Balance the Party—Guide to Creating Legendary Characters

For the past couple of weeks, we have been talking about antagonists, and how vital it is to create an antagonistic force capable of sustaining literary momentum over the course of 60-100,000 words. I worked as freelance editor for almost a decade, and have run critique groups for seven years. I have read literally hundreds of manuscripts. The single largest factor that will keep many new writers from ever being successfully published is they do not understand the antagonist.

A “novel” comprised of one bad situation after the next with no core problem and no clear antagonist is not a novel. It is a series of vignettes. Novels must have genuine conflict that progressively escalates until the reader can’t stand it anymore and MUST finish our book if he ever hopes to get to sleep. Read this earlier post for more.

Agents and editors are not out to get us. Really. They are there to keep us from embarassing ourselves by publishing something that ticked off readers and reviewers will publicly shred.

That said…

I left my old writers’ group and created WWBC to fill a glaring hole in the world of critique by blending the insight of a beta reader with the world of the critique group. It has been an effort to steer writers away from the comfort of line-edit, and stretch their skills in innovative ways that develop great storytellers.

One of the greatest goals of WWBC is to help writers create multi-dimensional characters–and especially multi-layered antagonists. One-dimensional antagonists (particularly villains) are mustache-twirling caricatitures. In my critique group, participants are asked to create their story’s antagonist first.

Why?

Because the antagonist is the impetus for disrupting the protagonist’s happy-happy-joy-joy life. If Sauron never created a Ring of Power designed with the sole purpose for ruling Middle Earth, Frodo would have just continued goofing off with his buddies and being bored with Hobbit life. If Wild Bill didn’t have a fetish for size 14 Chick Skin Couture then Clarice Starling wouldn’t have a job very long at the FBI. If the Wicked Witch of the West….

…you get the idea,🙂.

Yet in my years of being an editor and running critique groups, there is one character that makes an appearance in virtually every new writer’s manuscript…the Born Evil Bad Guy (Antagonist).

Of course, along with Born Evil Bad Guy, I tend to see the Born Noble Hero, and the Born Loyal Minions and the Born Wise Mentors—all in the same book. And these characters can be interesting, but they are only one part of a highly complex and dynamic psychological gamut. That’s like using only two colors of the entire spectrum to create art.

WWBC helps writers get away from the cardboard caricatures by exploring the entire psychological continuum then mining it for attributes that breathe life into any character. How? We do this using a most unique resource from my painfully awkward youth.

Dungeons and Dragons.

For the benefit of those who were not social outcasts, a quick overview.

Before any game play, one is requires to basically build a character using a D&D Compendium. Everything is included—race (Moon Elf), class (assassin), physical attributes, skills, gods, feats, weapons, etc. I often ask the WWBC participants to explore their character’s alignment which is basically a way to categorize a character’s moral and ethical perspectives in relation to the greater societal framework. The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook. TSR, Inc.  breaks down character alignments into the following:

Lawful Good Neutral Good Chaotic Good
Lawful Neutral Neutral Chaotic Neutral
Lawful Evil Neutral Evil Chaotic Evil

 

These nine classifications are used to help determine how a character will act (or react) in any given circumstance.

***And, yes, my fellow nerds, I know they have since whittled this list to five, but the original classification system, I feel, is more useful for crafting characters. So delete your e-mail correcting me🙂.

We as writers are tasked with creating characters that can easily be mistaken for living breathing creatures. In order to do this, we have to develop “people” who act in ways consistent with their backgrounds, experiences and beliefs. In other words, we must assign “alignment.”

Each D&D alignment is associated with an archetype which we see reflected in literary examples.

I recommend picking up a copy of The Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook or you can check out this nice article in Wikipedia for a fantastic breakdown of all the character alignments.

As a former D&D acolyte, I can (sadly, LOL) attest to the accuracy of the following information, and I hope it helps guide you in your writing.

As authors, our task is not easy, but it can be simplified. Alignment is just one of those tools that can help us get a better idea of who each of our characters are. Once we “know” them, it then becomes far easier to craft scenes, because we know how each will act/react in any given situation and within any stipulated context. Once we understand their moral compasses, we can then plot their courses accordingly. Alignment is also valuable for understanding character arc, goals, and motivations.

One quick example…

If I am creating a character that is Lawful Good in alignment, I now know that character’s strengths (noble &  just) as well as his weaknesses (inflexible & unwilling to break laws even if it is for the greater good). By knowing my character’s alignment, it is now far easier to see stressors (other characters of a more neutral disposition who are eager and willing to bend and break rules and laws). It is also far easier to see how the antagonist can make his life miserable (force protagonist into situations where he cannot escape unless he breaks society’s laws).

I could go on, but I have promised to work on brevity. I hope you can see how knowing a character’s alignment immediately helps us as writers see him or her in a 3-dimensional way.

For more ways to create amazing, multi-dimensional characters, I highly, highly recommend Larry Brook’s Story Engineering.

What are some of your favorite characters and why? What makes them stand out to you and live on in your memory? What qualities do they possess? What resources would you guys recommend for learning about character creation? Please, share!

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of March, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of April I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

Stay tuned for March’s winners. Will post soon.

Happy writing!

Until next time….

In the meantime, if you don’t already own a copy, my best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books.

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  1. #1 by memphismckay on April 4, 2011 - 2:43 pm

    Wow, great post, Kristen! Being woefully unfamiliar with D&D, I would never have stumbled upon this alignment concept on my own – thank you for the explanation and the links. I am going to immediately take another look at my antagonist (with whom I have been struggling!). thank you thank you!

  2. #2 by Damian Trasler on April 4, 2011 - 2:47 pm

    Uh oh! I always thought D&D was more complicated than writing…Now I find it’s a useful aid! Honestly very grateful for that tip about building the antagonist first – never considered it before, and that may explain why I have such trouble getting my antagonist and protagonist to have conflicting desires, rather than the antag just *wanting* to beat the good guy. Thanks for that!

  3. #3 by cherylreifsnyder on April 4, 2011 - 3:06 pm

    I’m a fellow D&D player and have drawn on the D&D books more than once–after all they’re focused, in large part, on how to create fun characters! I love the idea of using this chart to place antagonists on the good vs. evil spectrum. Terrific post!

  4. #4 by Terrell Mims on April 4, 2011 - 3:08 pm

    Mine is the Joker from The Dark Knight. In this film, the Joker is the only character who isn’t crazy. The Joker is a character who poses at first simply as a really crazy villain. Then we start to see that he seems to engage in evil just for it’s own sake. And then we see that the Joker has a very profound and deliberate point to make.

    Toward the end of the film, the Joker’s elaborate scheme is all devised to make the point that the kind of evil that thrives in him is present in everyone. By devising a moral dilemma in which only one of two parties can live, and that by first killing the other, the Joker hopes to prove this point. In other words, the Joker assumes the total depravity of man.

    What’s fascinating to me is that the Joker rejects the belief of secular humanism that man is basically good. He believes that all that is needed to reveal man’s depravity is a little push. As in, when a man’s life is at stake he will take another’s to preserve his own. As a Christian, I agree with the Joker on this one. When you mix man’s depravity with the “anything goes” mentality of moral relativism, what you get is anarchy. My point is that the Joker is the only character in this movie who doesn’t try to live in denial of this. The Joker is right.

  5. #5 by educlaytion on April 4, 2011 - 3:16 pm

    Ah, the awkwardness of youth. Have you ever seen the character alignment of the Muppet Show? I don’t know who originally came up with this, but I love it. Here’s one of many links that have the chart. It will help reinforce the picture you’ve laid out here.
    http://culturepopped.blogspot.com/2011/03/muppet-show-alignment-chart.html

  6. #6 by Adventures in Children's Publishing on April 4, 2011 - 3:41 pm

    Hi Kristen,

    Brilliant post! Love this: “Novels must have genuine conflict that progressively escalates until the reader can’t stand it anymore and MUST finish our book if he ever hopes to get to sleep.” Also love your point about the conflict needing to come from the same set of antagonistic forces.

    And your mission statement of looking past line edits to the heart of a story? So true! We are trying to convey the same thing to all the participants in our First Five Pages Workshops, but it’s always easier to see it in someone else’s work than in our own, right?

    I always enjoy your articles so much!

    Martina

  7. #7 by nataliefaybooks on April 4, 2011 - 5:32 pm

    I used to think of D&D as a reference only for fantasy, but the alignments can be used for any kind of book.

    I just categorized all my characters, and I’m happy because they are all really diverse. For now on I will always use this.

    Thanks for the post🙂

  8. #8 by Amanda Rudd on April 4, 2011 - 5:35 pm

    I have a special place in my twisted heart for chaotic-evil villains. I love them so much! The Joker (both the Dark Knight version and the comics version) is one of the best examples. There are also some fantastic examples in Japanese anime, but I won’t get into that particular geek-rant here.

    I am also deeply fascinated by characters who become so obsessed with one thing to the corruption of their entire being. My favorite example is Gerald Tarrant from C.S. Freidman’s Coldfire Trilogy, who is intelligent, fascinating, and charming in a way, but was so consumed with a need for knowledge and power that he slaughtered his own wife and children to get it.

    So, here’s a question: if my main villain, the “leader” is fairly one-dimensional (a demon in this case) but his main emissary is complex and evolving, does that work or should the “leader” villain be more thoroughly fleshed-out?

    • #9 by virginiaripple on April 4, 2011 - 6:11 pm

      Thank you for helping me define my villian’s “problem” — being so obsessed w/ something his entire being becomes corrupted. I was having a hard time putting it into a single thought.

      • #10 by Amanda Rudd on April 4, 2011 - 6:48 pm

        Well, you’re welcome. I’m just surprised I said anything that was of any use to anyone.

    • #11 by Author Kristen Lamb on April 4, 2011 - 6:53 pm

      Just because he is a demon, doesn’t mean he cannot be rich and dimensional as a character. Think of the movie “Legend” and Tim Curry’s character. He was evil, but he had tremendous depth. My personal opinion is that the best villains are multi-faceted. Caricatures are not interesting. I just had to do a major revision of my fiction and it was because my antagonist was not complex enough. It was amazing how, when I fixed her, the rest of the story took on an entirely new depth.

      • #12 by Amanda Rudd on April 6, 2011 - 7:09 pm

        Thanks for the response. I’m still unsure about how to deal with my villain, but I’m definitely going to continue to work with him. And I guess that’s the main thing – to just not assuming its fine the way it is, to keep working at it.

  9. #13 by Jim Devitt on April 4, 2011 - 5:41 pm

    Great post, you would get a kick out of a recent “Community” episode where they delve into the world of D&D, and for someone like me that never knew what that was about, it was highly entertaining. Just like what you just did, who would have thunk there was a message in all of this.

    Just stumbled onto your blog for the first time today, great stuff.

  10. #14 by A.J. Zaethe on April 4, 2011 - 5:56 pm

    Hey, authors aren’t suppose to work on the weekends.😛 But this post came at the right time. I played D&D myself, but never really thought to use alignments for my characters like that, which from another angle is so elementary. Wish I thought of this sooner. I also love the example of our Lawful Good character pigeon holing the antagonist into breaking laws. Interesting thought.

    Only one flaw about your post. The Wicked Witch of the West. She was not the antagonist. She was the Minion of the true antagonist, the Wizard. 😛

    But that is ok, I forgive you.

  11. #15 by Gloria Oliver on April 4, 2011 - 7:34 pm

    Lol. Great post. Use our inner nerds to help us write! Bwahahaha!
    Though I think somewhere you may have inserted the caveat for them not to then go running off and making all their D&D adventures into books. Heh heh😛

  12. #16 by Jami Gold on April 4, 2011 - 8:01 pm

    This is a great post! You know I love this technique because the last time you talked about this, you inspired me to write a blog post about it. 🙂 (http://jamigold.com/2010/10/how-to-create-a-strong-character-contrast-their-self-image/)

  13. #17 by Graeme on April 4, 2011 - 10:55 pm

    >>A “novel” comprised of one bad situation after the next with no core problem and no clear antagonist is not a novel. It is a series of vignettes.
    >>

    Definitelyi not a novel, but a good example of this is “The Perils of Penelope Pitstop”. I was listening to a DVD commentary of it a while back, and Janet Waldo made some comment about how, unlike some of the shows today, this had a plot. I love her characterizations, but she was mistaken here.

    Penelope Pitstop (and it was a good show) had no overall plot, it was always a series of set pieces all based around a common theme. One episode might take place in the jungle, and consist of 4 or 5 death traps that the Hooded Claw puts her in that she escapes from. Another episode might take place at a carnival, another in London, another in a department store, and so on. But, apart from the fact that all the traps took place in the same place and had a common theme, they really had little relation to each other, and there was no overall plot that progressed from beginning to end. The traps could have come in any order, and the only thing that made any different from another is that after the final one, the Hooded Claw gets tired and beats a retreat before trying again another day. You can get away with that for a semi-comedy, and/or cartoon, but it doesn’t work for a serious story, for reasons discussed in the blog entry above.

  14. #18 by Graeme on April 4, 2011 - 11:53 pm

    >>Only one flaw about your post. The Wicked Witch of the West. She was not the antagonist. She was the Minion of the true antagonist, the Wizard.
    >>

    I dunno, the Wizard is the title character, but I’m not sure he’s the antagonist. Finding him is their goal, but he’s not really what stands between Dorothy and getting home. When they do find him, he’s not really of any help to Dorothy, only to the other three. In one sense, the antagonist is Dorothy herself, as she’s the one who needs to learn things about herself before she can get back.

    Speaking of the Wizard, I saw an Abbott & Costello movie a while back, with Margaret Hamilton playing a witch (again?). She and Costello both had voodoo dolls of each other, and got into a pinprick war in which they both lost. Classic bit.

    • #19 by Author Kristen Lamb on April 5, 2011 - 2:50 am

      The Wicked Witch is the villain of the story and serves a primary antagonist role. She is the one standing in the way of Dorothy reaching the Wizard. The tornado was responsible for bringing Dorothy to Oz and the Wizard is who can send her home. Getting to the Wizard is the goal. The Wicked Witch is responsible for most of the setbacks that occur along the way. Of course this is a piece of American Literature and has far more subtext and if we get into the “Dorothy is on a quest for her femininity” then yes the Wizard in the main antagonist. The Witch however, is more interesting and gets more face time😉.

  15. #20 by Tim on April 5, 2011 - 12:34 am

    I completely agree. I often think about it in D&D terms when I’m writing scenes. helps me picture it in my mind too…

    Also, I drink Monster and listen to epic music while snacking on cheeto’s

  16. #21 by Jess Witkins on April 5, 2011 - 2:57 am

    I admit plotting isn’t my strong suit, but I’ve gotten some great tips from you. I love your technique of writing your antagonist first, it’s backward from what I’ve done and will probably help a lot. Consider this post ‘liked’ and referenced multiple times. Thank you!

    • #22 by Author Kristen Lamb on April 5, 2011 - 3:01 am

      The antagonist’s agenda IS your story. The protag is always reacting to the antagonist until the end when he/she rises to hero status. We have to know what the antagonist WANTS and how it crosses the hero’s life or everything will be retrofitted the wrong way. all stories are the antagonist’s story. It is just the hero at the end who steals the limelight and takes the glory.

  17. #23 by Marilag Lubag on April 5, 2011 - 7:35 am

    I like the Dungeons and Dragons idea. I’ve always been curious about it but never really learned the game. Maybe I should start now.

  18. #24 by Gene Lempp on April 5, 2011 - 7:55 am

    Great technique choice! Although “choosing” an alignment is just the starting seed. I played D&D for years but found that alignments can quickly become stereotypes if motivational factors (the “why” of alignment) isn’t added. One tool that would compliment this can be found in James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure. In his chapter on “Character Arc in Plot”, Bell discusses the onion layers of a character with opinions on the outer layer, then dominate attitudes, then values, then core beliefs and with self-image as the center. The antagonist and protagonist (at the least) should be easily recognizable (alignment) and carrying an array of deep motivators to explain why they are the way they are. In the protagonist this would be their character arc leading to change and in the antagonist it would explain why they do not or can not change.

    Larry Brooks: Story Engineering and Nancy Kress: Character, Emotion & Viewpoint, have even more on this subject.

    Thanks for the fun post Kristen!

  19. #25 by Peter Koevari on April 5, 2011 - 8:52 am

    Hey Kristen,

    Great post! By the way, when I read you saying that we can win “the unvarnished truth”, I can’t help but think of Charlie Sheen LOL

    Good point about the antagonist. I go to great lengths to allow insight into what created the antagonists in my book, and why they are the way that they are.

    Love the references to D&D😉

    Keep up the great work!

    Peter

  20. #26 by Sonia M. on April 5, 2011 - 4:19 pm

    *ahem* I never actually played D&D. I was a nerd (still am) but somehow missed out on that. *sigh* Will have to go check out the alignment chart.

    One of my favorite characters of all time is Paul Atredies. Will have to look at the chart and see where he falls.

  21. #27 by Taffy on April 7, 2011 - 10:21 pm

    I never learned D&D. When I thought about trying so I could understand my nerd brother better (who ALWAYS played D&D) I realized I had other avenues to get to know him🙂
    I have to let this post percolate in my tiny head a little longer before I can use it and I believe I will. THANKS!

  22. #28 by Ted Henkle on April 11, 2011 - 9:08 am

    Thanks for the great post!
    Despite my own painfully awkward youth, I still play D&D when I can. There are other RPGs (role playing games), that cover different genres; sci-fi, historical, horror, mystery and thriller. However, none of them deal with alignment like D&D does.
    I use the player handbooks in these games to develop the attributes of my characters. I even use the games to pace-out the action sequences.

  23. #29 by Lesann on August 11, 2011 - 9:14 pm

    I love antagonists! They’re so much more fun than pithy protags…except when the good guy has some awesome flaws that make for complex interesting hoopla. Bad guys with good intentions, good guys with bad behaviors….hmmm….I see a certain parallel to certain aspects of my personal life. Nevermind. If we could squeeze more complicated personailties and behaviors onto the page, we develop more interesting undercurrents.

    And a picture of Heath Ledger never hurts either. *thumbs up*

  24. #30 by Kyla on November 26, 2011 - 11:18 am

    Hmm. This is an issue I have. My antagonists are sort-of, kind-of “born” evil. But, then again, my antagonists weren’t exactly “born” at all.

    It’s complicated.

    I’m writing a fantasy series. And my antagonists are make-believe creatures with a very big secret which I cannot reveal, but ties into the motivation factor. There is a REASON why they are evil, and it is even logical and understandable…but it won’t be explained until later in my series.

    But thinking on alignment is a very interesting concept. I’ll have to give it much deeper thought. Thank you so much for this great post. You’re really making me feel the need to get my hands on that book, Story Engineering. If only I wasn’t flat broke.😦

    Have a great day, and happy writing!

  25. #31 by Tom on March 4, 2014 - 7:36 pm

    Fantastic post. Thank you for sharing your insights on antagonists and wise mentors.

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