Discover Your Characters

Here are excerpts from a character building system developed by Devorah Cutler-Rubentein, Marilyn Atlas and Elizabeth Lopez:


What are the character needs of the story? What are their traumas and joyous moments? What are their flaws, traits and backgrounds? What do you want your audience to take away emotionally, physically and intellectually from the story?


What issue or grand view point are you exploring? Be specific such as “the obstacles of love make the tender moments that much sweeter” rather than simply “love”. How does your main character’s main problem service the theme? Do the supporting characters carry an alternative (and opposing) viewpoint to the central theme?


Economically introduce the main character, their goal, their dilemma and ensuing conflict. What do they want and how will they get it? Introduce their name, their attitude to life (curmedgeonly, cheerful or bland) and opening dialogue.


The circumstances and locale of the main character is integral to the story. Is it a workplace, is it a place they regularly visit such as a supermarket or a gym, or is it a place outside their normal world, such as a new country? These considerations are instrumental to the setup and trajectory of the character arc.


A wound is a physical or emotional vulnerability that underpins your character’s motivation and action. Often it is uncontrolled. A flaw is a character defect that they may have greater control over. A wound also sets the stage for how a character will tackle their course of action. The attraction-avoidance of a wound influences the pulsations of a character’s journey through story beats. Superficially, a trauma creates a wound which masks a need which influences behavior. These internal issues affect the character transformation essential in storytelling. What frailties are your characters hiding? Often, behaviors are contradictory to the wounds being hidden. Since stories often serve our spiritual and emotional growth, ideally your characters should progress from a state of dysfunction to function.


As your character progresses through the story, the problem is further fleshed out. The initial problem is discovered not to be the real problem at all. Your characters need additional complications to hamper their efforts. Who is thwarting them and who is helping them? Define your character’s journey in terms of challenges and changes.


Prior to triumphing (or not), the main character makes decisions driving them into a deep pit from which initially they cannot escape. However, they have grown because they have experienced life; the outer world, their inner world, their relationships with other characters and a symbolic metaphor. Consider these questions; What did the main character want for themselves? What outcome did they want for their circumstances? What decision is weighing most heavily on your character? What things are hanging in the balance that will influence the final outcome?


Has the main character achieved their goal either wholly or partially? Has the world changed from the the main character’s initial point of view? Has the world stayed the same, but their point of view has changed? Has the main character worked hard enough so that their experiences culminate to a new world order? Have their expectations changed? Were their sacrifices worth the struggle? Has their inner truth changed?


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