The Four Cornerstones of Strong Characters

The Four Cornerstones of Strong CharactersTruly 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?

The Fear:

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.

High stakes are a staple of good storytelling. Ask Kristen Lamb or Larry Brooks or K.M. Weiland.

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.)

The Secret:

“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.)

The Flaw:

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.)

The Quirk:

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

A framework for understanding great characters... you can take it deep or just use it as a checklist.There are many methods for character creation. None are wrong.

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?

Next up: The Four Pillars of Strong Characters

Helpful Resources:

Lists of Fears:

[Download] The Brainstorm Spark: Deepest Fears

Top 10 Strong Human Fears

The Phobia List

Character Fear Reference Sheet

A List of Secrets:

[Download] The Brainstorm Spark: Character Secrets

Kazza’s List of Character “Plots” and Secrets

Lists of Flaws:

Character Flaw Index

Character flaws: The seven chief features of ego

Character Flaws List

Lists of Quirks:

THE QUEEN OF QUIRK

35 Weird Traits Your Characters May Have

100 Character Quirks You Can Steal

 

You can build on the cornerstones with The Four Pillars of Strong Characters.

 

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About MJ Bush

Developmental Editor.
Founder of Writingeekery with 10,000 monthly readers.
I help writers like you master the craft.

Comments

  1. Great breakdown! And thanks so much for linking back to my post.

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  2. david nelson says:

    Writing has been for me like taking a shot in the dark and hoping I get it right. I love to write but honestly most of the time I find myself underwhelmed when I read what I’ve written or it seems to not say what I was trying to say. But every once in a while I hit it and it sounds write and the picture is clear or my point makes it all the way to the front of what I wanted to say. I guess what I’m trying to get to is a

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    • That underwhelm is pretty universal. We all get it. One of the best ways to gear up to edit is to put the piece aside for a while. I hope you come back to finish your comment. I’m curious what the point you’re trying to get to is.

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      • EGBUJOR X says:

        am EGBUJOR X and am interested in writin buh am havin some challenges on how to bring it to light

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  3. Your four pillars are well defined, but to them, I’d add what I call “monkey-wrenches”.
    Get the character into a position where his strengths are helping him get through, where you’re showing the reader how he is growing and dealing with whatever situation he faces, then throw a monkey-wrench into the gears, give him something bigger, harder to overcome, something that requires him to dig deeper into himself to discover unknown resources within. His boat runs into a submerged danger and is is sinking. He plugs the hole and starts his pump. The pump can’t keep up and he starts bailing. He sees a plane overhead and grabs his flare gun. D***! The flares are wet. He goes back to bailing. He sees another boat on the horizon and tries his radio. It doesn’t work. He McGyvers it with a piece of tin foil and a fish-hook (this can be his quirk–the ability to do that) gets a moderate signal out, and discovers the other boat is being run by the people who have chased him out into the stormy sea in the first place, wanting to kill him–the penalty for failure is death so he’s strongly motivated to succeed. And so on, and so on. You want a tough, strong character, give him or her tough, strong problems to solve, so that each one makes him a bit more exhausted, a bit more desperate, and a whole lot more determined to see this through, to come out triumphant. It doesn’t have to be physical danger. Emotional blows work just as well. She meets up with her old girlhood sweetheart, can see her fascination with him, her desire to take up where they left off runs just as strongly in him–only to discover he’s married and has a child. Her morality forces her to turn away. She learns the wife he mentioned is an ex-wife. She meets his child who deeply resents her. She refuses to become a bone of contention between father and child, and tries to keep her distance but the man is determined to resume his relationship with her. The ex-wife discovers she was (falsely) accused of child abuse years before and puts out a restraining order, banning her from going near the child. The child runs away and is in grave danger. She’s the only one in a position to save the child so, despite the restraining order, the danger to herself–if she fails and the child dies, will she go to jail? Will she lose the man she loves? It all becomes moot She must act, even if it means trouble with the law and so on. We all know it will work out in the end, but the more GENUINE, not contrived ,blocking events (monkey-wrenches) we can work in will help the character over come fears, show strength and ability and determination to overcome and fight for what is important. Courage. The willingness to risk all in order to realize the heart’s desire is what helps make a strong, memorable chaaracter.

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    • I agree completely. I call them obstacles. The character arc is created by events that challenge a character to discover deeper strengths, ways to skirt a flaw, or how to overcome a fear. You also touch on strength, which I include as a Pillar since it’s impact for quick characterization isn’t as strong as the cornerstones I list here. :)

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  4. christian says:

    good fundamentals, however, why are we constantly catering to the simplistic, drama-demanding t.v. watching public when we write? Europeans don’t keep pushing high stakes, and the absolute compulsion to keep the reader’s attention at every turn. f*** the reader. I want to be led to dangerous unfamiliar places, not the same old climactic build and pay-off. when and how will things evolve for us….Americans. What if there is no drama in my main characters life? At least external drama… What if…

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    • It’s the literary vs genre debate. Literary writing is a niche, and it serves those it caters to.

      This isn’t a “literary” site. I serve genre writers, and it’s genre that I prefer to read. So the advice I give has that bent. I understand and respect literary writers, but I can’t write for everyone. It gets too confusing to be useful.

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      • I have always wondered how to boil down the difference between literary and genre writing into one sentence. While I admire literary writing, I tend to indulge in it mainly late at night when I need something to put me to sleep.
        I think Christian has put it succinctly into one sentence for me – “F*** the reader”.

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  5. Nice article. Plenty there to think about. Been watching ‘Under the Dome’ based on the Stephen King book and looking at the character of Big Jim – there’s some neat writing from the scriptwriters and they’re using what you’re talking about.

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    • I haven’t seen it or read the book, but I believe it. It’s common because it’s so effective. I just quantified what was already there. :)

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  6. Love this post! You really give good writing tips.

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  7. I just have to say THANK YOU! I’ve always struggled the most with my characters when I’m writing, and I’ve taken creative writing course after creative writing course, but none of them has really covered much on how to deepen your characters. Finally, it all makes sense and I now know what I’ve been missing all along. So thank you, again. I’m so happy I had the breakthrough today that I needed to keep writing on my novel!

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  8. Hi! I linked back to this awesome article, as well as your Four Pillars article! 😀

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  9. This is going to help me so much! I’ve struggled with one book, and it’s direction, for two years now. I finally have a place to go with it (yay for the dam breaking!) and this will help immensely, both in this book, and future books :)

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  10. Jack Brickman says:

    So, I’ve begun writing a book from the perspective of a high-functioning narcissistic sociopath who I’m planning to be the villain in another work. However, for obvious reasons, I am not very sure where to take his characterization in a way that anyone could sympathize with him. I’ve been looking at this post, the 4 pillars, and the more specific posts on the subjects mentioned, and while I have a few of the cornerstones/pillars done already, there are things like his fears or virtues that I can’t come up with, and it’s left me at a writer’s block, since I can’t really write about a character I can’t emphasize with. I’m just looking for a few ideas to humanize him.
    I also should mention that I have done a lot of research on the sociopathic condition and I’d like to make it as real as possible, but making him emphasizable with is a higher priority.

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    • Jack Brickman says:

      Alright, I might have solved my own problem. Make him like Doctor Doom, so a “I hate suffering and I’m going to end it because no one else can, even though I may cause suffering while I do it.” That seems like the only way to do it.

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  11. I love this post, it really made me think hard about the individual qualities of my characters.
    I already keep one notebook dedicated to jotting down ideas, so it was easy for me to dedicate a page for listing each character’s secret, fear, flaw and quirk.

    I found that Fear and Secret was easier than Flaw and Quirk, because my novel is a bit darker and the plot is based on fears and secrets. Flaw was easier than Quirk because I had thought about these already, but I spent more time figuring out when they are triggered for each of my characters.

    Quirk was hardest to come up with because I hadn’t really thought about it before, but now I’ve outlined one for each of them.

    Thanks for the post, it was helpful and much appreciated!
    ~Heather

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