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From the Blog: One-Sentence Exercise for Character Development


You may have the plot, setting, conflict, and now you need one of the most important aspects of any good story: Complex Characters. NaNo guest Chris Cross is here to help with a writing exercise to discover your character motivation. For more novel writing how-to resources, check out our NaNo Prep page!

When it comes to character design, you’ve done your homework. Yeah, baby: You’ve watched the videos—you’ve read the posts—you’ve explored all the threads about making characters authentic, diverse, likable. Now you’ve got characters so solid you could hug ’em.

Next step: How do your characters grow?

Many writers rely on character arcs to map out a character’s inner journey through a story. These types of outlines can be useful for helping you not only understand who your characters are at the beginning, but also justify how they transform by “The End.”

In this post, I’d originally planned to teach you the basics for outlining a traditional character arc . . . but I don’t want to waste your time. The internet’s chock-full of other posts about character arcs. Besides, we writers outline in different ways. Some of us don’t outline at all (looking at you, pantsers).

Before you set out to map a straight-up Campbell-style character arc, here’s an exercise I’d like you to start with instead. A great thing about this exercise is that you can use it for your protagonist, antagonist, even minor characters with a bigger supporting role.

Ready? Choose a character and fill in this sentence:

To achieve their deepest desire, your Character must gain the thing they’re missing and face their darkest fear—before it’s too late.

Let’s pull this apart:

1. The deepest desire: At the start of your story, what does the character long for? We’re not talking about what they may need, only what they want (or think they want) most.

This desire can be something superficial or vitally important—and by the story’s end, the character may even discover that they don’t really want it after all. But at the start, the deepest desire is what motivates your character to leave their comfort zone and undergo new challenges. Which brings us to . . .

2. The missing thing: Along with their deepest desire, your character is missing something at the start of the story, something fundamental to themselves. The missing thing can be a flaw, a weakness, a lack of a certain ability, a lie they’ve always believed about themselves or the world, etc. Whatever it is, the character isn’t quite whole without it—and until they find it, they can’t achieve their full potential.

How do they gain the thing they’re missing? They gotta suffer for it. They have to face ever-worsening situations. And that brings us to . . .

3. Their darkest fear: What obstacle stands in the way of the character gaining what they lack? We’re not talking about fears like spiders or snakes here. The fear of rejection, being left behind, losing a home or loved one, having their greatest secret made public—these examples are relatable to readers because we often confront them in real life.

In your story, you may even have another character—perhaps an antagonist—who embodies this fear for your character. Meaning the character must face that antagonist to overcome the fear itself. And there’s not a moment to lose . . .

4. The stakes: The final piece—the “before it’s too late” bit—is critical. There doesn’t have to be a literal ticking clock over your character’s head, but without some pressure, there’s no need for your character to act. Without risk, there’s no growth. Whatever they are, the stakes must spur the character on to whatever end lies ahead.

Here’s a handy example: To end the war with the Fire Nation and help the world find balance (deepest desires), Aang must accept his role as the Avatar and master all four elements (missing things) so that he can confront Fire Lord Ozai and the Fire Nation’s subjugation of the whole world (darkest fear)—before Sozin’s Comet gives Ozai all the firepower he needs to destroy the other nations for good (the stakes).

With this exercise, you’ve pinned down the quintessential points needed for your character’s transformation: motivation, conflict, and urgency. However, you decide to outline (or not outline) the rest of your story, keeping this as your foundation will help you make sense of the choices your characters make, see how their struggles influence them and keep them compelling from start to finish.


Chris Cross is a Colorado native who, to the chagrin of friends and family, rambles on about stories (especially children’s/YA books) for hours on end. She took her love of kid lit a little too seriously and earned her Master of Arts in children’s literature from Kansas State University. She is a fun-loving Catholic, a real cookie monster, and an adequate crocheter. Her debut novel, “Brio,” is coming out in November 2021. Geek out with her on her personalauthor IG, and her website.

Top Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash   

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