As part of this blog, one of my goals is to give you good writing resources that I wish I’d learned about a long time ago. One fantastic resource is the Writing Excuses podcast. I cannot recommend it highly enough for any writer, regardless of where you are in your journey. Hosted by Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Howard Tayler, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Mary Robinette Kowal, Piper J. Drake, and Wesley Chu, listening to this podcast alone is a tremendous step toward finding your writing community and becoming the writer you want to be. Go listen to it. We’ll be talking about it a lot on this blog.
In Episode 9.13, Brandon introduces a concept for creating interesting characters and uses this slider model to explain it. Basically, there are three sliders, or prongs, that you can push around when developing a character. They are:
- Sympathy (Is this character likable?)
- Competence (Is this character good at what he or she does?), and
- Proactivity (To what extent is this character driving the plot? In other words, how much do they “protag?”)
If you take any given character, you can analyze them using this method. The hosts of the podcast give several examples, but one infamous character we can look into is Dr. Gregory House, from the TV show “House.” This doctor scores high on the competence and proactive sliders. He is extremely good at diagnosing medical maladies, and he drives the plot of the show more than any other character. But when it comes to the sympathy slider, it’s pushed down pretty low. He is ornery, pushy, sarcastic, and unappreciative (at least on the surface). But we love him anyway because he’s so good at what he does, and he’s so proactive. This makes him an interesting character.
Let’s talk about each of these three sliders.
In Episode 9.25, the hosts talk about sympathy. Your reasons for wanting to make a character more or less sympathetic will vary, but we can start by looking at the qualities that we generally find admirable in other people. If you think about traits that you appreciate, and then give those traits to your character, then that character becomes more likable. These traits include humor or wit, self-awareness, kindness, and so on. A character who fails miserably, but keeps trying to reach their goal is sympathetic to us as readers. On a similar note, setbacks in the plot can also make us more sympathetic toward a character.
Competency is the subject of Episode 9.26. (Keep in mind for both competency and proactivity that if you raise these sliders, you are automatically raising the sympathy bar. We like characters who are good at stuff, and who are trying to get stuff done.) Giving a character skill isn’t tricky, but if you start a character off at the beginning of a story with a high amount of skill, you don’t leave a lot of room for growth. At this point, you need to think about ways you can continue to create sympathy for this character. One way of doing this is to put the character in a realm where her skills are no longer helpful. You can also show your character struggling in another area. Remember, as we said before, a struggling character is a sympathetic character. This may seem a little backward, because it’s also true that we like characters who are good at stuff, but take Sherlock Holmes as an example. He is a character with a lot of intelligence, and we admire him for that. But his story would get pretty boring if all the antagonists were run-of-the-mill criminals. His job would be too easy. Enter Moriarty, Holmes’ nemesis and equal as far as intelligence goes, who forces Holmes to struggle, even despite all of his competence.
Finally, we have proactivity, discussed in Episode 9.32. Don’t mistake proactivity for mere activity. Characters who run around punching people are not necessarily proactive. Proactivity can make an appearance in all kinds of ways, so long as a character is faced with a choice, and they then put effort toward the decision they’ve made. Choice and effort are key here. If there is no choice, there is no protagging (meaning, a protagonist who is being proactive). Even if a character makes a choice, and then his plan doesn’t work out, he is still protagging. Giving your character the opportunity to walk away from the conflict, and then having that character choose to stay involved, is an excellent way to move the proactivity slider up. Alternatively, taking away their resources and friends to force them to start doing things on their own is another good method. Raising the stakes of the plot and giving your character goals to reach creates a proactive character.
Remember that if for some reason you want to lower the sliders for any of these three prongs, you simply do the opposite of what we’ve been discussing here. For example, if you want to make a character less sympathetic, you take away their wit and their kindness. If you want to make a character less competent (but without lowering the reader’s sympathy for her), then make her skills useless in this new realm, or show her failures.
The ideas discussed here come from the podcasts that I mentioned above, and if you want more information, you should listen to them. You can tinker with these sliders all you want when you’re developing your characters, or you can use them for analysis. Regardless, I have found this slider model to be exceptionally helpful in creating interesting characters.
If you’d like to learn more about great resources for writers, sign up for my weekly newsletter here.