In this episode, recorded live at the 2019 SoCal Christian Writers’ Conference, Zena Dell Lowe and Thomas Umstattd Jr. talk about how to craft compelling characters for your novel or screenplay.

About Zena Dell Lowe

Zena Dell Lowe is an award-winning writer, director, and actress. She teaches advanced classes on writing and is a published comic book writer. 


Show Notes

The following is an outline to give you an idea of what we talk about in the episode. They are not intended to stand alone.

Why Start with People?

  • The heart of every story is a personal paradox.
    • We cannot ask which is more important, plot (structure) or character. Because structure is character, and character is structure. 
    • The story will unfold based on your character and his or her choices.

Why we call them Characters and Not People

  • Better Than Real
  • Sometimes people have accused me of creating characters that are not like real people.  I’m not trying to write real characters.  I’m trying to write good characters.  (Flannery O’Connor)
  • They are compressed in Time
  • Just try and fit a real person’s life in a movie
  • Their lives are Vetted for our Entertainment
  • Selection of details that fit a theme
  • Normal life does not have heightened conflict
  • We Have Extraordinary Access to them
  • They must be comprehensible to us.  We can have a certainty about them that we can never have in real life.  We know who they are – Rick Blaine will always be Rick Blaine.
  • They must have a degree of consistency (not to be confused with the notion of paradox.)

Character vs. Characterization

  • Characterization is the sum of all observable qualities of a human being: age and IQ, sex and sexuality; style of speech and gesture; choices of home, car and dress, education and occupation; personality and nervosity; values and attitudes – all aspects of humanity we could know by taking notes on someone day in and day out.
    • This singular assemblage of traits is characterization.  It is not character.
    • TRUE CHARACTER – is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.
      • Ex.  A Brain Surgeon and an illegal alien see a bus on fire with children burning.  Characterizations are different, but character is revealed by what they choose to do.
      • Good Samaritan

Qualities of a Compelling Character

  • Paradox – Something (a person, condition or act) with seemingly contradictory qualities or phases.
    • The revelation of true character in contrast or contradiction to characterization is fundamental to all fine storytelling, and imperative for major characters.
      • Minor roles may not need hidden depth, but major characters cannot be at heart what they seem to be at face.
    • What seems is not what is.  People are not what they appear to be.
      • RAMBO vs. JAMES BOND
      • Rick Blaine in Casablanca – I stick my neck out for nobody.

The circumstances of their life must attract us.

They must be Sympathetic / Likeable

  • Would you want to be stuck next to them for two hours on a plane?
    • We care about people who care about something.
      • Not small animals or kids with cancer
    • We will really care about someone who teaches us to care about something new

Character Arc/Growth

  • The finest writing not only reveals true character, but arcs or changes that inner nature, for better or worse, over the course of the telling.
  • A character must grow for us to care and stay involved in his story. 
    • Believable growth vs. Lack of Growth (static characters)
    • Believable growth vs. Unbelievable Growth (unrealistic characters)
    • A character must be credible: young enough, or old enough, strong or weak, worldly or naïve, educated or ignorant, in the right proportions. 
    • Each must bring to the story the combination of qualities that allows an audience to believe that the character would and could do what he does.
  • The Journey (story) is based on the character.  The story (plot) is determined by your character.

Here is the play between character and structure

  • The story lays out the protagonist’s characterization.
    • Rick Blaine in Casablanca
    • We see the heart of the character when he chooses one action over another.
    • This deep nature is at odds with the outer countenance of the character, contrasting with it, if not contradicting it. (He is not what he appears to be)
    • Having exposed the character’s inner nature, the story puts greater and greater pressure on him to make more and more difficult choices. 
    • By the climax of the story, these choices have profoundly changed the humanity of the character.

The function of STRUCTURE is to provide progressively building pressures that force characters into more and more difficult dilemmas where they must make more and more difficult risk-taking choices and actions, gradually revealing their true natures.

The function of CHARACTER is to bring to the story the qualities of characterization necessary to convincingly act out choices. 

How to Reveal Character

  • By how others react to them – AS GOOD AS IT GETS
  • By what they do, NOT by what they say
    • Notice what he SAYS is not his true character.
  • By their environment
  • By what they notice
  • Slowly and constantly; It isn’t something you ever finish

Character Wants vs. Character Needs

  • What drives your character?
    • How is his want different than his need?
    • How is going to start wanting what he needs?
    • What is his end?  The ultimate thing he needs to learn?
    • How can I drive him to that breaking point?

What is at Stake?

  • What does my character have to lose or gain?
  • The stakes must be high enough – ie. If he doesn’t get what he needs, he will lose his soul.

Who or What are his antagonists?

  • Internal vs. External
  • How do we feel about the antagonists? (Casablanca, Best Friend’s Wedding)

Hope vs. Fear

  • What do we hope for him?  What do we fear for him?

Perception vs. Reality

  • How does the character want to be perceived by others?
  • How do others really see him?

Love and Flaws

  • Why do we like him?  Why do we hate him?
  • What are his flaws?  Is he aware of them?