When you build a character, there are a few things to consider, appearance personality and personal motivation, to name a few. I won’t talk about any of these as they are highly personal to what the author envisages and what the story needs. I will, however, talk about something way more important.
Some qualities can be measured in every character. These qualities are competency, likeability and proactivity. There is one scale for competency, the two sides being very competent and not at all competent, and so on so forth with the other two examples. So why does this matter when considering character creation? First, let’s have a closer look at the two ends of each of the scales.
If a character is skilled, it means they are most likely in a story where they need to get something done. A highly competent character is very good at progressing the plot as they overcome obstacles or issues with ease. They are good at providing answers, problem-solving and generally good at un-sticking a sticky situation!
Catchphrase: Don’t worry, I’ve got this!
To contrast competency, you have the bumbling idiot character. Maybe not so smooth, and bit clumsy. They are there to halt the progression of the plot by fumbling and not being able to keep up. These poor characters tend to be the comedic relief or the kid brother type.
Catchphrase: Ummmm… you guys… is it supposed to make that noise?
This is your friendly neighbour, your best friend. The one that reader really identifies with. They are the supporting lovable character that makes your heart happy. While they tend to be used as sidekicks to make the main character more likeable, a hero can also be likeable in their own right.
Catchphrase: I made you a cake, it’s not your birthday… I just love you!
Your average villain, on the other hand, tends to be on the opposite end of the scale as very unlikable. They are unfriendly, mean to kids and dogs, just generally not super great.
Catchphrase: Ew, get that baby away from me!
There are examples of unlikeable heroes, for instance, Sherlock. Sherlock is made likeable by his lovable sidekick Watson, and if Watson can love Sherlock, we can too! This is a very classic example of how the different ends of the likability scale can complement each other.
A proactive character makes plot decisions, gets things done and is generally very quick about it. They maybe don’t think things through or consider all of the options. This character can be used to further the plot or get it stuck somewhere depending on whether or not they have ploughed ahead with the correct solution to the story’s problems.
Catchphrase: I don’t have to listen to your ideas, I’m just going to go ahead with mine!
A character that isn’t proactive tends to be reactive. They react to the story around them and only do things when the plot forces them to. They tend to make for a slower story as they are reluctant to take their future into their own hands.
Catchphrase: Why me?
All of your characters will fall somewhere on all three of our scales. Continuing with Sherlock the example I used earlier, he would be high on the proactive scale and the competent scale but very low on the likability scale.
There are ways that you can play with this system so that it’s not so black and white. You can create interesting dynamics by putting a likeable character with someone they hate, creating an ugly social interaction. You could take a competent character out of their area of expertise to make them seem less able. There are fun ways to knock a character off their feet and make the story more interesting. Once you’ve decided on a character type consider messing with their skills a bit!
When choosing a character, it’s essential to examine your plot. What do you want your characters to do? Is it realistic that a bumbling idiot could go on a superhero mission, yes… but with the right supporting cast. Make sure your characters are well balanced, watching the exact same CTRL + C characters can become very dull for a reader.
Let’s look at the classic group trope: the five-man band. You have the heart(likeable) the big guy (competent) the leader (proactive) the smart guy (competent) the lancer (proactive).
These are the main qualities attributed to each of the five characters, however, sliding the scales depending on what kind of story you’re after can create interesting conflict or tension. For example, having an unlikable leader and a likeable lancer can cause a power struggle within the group between the two proactive characters.
Notice as well, the different types of competencies within the group. I’ve listed the big guy and the smart guy as competent.
They both count as this type but in very different ways.
The smart guy couldn’t fill the big guy’s shoes and vice versa. You can occasionally smash characters together but make sure you establish those characters as filling multiple roles from the beginning. If you don’t, you may risk confusing your reader.
The above is food for thought and fun to play with, so consider what types of characters you need to introduce and what kind of personalities they will need to get along or to get into fights. It’s important to consider what you will need for your plot.
Development can be tricky without the right types of characters because you cannot change a personality to force the plot in a new direction. Not without a convincing sub-plot or new character introduction.
Have fun, play around, and as always, I cannot wait to see you on the bookshelf!