Truly strong characters are complex enough to carry the story, pull in the reader, and give a sense that there’s more going on under the surface. It’s not about being tough. It’s about being well-written.
Plot can springboard off of a strong character from various “soft spots” engineered specifically to propel it forward. Those soft spots are nestled in the cornerstones.
The Four Cornerstones are:
The Fear, the Secret, the Flaw, and the Quirk.
The cornerstones are the foundation, just the beginning. But…
By defining these simple aspects first, you can watch your story unfold in the potential interactions and consequences. They can aid the establishment of character dynamics and plot evolution. And they work in conjunction with the pillars of strong characters to create a realistic and story-appropriate character. It’s easier to change things around when you’re working with four clearly defined aspects of your character, especially if you start with this framework.
As a guideline, major characters should have a strong foundation, using two to four of the cornerstones. Minor characters generally need one to two. One time, “flit in, flit out” characters are made more interesting by using one, but it must be done with taste. Main characters are best served if they have all four.
Shall we get to it, then?
Fear determines the course of the story. It sits at the root of stakes, which are the propulsion unit of any plot. Without fear to motivate him, readers question why the main character wouldn’t just ignore the problem. James Scott Bell makes the case that the fear driving the story should be nothing less than death.
[T]he stakes of a story must be DEATH. There are three kinds of death: physical, professional and psychological/spiritual. The core issue in your novel has to be one of these or the book will not be the best it can be.
And high stakes are based on fear.
Minor characters’ fears can change the course of a story as well. Perhaps the guard froze, allowing the princess to be kidnapped.
…And Mario is off to save her again.
(Do you know how your character handles Fear? Hint: There’s more to it than Fight or Flight. Find out more.)
“Everyone is a moon and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.”
– Mark Twain
What does your character have to hide? How does it clash with external events?
A secret adds drama while paving the way through inner conflict – one of the pillars of strong characters – straight to subtext. There are other ways to get both, but the lure of a secret is strong. Readers like either being in on or trying to figure out a secret.
What a character hides gives a strong clue about the rest of their personality or story, even if the secret is as minor as what he had for lunch.
He might be on a special diet for his health, but he would rather live freely and die young. Or he might be limited by a professed religion, but he’s really trying to infiltrate an enemy stronghold.
You probably already grasped from the last example that large secrets tend to spawn smaller secrets. But it might be presented to the reader in reverse, if he’s had it all along. Of course, your character’s secret doesn’t have to exist from the beginning of the story. He might pick it up along the way.
(You can read more, Waaay More, on Secrets here. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
What kind of mistakes does your character make? What kind of circumstances cause the flaw to surface?
Avoid single word flaws. He’s impulsive. Alright, how impulsive? When is he impulsive? What is he impulsive about? He might impulsively try to encourage people, or he might impulsively get into duels. I’m looking straight at you, d’Artagnan.
If it’s not specific, it’s just a meaningless label. A specific flaw is easier to show. It’s easier to see when it would rightfully be triggered.
However, you have to balance how often it’s triggered with the severity of the flaw so it doesn’t overwhelm the story.
Fear only counts as a flaw if taken to the extreme. A character with a phobia can make mistakes because of clouded judgment.
(The Flaw can be a feast of nuance and possibilities if you use it to full advantage. Deeper look here.)
A quirk might seem extraneous at first glance, but that gives it extra clout in its real mission: to create symbolism for the character theme.
A character’s quirk can be a window to the world you’re creating. A fantasy character can’t be picky about M&Ms, but she might refuse to ride any horse that isn’t pure white.
Ultimately, there are two types of quirk: the foundational quirk and the trivial quirk. A trivial quirk has no meaning behind it. A foundational quirk can tell you much, even the class, attitude, and self-concept of a character.
When defining your quirk, again, you should be specific rather than vague. Know when it’s triggered so you don’t use it when it wouldn’t be.
Quirks are one of the easiest things to overdo. In fact, you’ll probably want to go back and edit out some of the quirky incidents that arise in your first draft. That’s pretty standard.
(The Quirk doesn’t have to be a surface trait. Specific tactics can be found here.)
Make the Process Your Own
It’s the finished product that counts. You can use this framework as a map in your initial effort, or as a checklist to make sure that your character is fully formed. It’s completely up to you.
I’d love to hear from you. Which cornerstone is hardest for you? Which is easiest?
Lists of Fears:
A List of Secrets:
Lists of Flaws:
Lists of Quirks:
You can build on the cornerstones with The Four Pillars of Strong Characters.