I was lucky enough to take a class from Brandon Sanderson at BYU, and he’s hands-down one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. He’s a creative genius, which is obvious by his successful writing career, but he’s also analytical about the writing process. He’s great at explaining what works and WHY. One of my favorite things he taught was about character development.
I was surprised by his emphasis on characters because Sanderson is known for intricate plots and magic systems and world building, but he argues that even if readers don’t love parts of your story, if you can create connections between them and the characters, they’ll stay engaged.
His analytical genius comes through as he explains his Sliding Scale (I feel okay sharing this because he’s posted all of his classes on YouTube, and when he taught this at LDSM last year, he said people were free to record it and share). I went to grab a link, but he’s posted several great character segments, so you should go to youtube.com and search “Brandon Sanderson characters” and watch all of them!
Here’s a brief summary:
The points of Sanderson’s scale are Proactivity, Likability, and Competence.
1. Proactivity: Readers are attracted to characters that move the plot and create motion. Make every character want something, be passionate about something, or strive for something. What are they doing with their life when the plot comes along to hit them? They need an identity outside of the plot.
2. Likeability/Sympathy: Characters should have good traits that we identify with, making them likeable. They also need flaws and handicaps. A handicap is anything your character must work with and deal with, but something they’ll never solve—it’s not the point of the story to get rid of it. Flaws are part of the character arc—things that will change as they grow within the story.
3. Competence: What we admire about them. What’s cool about them and makes us want to read more about them?
Every character should have a few traits we relate to and a few that we wish we had.
So, according to Sanderson, you play with the scale to define your characters. If they completely lack competence, you make them more likeable. And so on. Playing around with the levels is what makes them multi-dimensional.
For example, the hero archetype works because you’re taking the normal, everyday person and hiking their competence throughout the story arc.
Some examples he used:
• Sherlock Holmes—low likeability, high competence and proactivity.
• Katniss—the reluctant hero—low proactivity, high sympathy, high competence.
• Harry Potter—no proactivity, low competence, high sympathy
• Samwise—no proactivity, no competence, high sympathy. The ONLY thing he is good at is loyalty. That’s it—but it’s what ends up saving the world.
• Madam Bovary—the anti-hero—low on the scale of all three.
Or, for great villains, you amp up competence and tone down sympathy.
Kind of cool, huh?
Sliding scales are what Sanderson uses in revisions—not while drafting—especially when his characters aren’t working.
What about you? Do you have any tricks for writing great characters?