unchallenged character traits are only character ideals

I don’t write using three acts. Most of my work follows a football game where the second half reaps what the first half sows. I like to think of the sections as the beginning of the beginning, the end of the beginning, the beginning of the end and the end of the end.

I believe most work can be divided into thirds as well. Along with setting up the world and the problem, the first third should show the reader who the character thinks they are and who they are in practice. Given the new situation, the second third should show the reader the difficulty in being who they are.

Some characters will need to change who they are to succeed. If the character is to stay the same, the cost of remaining unchanged must be shown, too. To me, the two-thirds mark of a novel is where the end of the end begins. Who the character is and what they have been asked to do should come together to form a course of action that will bring the story to a meaningful ending.

Spend any time in a public forum with underpublished writers, and the “How do I write a _____ character?” will come up. The answer is simple and takes a long time to do. To write an empathetic character, you write a world and a problem in which being empathetic will eventually become the most difficult thing the protagonist can be. Their ultimate decision to remain empathetic or abandon it must be shaped by what the character has experienced.

33,000 words may seem like a lot of space, but that has to establish the world, the stakes, the main conflict and source of tension, and who the character is. Character development is one of the greatest tools a writer has in their toolbox, but it can’t start until who the character is has been established.

I couldn’t count how many novels I’ve read where all that was told through dialogue over two or three chapters. But there are at least three levels of character. What a character tells others they are is usually their most idealized, untested truth. It is almost impossible to have an organic conversation where characters discuss who they really are alone.

Even internal monologues have to go through a narrator who may not have ever had that quality of themselves tested. The prison system is filled with everyday people who thought themselves good people but still served their interests at someone else’s expense.

A character could tell another character that they are empathetic. That doesn’t mean it’s true.

A character could be empathetic in public. But could show the character wants to be seen as empathetic.

A character acting empathetically when there is nothing to gain is getting closer.

But let’s say the character’s village has decided that one of its villagers must be shunned for reasons. If the character doesn’t agree with the reasons and provides comfort, they stand up for what they believe in. But if the character agrees with the reasons for the shunning and still is seen to provide comfort, they are empathic despite the social cost.

In a conventional novel, the first third sets up the complications that will test the character in the middle third. The last third determines how the complications have changed the character — even if it just makes them more resolute.

A work of fiction should explore who a character says they are, who they think they are, and who they demonstrate themselves to be through their experiences. Believing that dialogue can be used set up in the first few chapters what takes a third of a novel to establish, however, is a shortcut that almost always leads nowhere.

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