The Web of Characters

Truby tells us in “The Anatomy of Story” that no character can be created in a vacuum; he is instead defined through a web of interrelated characters. I guess it’s the same thing with us here outside in real life.

Each character in this web should present to us a different variation on the theme — the unique moral vision of the author — all of them one way or another forcing the hero to face his central moral problem. It is through this web and the opposition of values inherent to it that you will detail your hero.

The main character is, of course, the hero, but he also needs an opponent. The relationship between these two is the most fundamental to the story, through which its largest issues will arise. There should also be an ally who helps the hero, but whose real function is to serve as a means of broadcasting the hero’s values and feelings to the audience.

But the ally (as the opponent) is not always obvious. One important character is the “fake-ally opponent”, someone who appears to be the hero’s friend just to be revealed as an antagonist, thus adding power to the opposition and twists to the plot. Another possibility is to use a “fake-opponent ally”, although that artifice is not as commonly used (the prototypical example is Hannibal Lecter, from “Silence of the Lambs”). A “subplot character”, who will usually tackle the same problem as the hero but in a different way, is often useful to highlight — by comparison — the traits and dilemmas of the hero. Modeling some of your characters by a known archetype[1] is also a great way to make the audience relate to them.

Now, you must establish your hero’s character change — his character arc. First, define the self-revelation he will go through and then go back to the need, making sure the self-revelation actually solves it. Character change is made possible at the beginning of the story by how you set it up — the hero should start with a “range of possible changes”. As the hero struggles to reach his goal, he is forced to challenge his most deep-seated beliefs. You should clarify his desire line, so that he does nothing too extraneous to his main goal. In the cauldron of crisis, the hero’s desire gains importance, the story ups its pace, and, near the end, a very specific goal is achieved. He eventually sees his true beliefs, decides what he will act on, and then takes a moral action to prove it.

To figure out your hero is also to figure out your opponent. Make him as complex and as valuable as the hero. Both should want the same goal, but based on different values. Although the opponent’s moral assessment of life must be wrong, it must nevertheless be a strong argument. Make him as similar as possible to the hero, and make him stay in roughly the same place, that way contrast and conflict are maximized.

Conflict should build steadily until the final battle. Better stories, however, go beyond a simple opposition between hero and main opponent and use a technique Truby calls four-corner opposition. Basically, you should create at least two other secondary opponents, each tackling in a unique way the hero’s weaknesses, and establish conflict among all of them. That technique increases the amount of possible conflict exponentially. Allow each character to express a unique system of values, and make them clash!



1. Archetypes are fundamental psychological patterns inherent to all human beings; they are roles a person may play in any society, thus providing universal appeal.

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