Brandon Sanderson’s Fiction Class: Week Four

I’m taking a fiction writing class from Brandon Sanderson currently, and over the next few months I will be posting some of the best advice I’ve received from the class as well as my own perspective on writing. By the end of the class, I will have written at least 35,000 words of a new work of fiction. As of today, I am 31% of the way there.

This week Brandon gave the first of two lectures on character. When Brandon creates a character, he likes to think of the character’s attributes as a collection of sliding scales. The three main scales are: Proactivity, Virtue, and Competence.

The first of these three, Proactivity¸ is a measure of how much the character’s choices drive the motion of the story. Does a character make choices, or do they get swept along by the current of the situation or by other characters’ choices? Especially for a main character, are they trying to achieve something? Having a reasonably proactive main character keeps the story exciting and builds good tension and direction to a story. It also gives the audience the chance to root for the main character as they make good decisions and berate them or empathize with them when they make poor decisions. The important thing is that they make decisions.

Virtue, the second slider, is about the character’s moral code. How in line is their moral code with the reader’s moral code? Do they stand for something? Or maybe against something? Many stories are about characters who have to learn something morally, and in order to do so they must increase in proactivity or in competence. Giving your character a virtue stance, doesn’t mean you make them self-righteous—it just means you know where their limits are when it comes to doing things for the right (or wrong) reason.

Competence, the  third character attribute slider, controls how good the character is at certain tasks. Readers like to watch competent characters do competent things. We also like to cheer for characters as they gain competence over the course of a story. When I think of this, the quote from Kung Fu Panda comes to mind. “There is no price for awesomeness, or attractiveness.” We love watching Po the panda grow in competence with kung fu and love watching the other characters “be awesome” at kung fu.

Using the sliders can help you figure out where a character arc in a story could go. Most character arcs are about moving up or down on one or more of the sliding scales. You can add more sliders for more nuanced characters. For example, a character might be competent at swordsmanship, but terrified of public speaking. This allows for depth in your characters as they react differently in different situations.

One problem that people often run into when creating characters is that they make the villain so exciting that the readers become more interested in the villain than in the main character. This is called the villain problem. Brandon says that the solution to the problem is not weakening the villain—a strong proactive villain is fun and weakening one will hurt the story. The solution is to set the main character in motion on one of the sliding scales. Readers love watching a character in motion. Even if the villain is better than the protagonist in almost every area (except usually virtue), a protagonist who makes proactive choices and is growing as a character will draw the attention back to where it belongs.

There are some stories, think the James Bond movies, where the point of the story is not to see a character arc. It’s about watching an awesome character be awesome. Sherlock Holmes is also one of these iconic characters, so-called because they remain iconic and don’t usually change over the course of a story. If you are telling a story about an iconic character, it is important to establish where on the sliding scales they stand. Then you are free to write about them in any situation, often testing the limits of those scales. Such stories are usually plot driven rather than character driven. The effectiveness of an iconic character is often genre dependent, though they can be found throughout the genre spectrum.

As far as my experience this week goes, I was working on some chapters that introduce a side character. I didn’t realize how tricky it would be to give depth to side characters writing in a first-person viewpoint. I was worried about whether the side characters would feel real to my writing group, but they mostly agreed that the side characters worked for them. The trick I found as I wrote was to have my viewpoint character think about the side characters. This let me explore both the side characters’ personalities, but also the viewpoint character’s way of looking at the world.

While I don’t use Brandon’s character sliders when I create characters, I do try to decide what they like, what they don’t like, and where they struggle. Fitting it into Brandon’s scales, this lets me have an area of competence (or desired competency), a weakness (often a hole in their virtue), and a struggle (which lets the character be proactive).

There you have it. Tips on creating characters. How do you go about creating characters?

—M.M.

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5 thoughts on “Brandon Sanderson’s Fiction Class: Week Four

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  1. I meet my characters. I pass them on the street, I see three or four of them moulded into a single being in my mind’s eye. I remember my characters – vestiges of a past that return to me, simple gestures, inflections of speech, the burning inner soul that makes them real. And I talk to them, ask their opinions. They inhabit my little office and they don’t even demand a chair. There you are, all that and I didn’t even ask you for a fee!

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