Characterisation can be tricky. I often find that it’s difficult to keep all of my characters exactly the way I want them and still move the plot on as planned – so if, like me, you have moments where you sit there um-ing and ah-ing about whether he or she would do or say what you just wrote, you may find this useful.
I recently went on a tester day for the Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia (my dream course, my dream uni, hence all the panicking about exam grades) and in a session on characterisation and establishing character, we covered something called the “Big Three”. Here they are for you now:
1) The Basic Need.
This is the source of all of your character’s motivation, usually stemming from the character’s background – let’s take Harry Potter as an example. His Basic Need would be to have a proper family, due to his being raised by the Dursleys. You don’t necessarily need to resolve the Basic Need at the end of the narrative, although many do – for example, Harry’s Basic Need is fulfilled when he marries Ginny, becoming a legitimate member of the Weasley’s extended family (which I always thought was a little too convenient, but that’s a rant for another time).
2) The Fatal Flaw.
This stems from Basic Need, and if given free reign can be the character’s downfall. Running with the Harry Potter example, his Fatal Flaw would be that, due to his lack of familial affection, he is too trusting of anyone who shows him kindness – especially in the first few books, he trusts that Dumbledore is completely infallible (he isn’t) and knows what he’s doing 100% of the time (he doesn’t) and after Mad Eye Moody aids him in the Triwizard Tournament he doesn’t question or even suspect that he might be the one sabotaging it until it is too late.
3) The Greatest Strength.
Again, this stems from the Basic Need – it’s almost a second layer, if you like. This is the character’s main advantage, the personality trait that helps them to progress through the narrative, and it often cancels out or redeems the Fatal Flaw. To complete our example, Harry’s Greatest Strength would be his protectiveness of others; he echoes his mother’s sacrifice in The Deathly Hallows, exhibiting a level of affection that he himself never recieved growing up.
It’s easy to spot a badly written character if these traits are difficult or even impossible to identify. Let’s take an obvious one as our example – so please welcome to the stage Miss Isabella Swan! (Anastasia Steele is one such other, but as – to my shame and regret – I’ve actually read the entire Twilight series, let’s use Bella instead. Also because I may or may not have been looking for an excuse to vent my frustration with said teen vampire romance series.)
Let’s start off with Bella’s Basic Need – as far as I can tell, her Basic Need is Edward. Or, in fact, a romantic partner in general. Before Edward shows up with his sparkly skin and mildly psychopathic habit of staring intently at her, Bella’s life (and narrative voice) is dull, grey and empty. And if you think Harry and Ginny’s relationship is too convenient, take a look at Stephenie Meyer’s resolution of her Basic Need – married at seventeen, chivalrous (if creepy) husband, perfect (if creepy) child, and eternal life. It’s so beautiful I want to vomit.
Bella’s Fatal Flaw is pretty apparent, given that the only time Meyer actually describes her own main character is when Bella notes how extraordinarily clumsy she is. She literally cannot do anything for herself, and depends solely on the male characters – first Charlie, then Edward, then Jacob, or any combination of those three. See also the entire plot of New Moon for more details. This wouldn’t be so bad, but for the fact that it’s clearly not a conscious move by Stephenie Meyer. She hasn’t made Bella a useless lump with a pretty face as a satire on the vacuous nature of Gothic heroines, she’s created Bella as a blank slate onto which she and her avid readers can project themselves – in fact, when reading the series, one does rather get the impression that Meyer had to do a Find and Replace function with “Stephenie” to “Bella” several times while writing.
Worst ’til last – Bella’s Greatest Strength. Now, the Greatest Strength doesn’t always have to be something particularly admirable – if that were the case, all characters would be likeable – but Bella basically doesn’t have one. Nothing about her personality is admirable – she’s submissive, bland, and very, very whingey (understatement).
Sorry, rant over. Back to your originally scheduled creative writing advice.
Of course, most well-rounded characters are multi-faceted and have more than one strength, or more than one flaw, but it helps to establish this foundation so that other character traits fall into place more easily. With these three motives as your starting point, it is far easier to work out where your character should go next or what they ought to do in any given situation by relating the decision back to what drives them. It’s useful when building new characters, because it helps to shape the plot at the same time, but also it can help to make existing narratives more interesting and believable.
I found it very useful, when editing the short stories in my book, to go back and try to identify the Basic Needs, Fatal Flaws and Greatest Strengths of all of my main characters. To my surprise, most characters were lacking in one of the three, so I created needs, flaws, and strengths where necessary, and then rewrote the stories accordingly – every single narrative improved tenfold.
Hopefully, some of you will find it as helpful as I did.