The Four Pillars of Strong Characters

The 4 Pillars of Strong Characters: Building on the Cornerstones and Taking Your Characters (and Plot!) to the Next LevelFour cornerstones, and now four pillars? Yep. It takes a lot to build a strong character. The cornerstones are the baseline. They set the stage.

But the pillars are where the FUN is.

Each pillar can align with a cornerstone, but that’s not the only option. Just a handy one.

Looking for Fun: Layers

The pillars are prone to layers. And we all like layers. Just ask Shrek.

Anyway, the pillars are often interdependent. The interplay between them gives you a lot of flexibility. Bend them to your will.

Don’t get intimidated by the sheer amount of possibilities ahead. You know your character.  Experiment with what fits. Have fun with it. Give yourself permission to get it wrong until you get it right.

The Four Pillars of Strong Characters are:

The Desire, the Strength, the Inner Conflict, and the Character Theme.

There’s a lot to cover, so here we go.

Desire

“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Characters are motivated by fear and desire. That’s it. There is no other way to motivate someone. Desire is the positive motivator. It’s what people work toward instead of running from.

I’m using desire as an umbrella term. It covers needs, longings, goals, ambitions (#5), passions, and dreams. Whatever you call it, everyone has a desire or three.

Your characters’ desires need to be strong. Whether it’s a main character whose desire helps drive the story, or a minor character whose desire influences their interactions, urgency and import are essential. Think emotionally charged or life-altering.

You can add different desires to create layers.

Surface Desire

The surface desire is what your character wants at the beginning of the novel. It’s what he’s praying for. It could drive him through the first part of the story. It’s what Katie Ganshert calls  the desire of the moment.

Or maybe he only claims to want it. Tricksy character.

Root Desire

The root desire guides a character’s actions more consistently than a surface desire. Where a youth’s desire for adventure might be overridden by the hardship of the road, the underlying need to prove himself will keep motivating him. It becomes a theme.

In order to find the root desire, you need to dig deep. So, we’re going to use an analysis tool – the 5 Whys.  That’s as simple as it sounds. Ask why he desires that 5 times, digging deeper each time.

And when your character is fibbing, you can still use it to find out the root desire behind the lie.

The deeper you bury a root desire, the better. Be too obvious about it and it’ll sound like you’re preaching rather than telling a story.

Conflicting Desire

This is a second (or third) desire that conflicts with another desire. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a good illustration of desires that coexist in all of us. Put a few obstacles in the way to make it impossible to have both at once and voila! Inner Conflict.

Handy: the Fear Cornerstone

The desire might help alleviate the fear, or the two might conflict. Either way, you need to take the fear into account.

The sole desire of the character can’t be to avoid or defeat their fear.  Even someone with a list of fears a mile long (Monk!) has things he wants. He needs companionship, he wants to feel useful.

Believe it or not, there’s more. Desire has its own post.

Strength

Every character has a strength. It might be hidden beneath layers of flaws and personal baggage. It might not make the character noble or even redeemable. But it’s there.

Often a character has no idea what their strength really is. It’s like real life. The true nature of an individual doesn’t reveal itself until forced to the surface by a crisis.

There are four cardinal virtues that make great candidates:  prudence, justice, restraint, and courage. It’s a great idea to have two or three in different characters to balance the dynamics.

(Can you imagine a character that can tell the difference between a good idea and a bad one, but can’t hold back, and another that can hold back, but can’t tell what he should be abstaining from?)

K.M. Weiland makes the case that characters should be courageous. I’m pretty sure she means the ones that you want your readers to fall in love with. The six types of courage she lists give you a lot of flexibility, too.

If you have a character that you want your audience to hate, making him cowardly is a good first step.

Since courage is almost a given, your main character needs another strength as well. Here’s a giant list of values that might give you ideas.

Possessing a strength doesn’t have to make the character “strong” as in “strong female character.” Sometimes a strength can be as simple as being awed by everyday life or being humble when they’re wrong. It might not be something you value, but that character is strong in it.

More layers? Yes, please.

Known Strength

In main characters, this is a decoy. It might be a strength, but it’s not the strength the story needs. For other characters, it might be the only strength they have.

Unknown Strength

This is generally where bravery comes in. It’s developed over time or it surprises the character near the end. It could be a different strength, though. Be creative.

Aligned Counter to the Flaw Cornerstone

The strength can’t parallel the flaw. You’re smart, you know that. But sometimes a strength can slip into an overlapping trait without the author realizing it.

We really dig into using Strength over on THIS post.

Inner Conflict

There are always two forces warring against each other within us.
– Paramahansa Yogananda

Inner conflict is what really challenges a character, and makes the reader ponder the choices afterward. It creates another layer of tension curling in and around plot events.

When you have inner conflict and you play it against the plot, the outcome is a deeper, richer story. It’s the kind of story that sticks with you. Janice Hardy‘s description of when the inner and outer conflicts collide:

There are always two different paths your protagonist can take, and both are paths they’re being yanked down by the core conflicts. Since the protagonist needs to solve both conflicts, you have a constant tug of war. And since each conflict will have consequences (both externally and internally), you keep your stakes escalating.

Yes, you do need to choose one core inner conflict. You can have others, but the show needs a star. Which you choose depends how strong each aspect is and how strong the conflict is.

My gut instinct is to say that one or two inner conflicts are optimal. But if you can make more work, go right ahead. Just make sure it suits the character and the story.

There are many aspects that can take part in the war within:  fear, desire, duty, principles/ideals, self-concept. Each is a broad category, making the possibilities nearly endless.

To find your character’s inner conflict, look at the aspects that already exist. Start with the fears, desires, and secrets. Experiment, matching them up to see if any conflict comes up. Take the situation into account, looking for obstacles that would make them incompatible.

    • Desire vs desire
    • Fear vs desire
    • Fear vs fear
    • Flaw vs desire
The 4 Pillars of Strong Characters

Look at that pillar interplay. Beautiful!

  • Flaw vs fear
  • Principle vs desire
  • Principle vs fear
  • Principle vs flaw
  • Principle vs principle
  • Duty vs desire
  • Duty vs fear
  • Duty vs flaw
  • Duty vs Principle
  • Duty vs Duty
  • Self-concept vs desire
  • Self-concept vs fear
  • Self-concept vs flaw
  • Self-concept vs principle
  • Self-concept vs duty

Some of those match-ups are challenging. Principle vs flaw,  principle vs principle,  self-concept vs flaw, and self-concept vs principle stand out to me. I’m not even including self-concept vs self-concept because I don’t see how it could be done.

I’ll go into detail on the different match-ups in a later post, but for now you can check out Annointing Your Character with Inner Conflict, A Master Technique to learn more.

Handy: the Secret Cornerstone

Anyone hiding a horrible secret has a strong desire to keep it a secret. Put a desire into play that would force your character to reveal it, and you’ve got a humdinger of a recipe for inner conflict.

Character Theme

Theme is the pillar that intertwines most with the other pillars and cornerstones. It should encompass everything the character is. But you can have multiple themes in one character, so don’t worry too much. Just make sure that each is tied in to other aspects enough to qualify as a theme.

Character themes set the stage for the dynamics between your characters. Your cast will interact based on their individual themes. With themes in place, you’ll find it easier to create foils and counterparts for the main characters.

Make sure you create wide variety though… not every character needs to be either foil or counterpart to one of the main characters. Branch out and create thematic microcosms unrelated to the core cast if you have enough characters.

I mention this pillar last because often it’s best to know some other things first so you can look for patterns.

For more on Character Theme, check out Know Your Character Deeply in One Step: The Backdoor

Handy: the Quirk Cornerstone

Quirks are a great way to symbolize theme. Pretty simple, huh?

Strong Characters Aren’t Created Overnight

This is going to take some time. There aren’t many hard and fast rules if we’re honest.

Sometimes we like hard and fast rules. They make things simpler. Faster.

Instead, I’m giving you options. The trick is in narrowing the options to what fits your character and story. There aren’t any real shortcuts, but I hope this at least clears the fog so you can have fun with it.

I cover how to experiment in The Path to Deepening Your Next Protagonist

If you prefer options to rules, you might want to subscribe to my newsletter. No glossed-over “rules” here.

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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. Hannah Givens says:

    I’ve been following you on Pinterest and read most of the articles on this site, but I confess to skipping to the beginnings of the articles and never noticed that the same person had written all of these… I’m impressed now! I’m interested because I’m learning to write well and also because I’m a writing geek. Your articles are both helpful and fascinating. Love the site!

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    • I noticed your name in my notifications. I believe I followed one of your boards as well. Thank you so much for the encouragement, and it’s great to meet another writing geek!

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  2. Thanks for the link to my post on courageous characters! And, yes, we definitely don’t want *all* our characters to be brave. Sometimes a raving yellow coward is just the ticket!

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    • You’re absolutely welcome! And I knew that’s what you meant, I just needed to clarify. :)
      Looking forward to sending more links your way.

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  3. Wow! I love this article. I think that you’ve hit the nail on the head, and this is exactly what I’ve been looking for. I’ve been struggling with a character for so long and now I know what I’m missing. Thanks!

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    • I love that feeling, when something clicks and I get what I need to do. Now I get to feel the pleasure of being the one to bring that on. So happy for you. :)

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  4. Elizabeth Musgrave says:

    MJ, you’ve offered an entire six-course meal to digest, and my tummy doesn’t even hurt!Thanks so much for the great food-for-thought!

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  5. Sherian Groppini says:

    Thank you. This post has more helpful information than some of the writing courses I’ve taken… I look forward to learning more. :)

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  6. I just wanted to say thank you for these amazing articles, I cannot express how much they’ve helped me with my writing.

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  7. Hey great article but having trouble understanding the Character Theme part! Any more words of wisdom you could share on that please :)

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  8. Great article! Very thorough and thought-provoking. I do think most characters should show courage, but most people — heroes and villains — show a mix of courage and cowardice. Also there are many kinds of courage. For example, in the movie What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, it requires tremendous courage for Gilbert’s mom, Bonnie Grape, just to leave the house and go to the police station to pick up her son. And Neville Longbottom summons up tremendous courage just to stand up to his friends.

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  9. MJ, Thanks for these articles. They are empowering this ol’ Mark Twain story teller to a new level. Being able to splice in a flat character with the opposite character trait of the main character is like dipping salted fries in a smooth Carmel covered ice cream. They accentuate the sweet while using the salt to intensify the flavor contradiction. Being able to take a quirk like instantaneous spontaneity from one character and mixing it with naive simple mindedness leads to an explosion of material to accent the theme.

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  10. Hi MJ…I am not a writer, but a songwriter.
    I was looking for inspiration to write a song to my son, inspired by the pillars of character, etc. and came upon your posts. Friends keep telling I should have a reality show (a real one for that) and/or write a screenplay based in my true life story, that of a twice-divorced, single mom, suddenly Handicap 55 year-old woman, who having finally found God, her life is totally transformed in a second and she rescues a wild kitty 🐱 who actually rescues her and becomes her Emotional Support Animal, best friend and 24/7 companion, sharing the adventures of traveling abroad, being challenged on a day to day basis, being ignored by blood family while struggling with 8 different chronic and incurable health conditions at the same time, starting her first business with no help and little money, to help pay for alternative medicines and holistic treatments not covered by government sponsored health insurance. And stranded in Key West, FL unable to drive her car back home to Miami Beach, the struggles she’s had to endure, the legions of fans her kitty 🐱 faces everyday (we’re both on social overload), and the physical/emotional/mental roller coaster that Spiritual Awakening brings about. Conflict of characters with only 24 year old son.
    So…after reading your posts, it’s a given you’re an insightful and expert writer (which I’m not).
    Let me humbly ask if you would consider co-writing MY STORY or know of someone who would be interested in such a task. I have all the details!!! Happy 😊 Every Moment!

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  11. Pauline Hetrick says:

    You explained the four pillars of strong characters so that I could not only understand it but apply it to my screenplay. Thank you.

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