How to Breathe Life into Your Characters
The Character/Plot Dyad

Developing Your Characters with GMC

Who your characters are and what these characters need to learn will dictate your plot. Or, to turn it around, a plot will often heavily influence the characters you need. It depends upon your way of working and where you start.

To show what I mean, let’s take Fred, an ordinary guy that we’re thinking of as our potential hero. Or another, similar guy, Osborne. Then we do some brainstorming about what they desperately want. Suppose Fred wants to win a chili cookoff; while Osborne wants to track down and kill the thugs who murdered his wife and unborn child.

At the beginning of their respective books these two men might share some similar traits, such as single-mindedness and a competitive drive. They might even have pretty much the same backstory. But from the moment Fred sees the article about the upcoming chili cooking contest and Osborne’s pregnant wife is murdered, their character arcs are going to veer in wildly different directions. And your story will have vastly different overall tones. Which in turn will influence the character arcs and themes or lessons learned.

Let’s think about the characters of these two guys. What is the motivation for Fred to care about the chili cookoff? Maybe he’s opening a barbecue restaurant, and winning the contest would give his business the publicity that could help him succeed. Or maybe he’s been a loser his whole life, but he has this awesome recipe and he thinks he can finally shine at something. These are only two possibilities; the potential reasons are myriad. But you can see that even given these two, we are already forming his character in our minds.

And what about Osborne? Why does he decide to play vigilante instead of letting law enforcement handle the job that they are ostensibly much better equipped to do? Are the wheels of justice grinding too slowly for him? Does he suspect the cops are corrupt? Or is his rage so great that only the personal satisfaction of blowing the murderers away will assuage it? Wow! Those possibilities also take the story in different directions. A guy who wants things to be done yesterday – maybe a high-powered executive type. Corrupt law enforcement officials and perhaps a crusading type of guy, battling the corruption at the same time as solving the crime. And maybe the third guy has a big anger problem.

Other Plotting Issues

With all of these possibilities, the lessons the characters learn through the course of the book will differ also. And we have to decide what those lessons will be.

Then to carry our plotting forward, think about who the antagonist/romantic interest will be for each of these guys.

Maybe for Fred it’s another competitor in the cookoff. There’s great opportunity for conflict.

And what if Osborne’s romantic interest is the sister of one of the murderers? Will he use her as bait to capture the criminal? What if it comes down to the crunch of saving her life or killing the bad guy?

You’ll go through the same steps for your heroine. (Or you may have started with her and brainstorm the perfect “opposite” to play the hero.)

Plotting the Story – The Hero’s Journey

Whether you’re a “flying into the mist” person or a plotter, some discussion of more formal systems of plotting is useful here.

I assume you’ve all heard of “The Hero’s Journey.” I won’t go into the steps. They are available in numerous places. It’s a very useful pattern to start from, or to check whether you are holding readers’ interest along the way. Another type is the screenwriting three-act format. These two aren’t mutually exclusive; you can fit most plots into both systems.

But I want to talk about some variations that will give you a fuller idea of where stories can go.

If you’ve ever thought a story you read didn’t fit the classic Hero’s Journey pattern, it may have been one of these types instead.

The Heroine’s Journey

We didn’t list resources in the handout, but they are on our websites. In one of them, 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters, Victoria Lynn Schmidt describes the differences between the Hero’s and Heroine’s Journey thus:

“The Feminine Journey is a journey where the hero must go deep inside herself and change throughout the story. This hero awakens in Act I and moves toward rebirth. . . . This journey is based on the Descent of the goddess Inanna, one of the oldest recorded myths in history.

“The Masculine Journey is a journey where a hero resists inner change until Act III, where he must choose to awaken and find victory or choose to rebel against it and find failure. . . . This journey is based on the ancient Mesopotamian myth the Epic of Gilgamesh, from the seventh century B.C.”

Note that the key difference between the two types of story is the timing of the inner, emotional change the protagonist makes in the course of the story.

Schmidt points out that despite the names, the Hero’s Journey isn’t exclusive to men, or vice versa.


Schmidt’s reference to the possibility of the hero refusing to change and failing brings me to another of the plotting formulas, that of the Storywheel, as described by James Bonnet in Stealing Fire from the Gods. In Bonnet’s model, as he explains:

“The study of the storywheel is the study of all the cycles of change and growth that we experience from birth to zenith and from zenith to death (or nadir).”

Most romances focus on the upside of the wheel, ending at the zenith. Another way of looking at it is that the hero represents the upside of the circle; the villain the downside, ending in his defeat and, possibly, death. You’ve no doubt read that the villain is the hero of his own story; however, the villain refuses to change (in the masculine journey of Schmidt’s) and is defeated. The two types are described in Bonnet’s book as The Nascent Ego and the Holdfast. As he says:

“Whereas the nascent ego is a positive impulse that propels us forward toward positive actions or change, the holdfast is the impulse to ‘hold on’ to what we have and resist change. It is the desire to stay in a safe, comfortable place or keep everything exactly as it is. . . . The holdfast is also the part of us that gives in to temptation, . . . the part that can be taken over by the dark side.”

Of course, our positive heroes can have holdfast tendencies – resisting change, being tempted by glory, riches, or fame. They make the decision in the long run to stand up for their values and to make the inner changes that bring about the happy ending of the story.

I recommend reading both of these books to give a fuller view of plotting.

Another Plotting Model: Discovering Story Magic

And for those who really resist using these more formal story models, I suggest the plotting model of Discovering Story Magic, which uses mainly reversals and turning points. In order to keep the story moving – and readers emotionally invested in the characters, characters have to face challenges and change as a result. And, as you create the characters, the place where they will eventually end up has to be strongly in your mind.

Don’t Forget Secondary Characters

I admit, most of our character building takes place around our hero and heroine. But strong, well-rounded secondary characters deserve the author’s attention, too. If you do a fantastic job with the h/h, but have two-dimensional villain, best friend, romantic rival, or whoever else populates your story, readers will notice, and your book won’t make as great an impression. Do take time to fill in their GMCs, know something about their background, and treat them like the “real people” your main characters are. Blake Snyder, in Save the Cat, says that all the major secondary characters except the villain should have a character arc. He cites the movie Pretty Woman, where Vivian’s best friend and even the hotel manager undergo a change by the end of the story.

Note: This was my segment of the workshop, “How to Breathe Life into Your Characters,” presented by Joleen James, Gina Robinson, Gerri Russell, and me at the Emerald City Writers Conference on October 29, 2011.