Five Tips on Character Building through Adversity

We don’t remember Scarlett O’Hara for her beauty, we remember her because she survived countless marriages, a war, childbirth, poverty, sickness, the end of the world as she knew it, and heartbreak on a monumental scale. And she’s flawed, boy, is she flawed. And a brilliant character. You either love her, or hate her. So how do you make your own Scarlett?

It should be cliche at this point: Know your character. Sometimes you will only know your character after you’ve thrown a couple of bad situations at them. I really do suggest sitting somewhere with a journal, and ask yourself, “What if…?” What would she do? Who does she turn to? Inward for self-reflection, or outward for comfort?Don’t know what to throw at her? That’s okay, I’ve also provided you with a list of bad things that you can use as a starting point…

  1. Physical adversity. Death, dismemberment, sickness. Everyone will go through at least two of these in their life, so your character better have some experience with at least one of them.

    Sometimes this is the worst thing that can happen to your character. But what if it isn’t? Don’t be afraid to pile on the adversity. The worse the situation is, and the more empathetic your character is, the more you hook your reader.

  2. Unfulfilled desire. No one ever gets things the way they want all the time, every time. What if your character is used to getting her way, and one day doesn’t? What if this moment completely alters her understanding of herself and the world around her? What does she do? Does her desire destroy her, does she rise above it? Does she ruin the lives of those around her in her quest to satisfy her desire?

    Note this desire doesn’t have to be romantic in nature. In fact, if it isn’t, and you’re writing a romance, what a great twist to your story! Suddenly you’ve added a new dimension to your romance, making it all the more believable. No one in the real world has time to only worry about their romantic life, so why should your characters?

  3. Haunting past. Regrets about things you didn’t do. Regrets about things you did. Each of us is interesting because we have personal histories. For instance, many think I savor my food, or that I just eat slowly. I do this now, but it started because my baby brother choked many times as a child, and one time I panicked instead of remaining calm. My father had to perform the Heimlich even though I’d been trained by the Red Cross. From that moment, I realized how easily it is to be careless and put your life in danger.

    See how much you learned about me just by hearing how I eat? The moral of the story is: Don’t discount the little things. They are the collection of moments that create our personalities and fill the prologues of our lives.

  4. Use the time period to your advantage, and against your character’s. The women of today are strong-willed and ready to shout it from the rooftops. The women of yesterday were just as strong-willed, but required the mastery of subtlety or they might suffer the rule of thumb. If your character wants to do something that she just wouldn’t have done in your chosen time period, don’t give it up for the sake of the time period.

    Use the frustration to build your character, showing the reader just what sort of a person she is.

  5. Go with it. Sometimes you’ll surprise yourself with the scenarios you create. Actually, I hope you surprise yourself. In fact, you better surprise yourself. If your scenarios don’t surprise you, you won’t surprise your reader, and that’s bad.

    What’s really great is when a character surprises herself. But again, you need to know your character well enough to know when she can surprise herself. As a hint, use your research to spark your imagination. Read old newspapers and be amused and shocked by what happened back then. Truth really is stranger than fiction.

I’m using all of these techniques against my character, and while it pains me to write scenes where my character suffers, I’m also ridiculously proud of her stamina against adversity.

So tell me, what is the worst situation you’ve thrown at your characters? And how did you feel while writing those scenes: timid, worried, daring, jubilant?

20 thoughts on “Five Tips on Character Building through Adversity

  1. How about having zombies coming to kill the protag and her former boyfriend and the only thing that'll stop it is killing somebody else? This was a great scene to write, actually. Very tense and fun.

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  2. How about having zombies coming to kill the protag and her former boyfriend and the only thing that’ll stop it is killing somebody else? This was a great scene to write, actually. Very tense and fun.

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  3. You don't happen to have a minor in English, do you? Or happen to be moderately obsessed with tea? Because then I might have to accuse you of being my doppleganger.

    In any case, we'll have to band together, haha. Your post on the poor man's copyright was excellent reading. I've always wondered about that… one of my writer friends told me about it a year or so ago and was making fun of me for a) not knowing about it and b) thinking it wouldn't hold up in court. Good to know I was a little right to be suspicious.

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  4. My current protagonist's worst day…

    Rylan is a high-ranking slave to a lady in a fantasy dystopian society. The lady is a political hostage to her uncle, the king, who is intent on bullying/blackmailing her into accusing her father of murdering her mother, the king's late sister. Ironically, because of his position as a hostage's slave, Rylan is the only member of his company to have any sort of freedom.

    Rylan gets sent down into the bad parts of the city to negotiate with a nobility-hating mercenary to assist his lady under a false name. He gets caught, and they take his engraved ring so that they can track down who is trying to sneak around the king's secret police. Later that day, one of the king's favorites finds Rylan and provokes him into picking a fight, then manages to escape. Rylan returns to his lady's apartments, only to find that a common guard had broken into the room and is rifling through the papers on her desk, some of which Rylan knows includes sensitive materials that could get them all executed.

    The king's favorite, since he didn't kill Rylan as he'd intended, went straight to the king to have Rylan disciplined for assaulting him, and they walk in on him just after Rylan's killed the intruding guardsman (who worked for the king, though he had no right to be in a noble's bedroom, hostage or not). His lady manages to keep Rylan from being killed immediately and is instead thrown into prison, where he is unable to tell his mistress that the noble-hating mercenary is now looking for her and uncertain if he's going to survive his upcoming trial.

    How Rylan feels about all this… I'll describe it as a post-adrenaline crash coupled with a panic-despair mix and an inability to think clearly. By the time he gets down into the prison cell his nerves are so wracked that he'll be shaking for a good fifteen minutes before he finally slumps into a dazed exhaustion.

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  5. Yes! Banding is needed! I'll add a link to your blog on my little sidebar. 🙂

    … I may have a mild obsession with green tea. Especially loose-leaf greens imported from Japan… though I can also be led astray by an expensive white. No college minors, but my bachelor's degree in computer science was actually in multimedia, with lots of creative writing electives.

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  6. You're on my affiliates page! (Which I finally updated, so this was a good motivational moment.)

    Phew. We can't possibly be dopplegangers. I prefer sweeter teas…even when I drink green tea I add more honey than I should.

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  7. Well now, that's some adversity!

    I'm glad you've started commenting, Eliza, I checked out your blog and your story sounds very interesting! I'm always up for a good fantasy.

    (By the way, we should start a club of computer science females who write novels on the side. It'll be the next big thing.)

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  8. You don't happen to have a minor in English, do you? Or happen to be moderately obsessed with tea? Because then I might have to accuse you of being my doppleganger.

    In any case, we'll have to band together, haha. Your post on the poor man's copyright was excellent reading. I've always wondered about that… one of my writer friends told me about it a year or so ago and was making fun of me for a) not knowing about it and b) thinking it wouldn't hold up in court. Good to know I was a little right to be suspicious.

    Like

  9. Yes! Banding is needed! I'll add a link to your blog on my little sidebar. 🙂

    … I may have a mild obsession with green tea. Especially loose-leaf greens imported from Japan… though I can also be led astray by an expensive white. No college minors, but my bachelor's degree in computer science was actually in multimedia, with lots of creative writing electives.

    Like

  10. You're on my affiliates page! (Which I finally updated, so this was a good motivational moment.)

    Phew. We can't possibly be dopplegangers. I prefer sweeter teas…even when I drink green tea I add more honey than I should.

    Like

  11. Yeah! *does a happy dance*

    I should be sad, on behalf of tea bigotry everywhere.

    However, you know those little wedding mints that look like chocolate chips in pastel colors with tiny white sprinkles on the bottom? Get some hot green tea, and drop a few of those in your mouth. Nothing melts so quickly…

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  12. Yeah! *does a happy dance*

    I should be sad, on behalf of tea bigotry everywhere.

    However, you know those little wedding mints that look like chocolate chips in pastel colors with tiny white sprinkles on the bottom? Get some hot green tea, and drop a few of those in your mouth. Nothing melts so quickly…

    Like

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