)

If you’re not a confirmed plotter, filling spreadsheets with scenes and details before you begin to write, you may not know until the end of the first or second draft all the challenges your lead character will face. But however you approach your story, make the time to weave in strengths and traits that the character can call on when he needs them.

Connect those strengths. That is, don’t let them exist for one scene and then give a character a different skill in another scene and then something totally different in a third scene. Make connections between the tools and between the tools and the story that both tighten story threads and contribute to an increase in tension as the story progresses.

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Don’t let your characters founder. Look ahead, as the omniscient creator that you are, and determine what your characters will need to propel them through your worlds.

Don’t deny them what they need.

Equip your characters for the adventures of a lifetime. For the adventures of their lifetimes.

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3 Responses to “Equip Your Characters”

  1. Thanks. Your tips are invaluable.

  2. You are most welcome, Name.

  3. This is some of the most amazing material I have EVER read. I can’t believe I didn’t stumble upon this sooner! You have a new fan and follower!!!

    Cayla
    caylaandashley.blogspot.com