Character creation lessons from a medieval religious thinker

You don't understand much about people if you haven't spent any time wondering about people.

You know what's the secret to interesting writing that people want to read?

Answer: Writing about interesting people with interesting problems.

Sounds simple enough.

And it can be. Walk outside, anywhere there's people going about their business.

If you're locked in your house under home detention "for your own good" as many are right now, then use other sources.

Read biographies.

Check out the headlines on the NY Post and the National Enquirer.

You'll find drama aplenty.

Getting ideas is the easy part.

The hard part is understanding how humans tick

That's not something I could teach you even if I were inclined to teach.

Nobody really understands humans.

Not even the cognitive psychologists.. and especially not the neuroscience crowd.

Understanding a brain... or how subjects behave in highly contrived experimental settings... doesn't tell you much about humans. As a mentor of mine once put it, these kinds of studies either elaborate on the obvious or fail to address the interesting questions.

Best we get is insightful glimpses into that writhing black hive of neurosis and appetite that is the psyche.

For my money, if I want insights into how people behave, I'd check out artists and old-time intellectuals. Humans have been writing about humans, real and fictional, since there have been words to write with.

Before that we told stories out loud.

Human behavior doesn't change much.

That's why you can read Homer and Ovid and Lao Tzu and still understand what's going on.

You can relate to these people and their struggles.


Writers are pretty good at character building

Today's big names will tell you all about it if you only listen.

Bestselling epic fantasy author Brandon Sanderson says to build characters around three dimensions:

  • Likeability – Can I relate to or sympathize with this person?
  • Motivation – Is this person driven to action to attain a goal?
  • Competence – Can this person believably attain that goal?

Prolific author and showrunner J. Michael Straczynski points the reader to three different aspects of dramatic characterization:

  • Choice
  • Consequence
  • Responsibility

These are each facets of a character's actions. What one chooses, how a person relates to the consequences of those choices, and whether they accept responsibility all tell you a great deal about the content of a character.

They're also the secret ingredients of conflict that arises between opposing characters with incompatible motivations and goals.

Action, if you weren't aware, is one of the defining features of a person's character.

What you do defines who you are.

The founding father of drama and psychology, Aristotle, once put it this way:

Dramatic action, therefore, is not with a view to the representation of character: character comes in as subsidiary to the actions.

Your character develops out of the actions you do. Your actions follow from your character and your thoughts.

It's circular reasoning, yes. Fortunately the circularity is not vicious.

Aristotle lived in a world where higher forces acted on human beings. Gods, Fate, monsters, all kinds of nymphs and naiads and faeries. That's still true today. We just aren't so forthright in admitting it.

Aristotle understood what so few today are willing to admit: That human motivations always aim towards an ultimate guiding star. Few of our desires, choices, and actions make sense without reference to higher purposes.

Those that deny this haven't escaped the truth... they've only gotten clever at hiding the purpose that guides them.

Which is why...

One of my favorite sources for deep psychological insights is the Summa Theologiae

That's right. St. Thomas Aquinas, master of characterization.

Even if you don't care much about religion...

Even if you're a hardcore atheist...

St. Thomas is one of history's brightest minds and deepest thinkers.

The insights into character in the Summa should not be missed.

The First Part of the Second Part lays out a users guide to human actions, passions, habits, and the virtues and vices.

The Second Part of the Second Part is a masterclass in moral psychology, taking the reader on a deep dive into the three theological virtues and the four cardinal virtues handed down from Aristotle.

Not to mention the explorations of vice and sin... must-haves for anyone trying to cook up wicked villains and conflicted heroes.

St. Thomas is as clear and methodical a writer as any you'll find in our era or any other.

Beware: There's archaic expressions and you'll have to think a little bit about what you read. Soy-boy atheists, who already don't like to think deeply, will recoil in horror at the constant references to God and divinity.

In my book that's all the more reason to dig in.

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