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These 3 pivotal character details are the secret to a satisfying, believable transformation story 

 July 3, 2022

By  Sue Brown-Moore

We all know what joy and fear and sorrow and hope feel like. But do you know how to evoke those emotions through character details?

As storytellers, it's our job to design a transformative experience for our readers. So how to do that is what we're talking about today.  

To keep things simple, we'll focus on the 3 writing steps that can bring the most oomph to your story experience.  

3 Pivot Character Details: Why they matter

Why are these specific character details so important?

In my work with romance writers, I teach techniques that show you how all of the many pieces of a character and plot can work together in a story.

But if your characters aren't believable, it doesn't matter how unique your pitch is. Savvy readers can tell when a character is shallow or contrived.

So what makes a fictional character believable?

Jabba the Hutt from Star Wars Episode 1

Jabba the Hutt from Star Wars Episode 1

Have you ever watched a movie that uses computer-generated movements or expressions for its characters? You might not be able to put your finger on exactly why, but you somehow just know that the character isn't real. This happens because our brains are extraordinarily perceptive, and we intuitively catalogue and analyze the tiniest details.

In film, these details are things like micro-facial expressions, minute changes in body language, and the vocal subtleties in how a line of dialogue is delivered. But in books, readers have to create their own imagery and imagine the sounds, smells, and feel of a scene's environment.

If that sounds like a whole lot more than three character details, it is. Worldbuilding, scene settings, and line-level character voice all matter. But the power of the story trumps all of that.

If your story is not believable, your readers will leave feeling discontent and unsatisfied. And they probably won't pick up one of your books again. 

So today, we're focusing on the three of the most effective tools for crafting a character growth arc—because that's essentially what a story is—that readers will not only believe but want to experience more of.

The 3 pivotal character details every story's hero needs

What are the 3 pivotal character details?

The most important of these character details is the hero's Root Fear in the story. I say "in the story" because while we, as humans, experience multiple fears at any given time in our lives, the stories we tell only capture a snapshot in a character's life. So crafting a compelling story is much simpler if we focus on one single Root Fear

Root Fear vs Surface Fear: Ghostly shadow

Not sure what I mean by Root Fear? Click below to learn more. Then come back to learn how to use the Root Fear in your plot. 

The second most important character detail your story needs is an opposing Desire and Need. These are things the character feels strongly about, that they believe are necessary (for achieving whatever their goal is), but that are at odds with one another. In some stories, what a character wants supports what they need, but I've found this setup is far less evocative than when they must sacrifice their Want for the thing they actually Need. 

4 lattes on a wood stool (representing the 4 crucial hero characteristics that will make or break your story)

Click below to learn about the difference between Want and Need (plus, the other 2 essential character core values).

The final essential character detail that a powerful growth arc needs is a personal mannerism or idiosyncrasy. But just any old character quirk won't do. This personality trait should fill two specific requirements: 

  1. 1
    It must actively protect the character from their Root Fear.
  2. 2
    They must be able to adapt or quit this behavior without losing the essence of who they are as a person.

And as a recommended bonus, this should be something that is prominent in their personality (or the transformation in #2 above won't hit as hard). This character detail is technically called an Augmentation, and every single player in your stories should have at least one (especially your leading cast).  

Confused about character augmentations? Click below to learn more about the four different types and decide which is a perfect way to parallel your hero's growth arc.

Now that we know what the 3 pivotal character details are, let's talk more about how to narrow down your choices for each one. 

A powerful Root Fear: 3 Pivot Character Details:

A powerful Root Fear

The character's story Root Fear must be clear and concise. This is the one thing they are most afraid of because of something that happened in their past.

Fears can be based in repetition of small, reinforcing events, or they can grow from a single acute experience. Regardless of which type of fear you choose for your character's story arc, the fear itself should be specific.

For example*:

Vague fear

Specific fear

Afraid of heights

Afraid of losing physical control

Afraid of falling in love

Afraid to lose personal freedom

Afraid to hold a gun

Afraid of violent temptation

*See more examples and explanations of the examples above in this article.

This Root Fear can represent the desire to avoid something or the worry of losing something. Regardless of which style of fear your character's transformation is based on, their entire story arc will hinge on the Root Fear you establish in the first third of their story

So it is absolutely critical that you understand what this Root Fear is and how it relates to your character's story journey before you pour your energy into a first draft.

One simple way to figure out your character's Root Fear is to ask yourself (or them) what the fear represents. For example:

Ginny is afraid to fall in love because, to her, falling in love represents loss of personal freedom.

Want Vs Need: 3 Pivot Character Details:

A Need and a Desire that clash

Earlier, I mentioned that some characters in popular fiction begin their story knowing exactly what they Need to do. And there's nothing technically wrong with that. A hero's journey of self-discovery is a big part of what makes the story's reading experience exciting, and there's no "one right way" to tell a story.

But, the most compelling stories force the hero to make a choice between what they Want and what they Need. These opposing motivations heighten the risk and consequences of the character's Sacrifice.  

Did you notice the capitalized terms above, like Need and Want (or Desire)? Whenever you see a capitalized core value in one of my lessons, it means this is a primary story element that directly influences the character's transformation journey

For example, someone might want to become wealthy, but what they really need is the freedom to make their own decisions. Wealth does not guarantee autonomy. In many cases, it adds even more restrictions and responsibilities in exchange for the promised "freedom". 

Wants and Needs are both byproducts of a person's Void, the core human emotional experience they lack. Figuring out a character's Void is one of the more difficult parts of developing a cohesive character growth arc, so I'll give you some techniques for discovering Void in another article. 

A memorable Mannerism: 3 Pivot Character Details

An expressive Augmentation

Your hero's story-specific character quirk should be a visible part of their character design. It should be intrinsic to their everyday behavior and outward-facing personality. This should a mannerism or idiosyncrasy they developed as a defense mechanism that protects them from their Root Fear

If you don't know your character's Root Fear, you can't design this part of their personality, which is why I listed this one last. But this is also the character trait that most readers will remember first. How many times has a friend recommended a book by describing something unique about the character?

Hey, friend, I just read this amazing book! You should try it. The hero wears these snarky t-shirts that made me laugh.

And how many times has that same friend framed their recommendation around what the hero fears?

Oh, friend! You have to read this book! The hero is afraid to be honest. 

Out of those two recommendations, which would you choose to read?

Both statements could describe the same book, but the first recommendation is so much more compelling because the quirky t-shirts tell us something about the character in a unique, memorable way.

There are tons of great books out there, so yours need something special to catch a reader's attention, or new readers may never experience just how amazing your stories can be.  

Leave a comment

Questions and comments

Hopefully, you've now got a good idea of how you can work these pivotal character details into your stories.

Let me know what questions you have in the comments below. I'd also love to hear about any AHA! Moments this article sparked in your own WIP, so don't be shy!

About the author 

Sue Brown-Moore

Creator. Speaker. Feminist. Human. (She/her)

Known for being a tough editor with a soft touch, Sue Brown-Moore specializes in teaching revision techniques for character-driven fiction and champions progressive, inclusive literature. Sue helps writers rediscover their inner spark and push through vexing story problems using the character-first editing and storystorming techniques she teaches in her online university.

Sue has been featured in writing-focused events and publications, like Publisher’s Weekly and online writing summits, and the stories she collaborates on as both a freelance and acquiring editor have been celebrated with nominations and wins for industry awards like the Vivian, the Golden Heart, and the Lambda.

Learn more about learning from Sue and choose the confidence-building workshop, playbook, or bite-sized training that’s right for you, here on Sue's website.

You only get one chance to make a memorable first impression, so make it count!

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  • Great article on how to get specific with a character’s fear, thanks! I’m putting this on a sticky note front and center on my screen: Whenever the story begins wandering away, return to the character’s root fear.

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