Want to build great characters? These four qualities are essential.

Last Saturday, I was transported to the before times. A dear friend, Jennifer Niesslein, held her first reading in support of Dreadful SorryEssays on American Nostalgia at New Dominion Bookshop, our beloved local indie bookstore. 

If you don’t know Jennifer, you should. She’s the whip-smart editor of Full Grown People and the founder of Brainchild Magazine. Her writing is funny, insightful, and filled with quotable lines—just check out her most recent essay, Goddamned Beautiful. Her editing skills put her in the league of superheroes. I’ve personally seen her pull back from a page she’s just read, stare at the page for a second or two, and then identify the germ of truth at the essay’s core.

I was blessed to be in a writing group with Jennifer while she was drafting the first pages for Dreadful Sorry, and I’ve had the privilege of reading more pages along the way. So when she sent an email to a few of us about celebratory, after-reading drinks, my response was, “Hell to the yes!”
This trip for drinks was a first for 2022, and a mere third such event since the pandemic began. Eight of us sat around the table. I sipped a chamomile cloud mocktail and relished the spontaneous conversations we had about language and place and all the things we were up to. While I loved sharing my goofy stories, just listening was enough. 

I’m a huge people watcher who loves to capture the idiosyncratic turns of phrase and physical cues that make us who we are. 

Observation is one way to build great characters. When studying others, we learn how a pregnant pause in a sentence or the tip of a hat, or the way someone bites the edge of their glass that tell us everything we need to know about the situation. 

So much of character development is about the push and pull between what our characters want and their biggest flaws.

In the Character Draft section of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like A Pro From Blank Page to Book, Allison Williams includes a segment called Passion/Foible and Ability/Weakness where she frames the push/pull qualities within characters that create and sustain dramatic tension.

Here’s a direct quote from her book.

“The primary Ability is the quality that makes your character the Chosen One, or the right person to undertake the quest.

The Weakness is what they need to learn and why they need a team/sidekick/mentor and gives the reader genuine suspense about whether the character can accomplish the goal.

The character’s Passion for what they most want drives the character to undertake the Quest. The Foible, or personal failing that gets in their way, helps the reader sympathize with them on the way—no matter how powerful the character is, they have a human (or humanish) failing. They screw things up in ways that are their own darn fault.”

Seven Drafts: How to Self-Edit Like A Pro From Blank Page to Book

Identifying these four elements will not only help you understand how your main characters tick, but how to manage every scene. You’ll know which ones must capitalize on your character’s Ability and Passion to drive the story forward, and which ones require more Weakness and Foible to ramp up the dramatic tension or complicate your plot.

Because she’s Allison Williams, Seven Drafts also contains a ton of other great character development tips, but to access those, <<First Name>>, you’ll have to read the book.

If you’d like a fun way to play with these four qualities, check out the following game I created. It was inspired by a recent binge of the sitcom, Community

Paper Fortune Teller Character Game

 In this activity, you’ll create a paper fortune teller, like the ones some of us used in high school, to determine which characteristics you’ll use in every scene.  

General instructions for creating the paper fortunate teller: 
Here’s a link to a video with instructions.
Here’s a link to written instructions and a template you can use. 

Ways to use this game in your writing life: 

  • Step one: Identify your character’s Ability, Weakness, Passion, and Foible.
  • Step two: Once you’ve completed this task, identify four ways these characteristics manifest in your character’s life.
    • Example: Maybe your character has incredible business sense (Ability). This shows up as making great decisions on the fly, knowing when to fire an employee, having great hunches, and being able to tell when their employees need a little TLC. But their business successes have made them overconfident in their love life (Weakness). This shows up as falling for terrible crushes, ignoring friends’ warnings, having bad boundaries, and disappearing into bad relationships that never seem to end.  
  • Step three: Once you’ve created four examples for your Ability, Weakness, Passion, and Foible, create a key code for your fortunate teller on a separate sheet of paper.
    • The colors will be the four ways your characters’ Ability manifests in the story.
    • Numbers 1 – 4 will be the way their Weakness manifests in the story. 
    • Numbers 5 – 8 will be the way their Passion manifests in the story. 
    • The four “fortune” items will be the four ways your character’s Foible manifests in the story. 
  • Step Four: As you go through the process, note the color you started with, the numbers chosen, and the fortune.
  • Step Five: Go to your key to see what characteristics you’ll be working with and then add them to your next scene.
  • Step Six: Get Writing! 

Try this out and let me know how it goes.

Pin It on Pinterest