Sunday, May 22, 2022

True Character in the Characters You Write

by Craig von Buseck @CraigVonBuseck

Some of greatest literary characters in history are so beloved or reviled that they have become a part of our cultural consciousness. Just uttering their names transports us into their wonderful worlds—Ebenezer Scrooge, Scarlet O’Hara, Huckleberry Finn, Elizabeth Bennet, Captain Bligh—these characters and so many more have entertained us and taught us lessons that we have carried throughout our lives.

And it is not only fictional characters that have an impact. I can include in the list such notable real life characters as Elie Wiesel, Eleanor Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Golda Meir, Martin Luther King, Jr., Anne Frank—these inspiring true life characters have gone from stories to legends and have become engrained in our culture.

Character is the key to capturing the attention and the hearts of our readers. 

“At its most basic, as story begins with a character who wants something,” writes Jack Hart, “struggles to overcome barriers that stand in the way of achieving it, and moves through a series of actions—the actual story structure—to overcome them.”[1]

“The important thing is to remember that a story tends to rise and fall on the portrayal of the characters,” William Noble declares, “and character portrayal is simply an extension of drama and dramatic effect. Characters need to come alive on the page, and we do this by fleshing them out and allowing readers to blink, think and link … I understand that person … I’ve met him/her before … I really like that character…”[2]

“Character is the most important element of the story,” says Jon Franklin, “and the one on which all else depends. ‘Character’ has a literary definition. He or she is the human being whose life the complication complicates. It is he who acts, and is acted upon. It is he who reaches equilibrium when the resolution finally occurs.”

Well Rounded Characters

The way we get to know a character is by observing them as they live their life, as they confront and overcome obstacles, and as they interact with others—family, friends, associates, and even strangers. The character reveals himself or herself by being who they are.

“What does character do in a text?” Stepen Pyne asks. “At the simplest level, readers can identify with them—characters literally personify the story or theme. Most readers want to read about people; a book that can introduce characters even if its primary topic is a place, a social institution, or a scientific concept will elicit more reader interest; and of course character may be the object of inquiry, not simply a narrative device. Introducing character, or anchoring the text through characters, helps to crystallize the drama.”

Inner vs. External Struggle

The obstacles faced by a character can be either internal or external. But the struggle leading to character growth and change is primarily internal.

“It is my conviction that 75 percent of your story is your main character’s inner journey, or character arc,” writes Jeff Gerke. 

As an editor, Jeff has seen the lack of a satisfying inner journey in the characters of newer writers. “The protagonist may go through many trials and make a significant decision or take a big risk, but there’s something lacking.” Gerkes observes that this is something organic that, if it had been there, would have made the story truly special. He says the best story involves a main character who has a problem, an unresolved inner conflict.”[3]

“People don’t change,” Gerke explains, “until the cost of staying the same gets too high.”[4]

While the struggle happens internally, in narrative nonfiction we can only judge the change or the inner thoughts based on what the real person actually did, said, or wrote. Since our stories are true, we must maintain this journalistic integrity.

“There’s always danger in trying to get ‘inside’ a character with nonfiction because truth and reality may be elusive and incomplete,” William Noble cautions. “What a writer ‘thinks’ a character felt or didn’t feel can only be as accurate as the source the writer uses for the information. An attempt to ‘fictionalize’ in the interest of adding drama can only lead the writer into trouble.”[5]

The Protagonist

Your story revolves around the protagonist—the main character in any story. If the piece is written properly, the protagonist will be the person the audience cares most about.

Merriam-Webster defines a 'protagonist' as : the principal character in a literary work (such as a drama or story); the leading actor or principal character in a television show, movie, book, etc.; a leader, proponent, or supporter of a cause; a champion.[6]

“The protagonist of a story is the character most changed by the dramatic action,” Martha Alderson explains. “All other characters and the setting(s), too, influence the protagonist’s journey toward her goal directly, indirectly, or thematically. The growth and transformation of the protagonist is the line that runs through the entire plot.”[7]

The protagonist must be introduced to the reader quickly—in his or her best light—at the beginning of the book. 

“In the first quarter of your story, you are inviting the reader to develop a relationship with your protagonist,” Alderson explains. “Just as when you meet someone for the first time, begin by showing the character on her best behavior. Show off her strengths. Hint at her weaknesses and flaws, but keep them in the background. This gives the reader time to get to know and like the protagonist. As the reader becomes comfortable with the character, she is more apt to endure the protagonist’s flaws, fears, and prejudices, and to forgive her when she reveals the darker side of herself.”[8]

The Antagonist

According to the Britannica dictionary, an antagonist is the principal opponent or foil of the main character in a drama or narrative. The word is from the Greek antagnistḗs, “opponent or rival.”[9]

We see the key word “agon” in the center of both the words “protagonist” and “antagonist.” 

“In the ancient world, where abstract qualities such as luck, love, war, and victory were personified, humanized, and worshipped as gods, the potent force of polarity was recognized in the person of the Greek god Agon, the force of struggle and conflict,” writes Christopher Vogler.[10]

“Every protagonist needs to be opposed by someone to provide dramatic conflict,” writes script consultant Linda Seger. “This figure is the antagonist. Usually the antagonist is the person who stands against the hero. Mozart was the antagonist for Salieri; Darth Vader stood against Luke Skywalker… Sometimes the antagonist is a combination of people. It might be the ghosts in Ghostbusters or the townspeople in Jaws. In these cases, the antagonist might be a group of supporting characters whose function it is to keep the protagonist from achieving the goal.”[11]

“An engaging character with a long-term and worthy goal is not enough,” writes Martha Alderson. “To create excitement, something must impede the main character from moving forward. Antagonists—whether human or non-human, concrete or abstract—prevent the protagonist from achieving his goal and create conflict, tension, suspense, and curiosity.”

In every true life story—as in every person’s life—there are antagonistic forces keeping one from fulfilling their destiny. It is the forces of God arrayed against the forces of Lucifer in a cosmic battle—and we are all a part of it. It is the Jedi vs. the Sith. It is the Avengers vs. Thanos. It is light vs. darkness.

“The archetype known as the Shadow represents the energy of the dark side, the unexpressed, unrealized, or rejected aspects of something,” Christopher Vogler explains. “The negative face of the Shadow in stories is projected onto characters called villains, antagonists, or enemies. Villains and enemies are usually dedicated to the death, destruction, or defeat of the hero. Antagonists may not be quite so hostile—they may be Allies who are after the same goal but who disagree with the hero’s tactics. Antagonists and heroes in conflict are like horses in a team pulling in different directions, while villains and heroes in conflict are like trains on a head-on collision course.”[12]

The Bible gives us several examples of this struggle, which is both natural and spiritual. It is quite a dramatic tale which all begins with God’s promise of a Savior who will fight against the spiritual enemy of mankind. Speaking to the deceptive serpent in the Garden of Eden – the one the Bible calls Satan or the devil – God declares:

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring[a] and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”—Genesis 3:15, ESV.

This spiritual battle between the forces of God and the forces of the fallen angel, Lucifer, continue through the entire battle. There are some poignant passages that clearly identify the protagonist and the antagonist in Scripture.

The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.—1 John 3:8, ESV

When Satan is finally defeated at the end of days, the Bible gives this moving picture of God’s final victory over evil:

“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”—Revelation 21:3-5, ESV

Change is absolutely necessary in the telling of a rich story. If your character doesn’t significantly evolve over the course of the story, you may want to choose another true tale to tell. 

Adapted from Craig’s new book, Telling the Truth: How to Write Narrative Nonfiction, Biography and Memoir—coming later this year from Bold Vision Books. 


Dr. Craig von Buseck is an award-winning author, popular speaker, and the Digital Content Manager for the Parenting section of More from Craig at

1 Hart, Jack, Story Craft, 7.

[2] Noble, William, Writing Dramatic Nonfiction, 52.

[3] Gerke, Jeff, The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction, 74.

[4] Gerke, Jeff, The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction, 80.

[5] Noble, William, Writing Dramatic Nonfiction, 61-62.

[6] Merriam-Webster, 'Protagonist.' Accessed May, 2022.

[7] Alderson, Marth, The Plot Whisperer, 75.

[8] Alderson, Marth, The Plot Whisperer, 26-27.

[9] Britannica, 'Antagonist.' Accessed May, 2022.

[10] Vogler, Christopher, The Writer’s Journey, 332.

[11] Seger, Linda, Making a Good Script Great, 201.

[12] Vogler, Christopher, The Writer’s Journey, 65. 

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