Heroes and dragons: how to write transformational characters
It’s the ultimate challenge.
It’s the writer’s equivalent of the quest for the Holy Grail.
What is it?
Creating characters that leap off the page and live on in the mind of readers long after the last page of your book has been turned.
If you want to write a book that goes beyond providing a few hours entertainment to the reader and you want to create a book that helps transform their lives, it starts with creating transformational characters that will deliver a message that allows readers to see their own life in a new way or to see the world around them from a new perspective.
Here are the steps I use to create transformational characters.
Step 1: Choose the Message
Why start with the message? Simple. The message you choose is the foundation of your book and it’s also the beginning of building your book’s brand so you can begin to market that book. Your message will speak to a certain group of people and those people will become your audience.
I highly recommend thinking about your message carefully. If your book is a wild success (and there’s no reason it can’t be), you’re going to be marrying this message and the audience it brings. Be sure that you want to spend a lifetime with the fans that this kind of message generates.
Find your audience by asking yourself, “Who needs to hear this message most?”
For an example, I’ve recently decided to write a book called The Other Side of Beauty. It’s a revision of Beauty and the Beast, only this isn’t a romantic tale. It’s a tale about a girl who must overcome her inner demons. The book will begin with her forced confrontation with her inner Beast and her quest to tame it.
The message in the book is that your inner Beast isn’t something that needs to be locked away and hidden from sight, it’s there to help you and you need to get to know it and befriend it so it can do its job.
The audience that need this message are people who are struggling with abuse or abandonment issues as these are the people most likely to have developed a scary inner beast that they lock away from sight and try to hide.
Step 2: Choose the Hero
Your hero is the vehicle through which you will help your audience learn how to transition from where they are to the point where they are ready to receive the message that will help them overcome whatever “dragon” they are facing in their own life.
The hero must be someone your audience can both admire and understand. They must be able to relate to the hero on some level. Otherwise, they won’t be able to generate the necessary empathy to care about the hero and his journey.
My hero, heroine, in this case is named Lily. She’s the beauty that must struggle with overcoming her inner beast. Through her struggles I will help the audience learn both what works and what doesn’t in taming that beast.
Step 3: Choose the Dragon
The dragon is a metaphor for whatever big, bad, epic struggle your character, and the audience, will have to undergo in order to learn the final lesson that unlocks the big message and brings about the final transformation for your hero. In case you didn’t guess this already, the dragon is just as important as the hero and deserves every bit of love and attention when crafting it.
The mistake most writers make is in not giving their dragon sufficient teeth, claws, and venom. You’re going to have to tap into your own inner darkness and confront just how ugly and evil you can be under the right circumstances in order to create the kind of dragon that makes your reader tremble in fear and doubt the hero’s ability to conquer it. This is also why most writers don’t succeed in doing more than making a surface impact on the audience.
Obviously my “dragon” is the “Beast” inside of Lily. That’s why I chose her name. Lilies are beautiful but they are also poisonous. And her Beast is particularly ugly. Her beast is made up of all the rage and the fear that she feels but has bottled up because of the pain that’s gone on unaddressed over the years. It’s every part of her that is wounded and broken and so she hides it because she’s ashamed of her brokenness. My audience will hate Beast at first because of its brutality, but they will fall in love with Beast later when they realize why it exists.
Step 4: Plot the Journey
Divide the journey your hero will make in moving from where they start to the point where they learn what they need to know in order to grasp the message you want your readers to receive and are able to finally overcome the dragon.
The Moment of Impact: Something forces your hero out of their comfortable, if admittedly dull or numbed existence, and destroys the world in which they were living. There is no turning back. They are disoriented and lost. They begin to search for something, anything that will return their feeling of safety and security.
The Decision to Act: Something shows your hero hope for a better future, but the outcome isn’t certain and the risks are high. However, desperation leads your hero to decide that they can’t let go of this new hope. They trade safety and security in order to get what they can no longer live without.
The Broken Dreams and Unmet Expectations: Things do not work out the way your hero imagined. Their life is filled with unmet expectations and broken dreams. They feel discouraged and defeated. The glimpse of hope they caught still leads them to believe that better is possible, but they begin to doubt that it is possible for them. When all hope seems lost and they no longer feel like they can take even one more step forward, something or someone comes along that restores their faith and renews their hope. They take another leap of faith and continue on the journey.
Searching for Answers: The journey becomes a roller coaster ride. At times they feel themselves rushing forward, making progress at breakneck speed, only to find themselves confronted with mountain-sized obstacles that leave them slowing down to a crawl. The highs of achievement are higher than ever before but the lows leave them feeling more defeated and desperate than ever. The hero becomes trapped in a cycle of growth and collapse, growth and collapse, and they are unable to break free until suddenly they receive a bit of insight that helps them to see things in a new light. They see a way out and they head toward the light.
The Final Battle: Just when they think they are going to get out, they discover the dragon that is guarding the exit. However, they are determined not to allow this dragon to defeat them or destroy their hope. The battle is long and hard, and the hero begins to realize that they do not have the strength to overcome this on their own.
However, their willingness to sacrifice their own desires in order to serve others along the way means that there are plenty of people out there willing to help them when they admit their need. The dragon is unable to fight all of them together and goes down.
Step 5: Create the Mirrors
Every character that is in your story is on the same journey as your hero, they are simply at different stages of progress. These other characters provide mirrors to show your hero important truths about him or herself, about how to handle the obstacles that come their way, and about why those obstacles exist.
I recommend a minimum of four companion characters to your hero: Your mentor character, the one who has completed the quest successfully and can give your hero the counsel needed at the right times, one character who is just a step or two ahead of your hero on the journey and can set an example of the right way to answer the challenges that arise, one character who sets the example of the wrong way to answer the challenges, and one character who is one or two stages behind your hero in terms of their growth.
The character who chooses the wrong way to answer the challenges will sacrifice relationships in order to gain the progress they desire. They will steal, lie, cheat, betray, backstab, or do whatever they think they have to in order to “win.” However, that’s always a short-sighted strategy because they will need the help of other people in order to conquer the dragon.
The character who is behind the hero in their progress on the journey is an opportunity for the hero to apply the lessons they learned about how to get past their obstacles in the service of someone else. It is this service to another that will sow the seeds of the hero’s future success. It’s also their willingness to serve others that is part of what makes them so heroic.
Your hero won’t enjoy working with the character who sets the wrong example. They also are likely to find the person behind them in their progress irritating but won’t know why. Make sure that you allow the reader to see them struggle to come to an understanding of why. It is this struggle that will lead your hero to the insight they need to overcome their next challenge.
Step 6: Create Character Profiles
Let’s start with the primary six characters: your hero, the four mirrors, and the dragon. After you’ve given each one a name, note where these characters are going to join up with the hero on his or her journey. Next, you’ll note where each character is in terms of their own journey.
Pick a flaw for each character. The flaw is a weakness that leads them to make poor decisions under stressful conditions if they are acting alone. Some flaws might be things like greedy or insecure or prideful. Each character should have a flaw that is unique to them.
Pick a strength for each character. The strength is a natural gift that helps them to face up to challenges that make others crumble. The strength can be something like courage or intelligence or wisdom. Each character’s strength should also be unique.
Pick a goal for each character. Although they are all facing the same struggle, each one will have a different idea about what needs to be done about that struggle. Their decision on what to do about the problem will be influenced both by their strength and by their flaw. For example, if there’s a character whose strength is physical rather than mental, and his flaw is that he’s not an especially intelligent person, he is likely to attack any problem with brute strength even when that tactic doesn’t really make sense because it’s what he’s good at.
Pick a motivation for each character. This is the reason they chose the goal they did. It’s what they imagine will change in their lives if they accomplish the goal they set.
Pick a conflict for each character. The conflict is what the character THINKS is stopping them from achieving that goal. It’s what they imagine the problem to be.
Pick an epiphany for each character. The epiphany is whatever lesson they must learn in order to be able to see what the problem actually is so they can solve it.
Last, chart each character’s journey starting with where they encounter the hero and ending when the hero manages to conquer, overcome, befriend, or tame the dragon. Break that journey into five stages of growth.
Step 7: Compile the Results
Take your hero’s five stage journey and place one stage at the top of each of five pages. Beneath the hero’s journey, you’ll add the actions that the other characters are doing during that stage. Some characters may not appear, some may be doing two or three things, and some may have only one thing to add. When you are done compiling the results, clean up the redundancies, smooth out the flow, and you’ll have a story outline ready to go.
Brandy M. Miller is a six-times published author who is also the Chief Executive Story Teller for 40daywriter.com, a website for writers at all stages of the writer’s journey, and the Creativity Consultant for Creative Technology Services, a site devoted to teaching marketing and branding to creative entrepreneurs, which she and her husband operate together. Her published works are primarily non-fiction, but she has also written five fiction novels which are in various stages of revision and publication. Her current work in progress is The Transformational Author, a book about how authors can move from writing books that just entertain to writing books that inspire change and motivate readers to improve their lives.