ENTRY 4 The Interior Elements of Character

by | May 15, 2013 | General | 4 comments


In this entry I propose:

To define a Deciding Character holistically

To define what makes a unique character arc

Describe the “Iceberg Theory”

Describing the desire arc

As in previous entries I want to caution that what I’m
writing about is within a certain context. 
Seat of the pantsers shouldn’t think about these things initially, but
write their passion and then go back and consult these ideas during the
rewriting phase, all the more necessary with spontaneously delivered first
drafts.  These are also ideas that can
help you make sense of the characters in movies, stories and novels that have
actually moved you and projected a strong sense of personality.

When you think of erotic love, when you think of your current
lover, ask yourself why you love that person. 
You could name traits.  You like
men who are tall and handsome.  You like a
woman with  big boobs and an assertive
sexual response.  You like a dominant
male.  You like a man who’s funny and
knows how to listen.  You like this and
you like that.

Nevertheless the world is full of women with big tits.  Full of men with big bank rolls and dominant
personalities.  They have not won your
heart in the way your lover has, who very likely doesn’t have many or any of
the traits you’d ascribe to a character.  What you have is empathy.  You know him
or her. You know the way a room feels different when they’re in it.  Sometimes when a man is away, a woman likes
to sleep in his T shirt because it smells like him.

In the real world, what causes us to fall in love has little
to do with traits initially and more often to do with an undefinable chemistry we’re barely aware of.  Or very often love begins from a personal
history, a man or a woman who has shown their loyalty by standing by you during
hard times.  There is an intangible moral
core at the heart of every great love or even a great friendship.  There is also this sense between a reader and
a well crafted character, an indefinable sense. 
You don’t have to like the character. 
But you need a sense of recognizing them, not of liking them but of finding
your humanity in them. 

In the most ancient stories and myths, characters were all
about action.  We didn’t know them so
well as people.  They were barely people
at all.  Shakespeare changed all that
with characters that were powerful and complex and had a way of sticking in the
imagination.  Shakespeare did this by
several innovations that we would take for granted today.  He introduced moral argument and connected it
to the soul of the character.  He would
leave out a key trait on purpose and leave in it’s place a contradiction that
made the character mysterious.  A
character wasn’t just about action in Shakespeare’s best plays.  The main character struggled with moral evolution.  The character felt the seeds of moral change
at the beginning of the story, the audience had a sense that “something is
about to happen here” and the character made moral decisions until by the end of the story this person
was profoundly changed.  King Lear starts
out as an old man full of illusions, arrogant, vain, insensitive to the personalities
of the people around him except as they reflect himself.  By the end of the play, he is destroyed in
every way, he is broken and impoverished and finally insane, but he has
acquired soulfulness.  He has acquired
through his suffering a genuine empathy for others he would not have had at the
beginning, and the beauty is that it all seems so natural. His progression
makes perfect sense.  Macbeth, Thane of
Cawdor starts out as a noble and ambitious warrior, brave and loyal to his king.  But he makes these moral choices that change
him, until by the end of the story he is a monster, friendless and hated.  And unforgettable.  The best characters are not about traits,
which are exterior elements of character, like clothes or wealth.  Like ourselves in our own moral journeys in
this world, the best characters are about change. 

This implies that once you are ready to rewrite or overhaul
your story, or if you write by careful planning, the real birth of your
character comes when you have found the moral argument, hidden in the core of
your story’s Designing Principle.  You
don’t need to find this in the first draft, but to write a solid story, a story
with soul, you need to find it by the final draft.  And you may have to overhaul it many times,
trying different approaches to the same premise before you discover what it
really is you’re trying to say.  I think
any story has the potential to be a great story, I think the problem is that we
stop exploring it too early. 

We know ourselves in this world, define ourselves by our
moral values, are often baffled by our own actions. Our moral values are shaped by contingency colliding with our
humanity and the decisions we make.  This
is how nature creates the infinite variety of human personality in this
world.  In our fiction craft this is the
line where the geometry of the narrative arc connects with the geometry of the
character arc.  Moral decisions.  Self-revelation leading to a final moral

There are many ways of approaching erotic fiction and
romantic fiction.  The school I’m coming
from doesn’t care how two people
fuck.  Here we care why.

The interior geometry of the story, the character arc is
defined by:

1.  The moral argument
at the core of the story

2.  The desire line of
the character – I want, therefore I am.

3.  Put Together –
this is who I am now.

In his book on craft “Anatomy of Story”, John
Truby defines what he calls the seven key steps of story structure as:

1.  Weakness and Need

2.  Desire

3.  Opponent (not
necessarily a person)

4.  Plan

5.  Battle

6.  Self-Revelation

7.  New Equilibrium

Truby advises starting the character arc by first defining to yourself the moral
change at the end of the character
arc, which would be about right after the big “come to death” moment where
things have gone very badly and the protagonist makes a life changing
Self-Revelation.  Knowing who he will become you can always go back to the beginning and trace
out the set up that leads to this big change. 
This seems difficult to me, but if you don’t mind planning ahead its
plausible.  In my experience I often
don’t know what the moral self-revelation is until the second or third
overhaul, but once you’ve arrived at it you can always go back and rebuild a
clean path to it.  At the end it should
have an organic feel to it; not strained.  It should feel as though things could not have
turned out any other way. 

The setup should introduce the protagonist as a thinking
person with the depth to experience self change.  The protagonist is hiding something inside
that is hurting him or herself.

When the Self revelation appears, it should strike quickly with dramatic
force, a burst of emotion for the protagonist and the reader.  It should introduce the protagonist to a new
insight and a new understanding of who he is.  For instance with Spider Man, it would be that moment when the face of the man who killed his Uncle Ben is revealed as the man he could have stopped a few hours before but didn’t.  His reason for being Spider Man radically changes from that instant.  This is typical of modern heroes and villains who very often are born and defined from a specific trauma.

This doesn’t have to be confined to the hero, the opponent,
who could also be the hero/heroines lover can also experience self-revelation.

The Iceberg Theory of Writing

Hemingway had this literary theory he said guided his
creative process, which is that the most important things were under the surface.  He called it his “iceberg” method.


As a general thing, one of the major prose differences
between popular fiction, and 90% of erotica and romance is popular fiction, and
so called literary fiction is this theory of omission.  Popular fiction tends to be explicit in describing emotions, physical sensations and key events up front, everything you need to know is
laid right out for you. Literacy short fiction, like poetry, attempts to push a lot of key
elements of the narrative and the character arc off stage and out of sight so
that the reader has a sense of something not being said.  The omission shines through and forces the
intuitive understanding of what is not being said.  When you have to figure it out yourself, when
you have to intuit the physical sensation or emotion, then your imagination owns it
personally. It’s something you’ve discovered for yourself.  Hemingway’s theory was that the omitted parts, carefully chosen, could strengthen the
story and help the reader to feel more than they understood.  Like poetry it pushes you to feel the story
as a whole, including the intuitive parts taking place off stage. 

This kind of writing, as well as poetry craft, boils
down to a creative decision of how you want to present the interior world of your
character.  Do you want to lay it all
out, or reveal through what is not being said?

Turning to my own poor stuff for an example, this week at the Oh Get a Grip blog my offering from today
is a short vignette which happens to be written in this iceberg style, if you’d
like to see an example of Hemingway’s idea in application.  The week’s theme is “Sex and Punishment” and
my story is called

“The Well:  A Story of
Sex and Punishment” 

(If you think you already know what this story is going to be about –
you’re wrong.)

But you can read it here:


The other most universal element of character in a well
structured short story is the desire line. 
A protagonist in short fiction should have one specific desire line.
More than one and things can get muddled and lose their dramatic power, because
the narrative drive is powered by the clarity of the Deciding Character’s
specific desire and need.  As obstacles
to fulfilling the desire appear, as personal weaknesses are revealed, the pressure on the protagonist is increased
as his intensity of desire increases. 
Consequently the desire has to be specific enough that the reader will
know if the desire has been satisfied or not. 
Suppose you say the heroines desire to is find true love. What
is true love?  How would she know it if
she found it?  Why is she even looking for it?  You should be able to
define the desire clearly in a sentence. 
The desire should at some point become personified in something
substantial and pursuable, Hitchcock’s “Mcguffin”, which may be an object or a
person.  It should coalesce as quickly as
possible from an abstraction into a thing that can be acted upon.   And when the self revelation has appeared
and the desire is reached or relinquished in defeat  the story should be quickly wrapped
up.  Part of good theater is knowing when
to take your bow and get your butt off the stage.

Speaking of which – see you next month.

Next Entry:  The Art of the Crit



  1. Lisabet Sarai

    "the best characters are about change"

    I want to write that on a post-it note and put it up above my monitor. That's the truth at the core of a great story.

    As for the Iceberg Theory – well, I just came from reading "The Well", which is a fabulous illustration.

    Thank you!

  2. Garceus

    Thank YOU!


  3. Donna

    Immensely useful and thought-provoking discussion of the craft as always. I have to add my own admiration of "The Well." So much is evoked by the spare, but perfectly chosen detail. What I love about an "iceberg" story is that it invites me to inhabit the characters and their experiences as if they were living human beings. The hints create a fascinating mystery that lingers long after I finish reading. Moral choice definitely creates this effect–something we can translate to our own lives. Great post! (And to other readers–check out "The Well.")

  4. Jean Roberta

    Good post, Garce! I didn't know that Hemingway was the source of the Iceberg Theory, but this makes much sense.

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