Favorite Story Features

For this month’s story craft post, I’m going to go highly subjective. Out of curiosity, I spent a couple of hours last week breaking down my own favorite stories (my favorite books, games, movies, etc) and looking for the common threads that ran through all of them. I certainly found a few consistent factors, including several which I didn’t necessarily expect. Your mileage may vary, but here’s what makes me personally fall in love with a story:

  1. An accessible surface; a deep, complex, nuanced core.
    1. Most of my favorite stories have made themselves appear accessible on the surface – a standard sci-fi game, a standard shounen anime, a standard small-town murder mystery, etc – but with a deeper, and usually darker, core. They intentionally foster approachable first impressions to draw people in. They don’t necessarily lie about what they are, but they keep their secrets close until you get to know them better. This gradual unfolding is immersive, surprising, and ends up becoming addictive – what will happen next? As expectations fall away, so do “rules” and predictability.
    2. This deeper core usually revolves around themes that comprise the soul of the work.
  2. Memorable, “rule of cool” characters with realistic psychology.
    1. My favorite characters bring in elements from the most exaggerated genre fiction – unique vibes, tragic backstories, odd features, immense talents, unusual names, exaggerated speaking styles, amazing powers, etc – alongside grounded psychological elements from literary fiction – motives, needs, wants, fears, hopes, complex relationships, inner conflicts, strengths, flaws, contradictions, etc. Combining the fantastical and realistic creates characters who transcend mundane humanity – becoming memorable and iconic – while remaining so achingly human.
    2. These characters have psychologically realistic growth arcs that tie into the story’s themes. Each character often has their own sub-theme, as well.
  3. A distaste for expectation.
    1. This doesn’t mean being satire (far from it), but it does mean flipping tropes around to different angles, combining or using them in unconventional ways, or eschewing common genre tropes entirely.
    2. My favorite stories have some element of surprise – twists, gimmicks, “gasp” moments. Many of them end with a “clincher” – a final twist or shocking moment – instead of a clean resolution arc.
    3. This also applies to concepts like, and especially of, gender. None of my favorite stories have ever entirely accepted gender as a flat, unexplored binary. Some have actually veered into borderline problematic territory, while others handled these themes deftly, but none have blindly accepted the notion of the binary and its roles. When the binary is questioned, even a little, characters instantly become more free and alive.
  4. Sweet, soft moments contrasted by wrenching disasters.
    1. My favorite stories aren’t afraid to toe the line of melodrama, without ever quite crossing over it. Stories should be cathartic – felt in the body, mind, and soul – and they embrace this. In doing so, they include unflinchingly sweet moments between characters and showcase the beauty of their people and worlds. They invite readers (and players, viewers, etc) to sink in and fall in love. They also include moments of brutality, sorrow, shock. They aren’t afraid of diving into the strange and horrific. They are less concerned with being realistic than they are with evoking an emotional reaction. The contrast between joy and horror creates “flashbulb memories” that stick with audiences and keep them coming back for closure.
    2. These stories aim for satisfaction. They don’t time-skip over the most dramatic or impactful moments, even if they take place in resolutions.
    3. “Flashbulb” moments should incorporate – and tie together – the plot, characters, world, and themes. The best of them even take advantage of language in a literary sense.
    4. My favorite stories tend to use tenderness and introspection during “relief” moments, rather than humor.
    5. Often, their endings are bittersweet.
  5. Moments of wonder.
    1. My favorite stories, if even for a moment, invoke wonder. This can be done through character, setting, plot, or even literary language, but most often, comes when one or more of these elements combine with theme. If they all combine with theme, the resonance is stronger still.
    2. To evoke wonder, the story must not be afraid to address the unknown – and often, to leave aspects of the unknown just as unknown at the end of the story. They embrace curiosity, uncertainty, awe, fear, joy, sorrow, life, death, the human, and the divine. They seek to transcend the story world’s own mundanity.
    3. Such stories reach for the sublime. Even if they can’t quite stare it down, they glimpse it. Even if they can’t quite hold on to it, they touch it. They find the magic in the mundane – either literally or metaphorically.
    4. There is often a haunting tone to these stories at their core, both during and after their ending. They carry a certain bittersweet taste. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t also show the simple joy of existence.
  6. Mixed genre classifications.
    1. Most of my favorite stories don’t fit entirely into just one genre – after all, neither does life. My favorites use genres as tools, not limitations.
    2. These stories also often mix elements from the genre fiction and literary fiction umbrellas (as seen in the contrasts present in the other points).

What common threads have you caught running through your own favorite stories? Do any of my factors resonate with you?

MBTI for Characters

(Tip Thursday: Every other Thursday (or so), I’ll post writing/editing tips or techniques that I’ve personally found useful. Catching up for last week today.)

The Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality theory seems trendier than ever. While there are plenty of debates surrounding its validity, it makes for a fun way to learn about yourself and others as long as it’s taken as a tool for thought rather than anything absolute. It’s also a fun – and simple – way to learn about your characters.

Try taking the test from your protagonist’s point of view – the results might solidify some of the traits you already knew about them in an easy to digest form, or offer some surprisingly useful insights into the way they interact with the world around them.

The test I usually use for characters is HumanMetrics. Another excellent test is 16Personalities, which combines the MBTI with the also popular Big Five personality theory. There are plenty of in depth explanations available online, but essentially, the MBTI provides scores across four spectrums:

  • Introversion vs Extroversion: Extroverts regain energy from social activity. Introverts regain energy through time alone.
  • Sensing vs Intuitive: People who score high in Sensing tend to rely directly on their senses and stay present in the moment. People who score high in Intuitive seek to add meaning to the information their senses bring them, and focus more on their imaginative internal world.
  • Thinking vs Feeling: People who score high in Thinking tend to rely on facts, logic, and experiences to make decisions. People who score high in Feeling tend to make decisions based on gut feelings, situational context, and the people involved.
  • Judging vs Perceiving: People who score high in Judging like to be organized and have a plan for everything. People who score high in Perceiving like to keep their options open and react to events as they happen.

The 16Personalities test also includes an additional spectrum:

  • Assertive vs Turbulent: Assertive people are steady, strong, and confident in their ability to handle whatever life throws their way. Turbulent people tend to be  anxious, but are also highly passionate and driven to succeed.

Depending on the answers given, your character will be assigned a letter-based type according to which sides of each spectrum they land on. For instance, one character might be an INFJ-T – they are Introverted, INtuitive, Feeling, Judging, and Turbulent. These five letters actually say a lot about this character. The combination of Intuition and Feeling likely means they spend a lot of time in their own head and feel things deeply – they are imaginative and empathetic. However, as an Introvert, they are more likely to search out meaningful connections rather than collect acquaintances. They probably prefer reading a good book that stimulates their empathy and emotions to attending shallow social events. The combination of Judging and Turbulent also means they are highly organized, driven, and perhaps a bit of a perfectionist, which may make them come across as cold to other characters, when internally, they are anything but.

It’s important to note that there are no right or wrong answers – every MBTI type has its flaws and gifts. It’s also interesting to note that, in some ways, the MBTI types aren’t actually personality types at all. I prefer to think of them as frameworks – the ways in which the character approaches life, makes decisions, and relates to others. The juicy bits that actually build someone’s personality – their likes and dislikes, their past experiences, their quirks, all the details that make them who they are – go far beyond the skeleton built by a few letters. Two people with the same MBTI type can be wildly different. However, I’ve found the MBTI test to be an easy way of gaining insight into a character’s point of view. When faced with writer’s block, knowing how a character makes decisions or how they might react to an emotional situation can be key to breaking through a challenging scene.

Impactful Character Flaws

(Tip Thursday: Every other Thursday, I’ll post writing/editing tips or techniques that I’ve personally found useful.)

One topic inevitably comes up when discussing character creation: flaws. Characters must be flawed in order to be real people in readers’ eyes. However, just making a character hot-headed or shy and calling it done doesn’t cut it. For a flaw to add dimension to your character and story, three things should generally be true:

1. It shouldn’t be a “likable” flaw.

Often, the flaws protagonists grapple with seem relatively harmless: they might lack confidence, be socially awkward, or have a bit of a temper. Exploring these minor flaws and traits helps flesh out a character, but alone, usually fails to add depth.

There’s a tendency to believe that characters must be conventionally “likable”. For characters, however, “likable” often actually means interesting. Your readers don’t need to be friends with your character – they need to be able to understand their motivations (even if they don’t necessarily agree with them) and root for them to overcome their obstacles. Giving your character real, significant flaws increases the stakes and the impact of their internal conflicts.

For instance, rather than just being a bit hot-headed, maybe your character gets so angry that they sometimes cause physical harm. Maybe they hold onto grudges to the extent that they enact revenge. Maybe they have a mean streak. Maybe they’re selfish or jealous or judgemental. Maybe they lie a lot. Maybe they’re an honest-to-goodness coward, legitimately lazy, or obnoxiously arrogant. Maybe they care more about power than people.

These less “likable” flaws are often associated with villains, but a hero with such flaws has room to grow in meaningful ways throughout the story, will have engaging internal struggles, and feels more like a genuinely imperfect human than a heroic archetype.

2. It should influence the character’s external world.

For a flaw and its stakes to seem real, it must manifest in the character’s world in some way. If they struggle with extreme anger, perhaps it’s destroyed past relationships or they’ve had outbursts that cost them a job. If they’re selfish, perhaps their colleagues have learned to avoid and distrust them. If they’re cowardly, perhaps they’re embarrassed to try new things because they cry easily in public when stressed or their fear has held them back from applying to their dream job. Regardless of what their flaws are, their internal struggles need to in some way affect their external reality.

3. It should tie into the story’s themes.

Ideally, a character’s flaws should also emphasize the story’s themes. For instance, a character who starts off selfish and arrogant but who learns to sacrifice for others makes for a powerful protagonist in story about empathy. Another technique is giving the antagonist a similar flaw, but letting them fail to overcome it while the protagonist succeeds. Supporting characters can also express the theme in unique ways through their flaws and virtues. After all, a story is made of internal conflict, external conflict, and its message. If all these elements reinforce each other, the story – and its characters – have a strong foundation.