How to Characterize Wrong, in 3 Easy Steps

So we know how to plot wrong.

Now this week let’s talk about how to handle character wrong. Because this one is trickier—character is a trickier element of fiction while, at the same time, an even more essential one than plot. It’s possible to get by on pretty darn thin plot, providing your characters are fascinating. But any kind of plot with boring characters is shlock.

Don’t write that stuff.

  1. Give your protagonist only one need

    This one happens a lot. I’ve done it a lot. Everyone’s always telling you, “Your protagonist needs a goal, your protagonist needs to be fighting for something.”

    • They need their beloved to fall in love with them
    • They need to survive a deadly plague from outer space
    • They need to not get killed by the bad guys

    Which is all well and good. . .but why can’t they get it?

    So you add a lot of complications—interfering ex’s, domineering relatives, cruel bosses, nosy neighbors, malicious space aliens, fickle and faint-hearted gods of doom who victimize your characters until you find yourself weeping into your keyboard. All very poignant and meaningful to you.

    But when you show it to readers, they say, “You’re a perfectly good writer. But why do I care?” And when you show it to agents, they don’t even respond.

    We don’t care about victims. We care about strong people fighting against themselves. This requires more than one overwhelming need: internal conflict.

  2. Make your protagonist’s needs weak or trivial

    And this leads to the the next issue, which is giving your protagonist two conflicting needs but making them so minor the reader can’t work up any interest.

    • They need to clean the house and they need to get Jeb back from the barn
    • They need to watch the game with their pals and they need to prove they know the most about it
    • They need to win the popularity contest and they need not to chip their nails

    Once again, it all seems terribly powerful and gripping to you, your readers like it, and when you show it to agents they say, “You’re a good enough writer, but somehow I couldn’t get into this particular story. It just didn’t speak to me.”

    You know tension is important, and you’re wondering how to increase the tension on basically boring stuff. So you add complexities, other people’s agendas.

    And once again, you get the shake of the head, more final this time, and the slightly-crisp suggestion, “Maybe you should try another story.”

    We don’t care about trivial conflicts. We have plenty of those of our own, which bore even us. We want stories about scary crap that affects lives.

  3. Never force your protagonist to choose between their conflicting needs

    So you think, ‘Aha! I know what’s wrong. Those two needs don’t matter enough.’ And you’re intensely pleased with yourself, because—you know what?

    You’re right.

    So you give your protagonist two big, overwhelming, dastardly, fabulous needs, and you make them in stark opposition to each other.

    • They need to save the home they inherited from their tragically-dead parents that’s all they own and they need to survive a tornado/avalanche/desert island/inner-city gang war
    • They need to save their boss’s reputation for the sake of their own career and they need to get their ex back from that boss
    • They need to disable a covert operation aimed at world domination before all they hold dear is violated and they need to survive the bad guys’ ruthless efforts to thwart them

    Wonderful stuff! Gripping, intriguing, conflicting. Such an exciting story to write! Even your readers are cheering you on every step of the way. “I can’t put it down! Write faster.”

    But in the end it’s still. Just A. Flop.

    And the agent who loved the premise, loved the story, loved you for coming up with the whole thing—stops taking your calls.

    Because although your protagonist has those powerful conflicting internal needs (pride and survival, career and love, integrity and life) and even though those needs are huge and easy for even the most simple-minded reader to identify with, and even though you’re a perfectly good writer. . .your protagonist never has to choose.

    They get out of it the easy way: by you letting them.


Make your characters fight themselves, make it important and painful, make ’em choose. There is no other formula.

Next week we learn how to write wrong.

And the week after that we talk about how to revise wrong.

Of course, none of this is any use without 9 Ways to Find the Time to Write.

27 thoughts on “How to Characterize Wrong, in 3 Easy Steps

  1. E. Hunter says:

    I loved this! So much insight.

    I confess, in my current manuscript, I’ve recently realized that I’ve given one of my characters many small conflicts without focusing on the biggest internal one for her. This post really helped clarify that I need to go back and minimize some of her needs, while expanding and intensifying the most important conflict for her storyline.

    So thanks for the timely advice. Also, I’ve just recieved my copy of Mystery and Manners and I’m looking forward to digging into it! I love O’Connor and I can’t wait to read her thoughts on writing. Thanks for the recomendation.

    E. Hunter

    1. Victoria says:

      Oh, have fun with the O’Connor. You really have to mull her stuff over and read it repeatedly to understand how deep and true her grasp of fiction was. She approached it from a position of both great knowledge and great integrity. Although Patricia Highsmith ridiculed her for claiming to see the face of Jesus in a porch floorboard at Yaddo when they were both there (and you’ve got to admit, Highsmith had a point), Highsmith’s own book on writing simply cannot compare.

      The issue of character need and internal conflict is talked about a lot in current popular books on writing, and with good reason. But I have yet to see anyone out there identify the extraordinary interdependence of conflicting needs that drives inevitability in storytelling.

      1. E. Hunter says:

        You put it very well. In the best stories, it seems like the characters’ internal conflicts drive the external, creating an inevitablity that gives the story internal, as well as external motion. Unless the internal and external are woven, the characters needs seem like unnecessary angst, instead of genuine motivation or turmoil.


        1. Victoria says:

          🙂 “unnecessary angst” Exactly!

          We don’t want to see protagonists making stupid mistakes, flopping around feeling sorry for themselves. That’s not helpful to us. And, truly, all we’re interested in when we read is us.

          We want to see protagonists fighting the current all the way. We want to know how to do it if and when it ever happens to us. And we want to know how that fits into our own personalities.

        2. Jeffrey Russell says:

          Are there good stories where external events are what first brings to light, then drives and fuels the protagonist’s inner conflicts?

          1. Victoria says:

            Yes. Absolutely. That’s your Hook.

  2. Jeffrey Russell says:

    With a first draft I made mistake #1 – one of my main characters (whose role was to save the protagonist) had only one ‘need.’ With the second draft I fixed that, but in so doing I ended up making mistake #2 – I gave her weak and trivial ‘needs.’ In the third draft I improved things somewhat, but nevertheless made mistake #3 – she never faced a choice.

    I’ve put that book aside for now, until I can re-think the premise and plot, lest I make a new, previously undiscovered 4th mistake!

    1. Victoria says:


      I’m holding my breath for that mysterious 4th mistake, Jeffrey. I can’t wait to see where your creative drive takes you.

  3. GrammarNazi says:


    “How to Characterize Wrong”, “How to Plot Wrong” ???


    1. Victoria says:


      This is hilarious.

      I use ‘themself’ too. And I do not use ‘fastly,’ ‘Hist!’ or ‘thou/thee,’ either.

      Language captured in its constant evolution. I’m a Grammar Renegade.

  4. Maria says:

    Light Bulb!!!

    I went directly from this post to my draft/outline to make big all caps notes at the crucial moment of my character making her choice. This post made me realize I had all the pieces there, and even had resolved it in the “correct” way (she does make a choice) but, I didn’t KNOW what I was doing, and so I wasn’t playing up the drama of her making this choice in a clear way at all. So excited to write this part now, though I’m far from the end.

    1. Victoria says:

      Aaaaaaaah! Maria!

      This is why I do this work—for moments exactly like this.

      Thank you for letting us know! And now you have to come back and give us an update later.

  5. Melissa says:

    Okay, I check in here once in awhile and often pick up helpful bits of advice, but I have to say that I think this post just helped me out a lot.
    I just finished a first draft of a novel and yet there’s something about the climax of the book that just wasn’t quite there….and then I read this.
    Choice. Things escalate toward the end of the book and as things go from bad to worse for my mc, I never even give her a fleeting thought about just giving up. I just realized that having her pause and consider that and chose to continue would help her to own the upcoming outcome rather than making it look like something that was done to her.
    Thanks for this!

    1. Victoria says:

      Absolutely, Melissa. If she’s a powerful babe determined to get what she needs, that makes her a fabulous protagonist to follow through a story. But that also makes her worst nightmare. . .having to face the possibility of giving up.

      And that’s your real premise, for which her entire story is just the groundwork.

  6. Excellent writer food for thought. I’m new to your site, but I’ll definitely come back for more. I really loved the “How to Plot Wrong” article too. I seriously wrote my first novel exactly like you said and I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at your insight. Yes, fun for us, the writer, until we’re ‘killing our darlings’ to the extent of 50,000 (unnecessary) words. Uh, yeah. Consider me cured. I. Am. No. Longer. A. Pantser.

    1. Victoria says:

      Oh, Kimberly, we all write our first novels like that. I’ve written several. That’s how come I know how to do it so well!

      🙂 “No. Longer. A. Pantser.”

  7. Joe Iriarte says:

    Pfft. I never was a panster and I still ended up cutting 50,000 words from my bloated first draft. Being a plotter is no guarantee.


    I needed this reminder right now. Could you post this again every month or two for the next year?

    1. Victoria says:

      I’ll give it a shot, Joe. 🙂

      No, being a plotter is no guarantee. There are no guarantees to this craft. Except the one, fundamental one that if you love to do this work, you will love spending your life doing it.

      That’s all.

  8. Victoria says:

    This is fascinating, Kmuzu. Yes—I can see how the games are about creating a story out of that character’s needs mixed with your own. Giving the character two conflicting needs creates that mythical space between them for the reader/player to fully engage with their own similar needs. And the increasing layers of difficulty in a game of course mirror exactly the increase in tension necessary throughout a story to keep the reader/player addicted to the hope that it will all turn out great.

    So when you reach the most difficult level of all, you’re playing against yourself. And that’s where we all meet our nemesis.

  9. Very cool. My number three is the first to get close to this (and not surprisingly, the book I enjoyed writing the most). In the final stages of first draft of number 4 and will hark back to this during revision time.


    1. Victoria says:

      Which begs the question, Tony—what did you put into number 4?

      1. Well, I don’t want to give the plot away…

        Oh, who am I kidding. We all read great books knowing how they’ll end.

        But to keep things vague-ish, brother’s trying to work through some bad blood end up on either side on a double murder investigation. The cop brother learns that his brother may have been instrumental in one of the victim’s death, and now working for an organised crime figure at the center of the investigation. Choices need to be made between family and duty, etc., etc., etc.

  10. Ack. “brothers”, not “brother’s”

  11. Jonathan Moore says:

    Hi Victoria,

    I’ve been wrestling with this post for 3 months now and I think I need help. I’ve given my main characers important goals that conflict, so they’ll have to choose between them, but I can’t seem to apply it to the page.

    Do you have any well known examples of characters making choices in action so I can see how it’s been done and hopefully apply it to my own WIP?

    1. Victoria says:

      Oh, Jonathon, my books are full of such examples.

      Off the top of my head?

      At the end of Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff must choose between life and death when he abandons his body to follow the ghost of Catherine out onto the moors for all eternity. This is made an intensely difficult choice for him because Heathcliff has, throughout the course of the novel, become a man who lives entirely for vengeance, and he happens to have worked himself by this point into the best possible position to wreak vengeance in the worst way he can imagine upon the daughter of the man who stole his beloved and the beloved who abandoned him.

      At the end of Titus Groan, the castle Gormenghast itself (which plays the central character through the use of omniscient narrator) must choose between continuation of the ancient Groan ritual and unprecedented rebellion against that ritual, when it chooses to accept as its 77th Earl the one-year-old child Titus—although his father, the 76th Earl, has never been proven dead and the decision to declare the baby the new Earl has been made by the untried Master of Ritual, thereby giving the Master of Ritual total power of regency and simultaneously bringing into the sphere of ultimate power the arch-villain Steerpike, who has made it clear that in his hands Gormenghast will eventually become his personal pawn.

      At the end of The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade must choose between love and justice when he hands Bridgette O’Shaunessy over to the police for the murders he’s been tracking throughout the novel.

      I could go on and on and on. . .you know, it varies for every protagonist, for every novel.

      That’s why I do the work I do.


      1. Jonathan Moore says:

        Thanks Victoria. I do plan to buy your books when I’ve got some spare cash (promise). I trust they’re available in the UK?

        I think the trouble I’m having is knowing whether the choice is evident enough. That’s probably more to do with having faith in my story than not knowing what the choices are.

        A major issue I have with a lot of movies nowadays (Thor, Captain America, and Bourne Legacy to name a few) is that the hero never loses anything, never has to make a sacrifice so the risks they take seem empty.

        I suppose the difference between tragedy and a happy ending is whether the hero is happy with the choice they’ve made and don’t regret what they’ve sacrificed.

        Cheers for now,

        1. Victoria says:

          Yes, my books are on Amazon UK:

          I wouldn’t take modern movies—or even modern novels—as my model for proper structure. The whole focus these days is, as Jonathon Galassi (head of FSG) says, “Throwing things at the wall to see what sticks.”

          This is how you run an artistic industry into the ground by putting marketers in charge who don’t understand the artistic product they’re selling. A lot of movies (and now novels) have to fall back upon the adrenaline buttons of violence and sex to keep the reader’s attention because the storytelling itself is a boring ole limp noodle.

          The issue with all stories is whether the choice occurs inside the reader or only in the character.

          If it occurs only in the character (i.e. only inside the writer), then it’s just words.

          It’s when it occurs inside the reader that it becomes storytelling.

          The craft of the writer is making that choice matter to the reader.

          You do this by writing vivid, detailed, realistic scenes of deeply-conflicted characters struggling with all they’ve got to satisfy first one need, then the other, and finally in the eleventh hour facing the inevitable choice between them.

          The traditional difference between tragedy and comedy was whether it ended in everybody dead or everybody married.

          Nowadays we have very little truck with tragedy. We vastly prefer a choice that turns out to be the right one for the character—meaning, for the reader.

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