Building Blocks of Character, part 2

This is the second installment of a two-part series on creating strong characters, based on principles discussed in the The Art of Character by David Corbett. Part one focused on:

  1. Sources for character inspiration;
  2. The protagonist’s driving need or end goal; and
  3. Using our own emotional lives to better understand our characters.

Now, in part two, we’ll cover three more essential elements: physical traits, psychological profile, and a concept known as the tyranny of motive.

Once you’ve identified your protagonist, remember that he should be the one with the most at stake in the story. As your main character, he is the one who feels the strongest motivation to act and “elicits deepest empathy from the reader.”


Establishing the stakes is critical: what the character wants, why, and the risks he’s willing to take to get it. Your protagonist should engage in “meaningful conflict,” showing both vulnerability and strength along the way. A rich, layered portrayal of both physical and psychological traits helps readers connect with your character and makes the struggles on the page feel true to life.

Physical Traits

Some writers prefer to leave a character’s physical description to the reader’s imagination. Others envision—and portray—their characters down to the finest detail. Between these two extremes, identifying at least some physical attributes is necessary to flesh out how a character engages with the world around her. Consider how age, height, race, gender, health, and a host of other factors influence a character’s day-to-day choices and interactions. Physical traits serve a purpose beyond simple descriptors. Corbett poses three key questions:

-How does her outward appearance reflect her inner life?

-How does her appearance affect her behavior?

-How does her appearance affect others’ reactions to her?

He further urges writers to envision physical details not as a list on a page but scenically, i.e., how does each trait shape the story itself?

Psychological Nature

Your character’s inner world includes “her emotions, her feelings…her passions, her fears, her abiding loves, her poisonous hatreds, her hopes, her shame, her reservoirs of swagger, her echoing doubts.”

This is territory well beyond eye color and shoe size. Human beings are complex, fascinating creatures. Your main character (and secondary characters) should be, too. Explore the rich potential of your character’s psyche. Examine friendships and family relationships. Envision dreams, disappointments, slights, and successes. Even if every detail doesn’t end up in print, your readers will forget that this character is not a living, breathing person. They will identify with her, root for her, and keep turning the pages until they learn her ultimate fate.

Corbett asserts that the most revealing psychological factor is fear. In most cases, our reaction to fear is not something we can consciously control. It exposes hidden personal truths that we cannot suppress or manipulate. Your character’s fears are the clearest path to her strengths and weaknesses. “The measure of every act of courage,” Corbett writes, “is the fear it overcomes.”

The Tyranny of Motive

Tyranny of motive is defined as the urgency of what a character wants, the “vibrant way her craving and need defines her. It demands obedience—and inspires rebellion.”

As discussed in Part One, the protagonist’s driving need dictates the story’s momentum. It’s critical to the narrative. As authors, it’s our job to both serve and challenge this motivation. In other words, your characters must be given the freedom to act against expectation. They should be allowed to reveal themselves as the action unfolds. We may be their creators, but fully formed characters should surprise us with their choices, their failings, and their triumphs.

Above all, do not judge your character. Instead, make every effort to understand his motivation. Then, as you’re writing, keep in mind that “Characters reveal themselves more vividly in what they do and say than in what they think and feel.” Consider the times you’ve written out an entire inner dialogue or bluntly described how a character is feeling. This veers into the territory of show vs. tell. Instead, use action and dialogue whenever possible to show us what makes your protagonist tick.

To close, I’ll share my favorite quote from The Art of Character: “This balancing act [between expectation and surprise] requires creating an initial impression of the character that feels coherent or whole, then shoving her through a doorway toward the unknown, into a gauntlet of trials and reversals, revelations and confusions, that will shred her familiar, coherent sense of self and transform her utterly.”

I learned more from this book on craft than from perhaps any other to date. It’s a resource that I will return to with every new project as I attempt to bring new characters to life.


Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at

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