#WDC17: Creating a Character Web (AuthorToolbox)

As a part of my series of session recaps for the 2017 Writer’s Digest Conference, I’m figured I’d pass along the wisdom of character webs to my readers (as well as my AuthorToolbox friends). These little boogers are useful – not even just before you write your book, but after draft one. You only need to make one web one time to learn from it. So, to start:

Building a Character Web

A character web is a quick, killer tool for building more tension into your novel and for trimming the fat. Start a character web by putting your character and their driving force in the center. You can have two driving forces if those forces change throughout the book:

Then draw a line between your character and each other important side character, like so:

Next, add arrows. If the side character wants to help your main character, have an arrow pointing to the main character from the side character (and relate it to the given driving force). If the side character is working against your main character, have the arrow pointing away from the main character. In some cases, the arrow might go both ways, or the side character may not intend to be hurtful (characters which hurt the protagonist aren’t necessarily the bad guys; they may just have competing goals). For example:

Lastly, label the tension between the main character and each character – just a quick summary as to why they want to help or hurt the protagonist. Examples of tension:

  • Motives
  • Self-doubt
  • Ego
  • Fear
  • Weakness (Physical or Mental)
  • Addiction
  • Bias
  • Blind Spots

After this, you can complicate it as much as you want – place arrows between the side characters, or place arrows between the main character and themselves. Whatever works.

Ways to Use the Web

  1. Trim the Fat. Are two characters serving roughly the same purpose with roughly the same tension/motivations? Then cut one of them, or make them both into one person. On my map, you can see this happening with both the Eddie/Jamie characters and the Megan/Luke characters.
  2. Increase Conflict. Are too many characters working for your protagonist, and not very many against? Add more characters that don’t want yours to succeed, or cut some good guys, or make some of the good guys into bad guys. The same works in reverse. On my map, it seems like too many people are out to help Devon. I could do with more bad guys or fewer good guys.
  3. Vary Tension. Are some of the sources of tension too similar? Change that. Your book will feel fresher without repetition. On my map, too many people are driven by closed- or open-mindedness. That probably gets old for my reader, and needs a fix.
  4. Add Realism. Did you have trouble coming up with concrete explanations of tension? Then maybe those characters need a bit more work to feel real. On my map, I think I’ll be satisfied with the character motivations once I make character cuts, but still, I could refine my reasons a bit more, to add authenticity.

 

28 Comments

  1. This was great, thanks for outlining this method. Whilst reading I got distracted and started outlining my main character for my NaNo 2017 project, and it looks awesome. I only wish I’d started on a bigger piece of paper 🙂

    1. It’s very possible! I get new subscribers every day to my newsletter. I’m not notified when people sign up for my WordPress though. (I prefer people go for the newsletter. I have the sneaking suspicion WordPress doesn’t always email subscribers when posts go up.)

    1. I used Adobe Illustrator, unfortunately (since it’s not at ALL a free program), but I believe you could do the same thing in MS Paint – you just wouldn’t have as many font choices or the same ease of rearrangement/deletion. There are probably other image programs that would work too!

  2. Great post, Mica! I wrote a similar post last year after a talk by Michael Swanwick explaining this same method. He found after years of teaching that most failed stories he encountered formed either spaghetti (one long connected line) or just a star focused on the MC, instead of a web, when plotted this way. The one thing he did caution was that this method can be reductive and should be saved for the editing phase. However, visualizing the push and pull in your novel can really shine a light on problems you didn’t know you had. Thanks!

  3. It’s interesting. I like to do something similar, but my preference is to create lists, using columns or rows in lieu of arrows to designate relationships. There’s definitely something to be said for simplified diagrams of relationships, so that we can more easily see where things overlap and become redundant.

    Thanks for sharing.

  4. What an intriguing tool! I can definitely see it being a useful exercise to fill in plot holes and trench out excessive characters. To allow the mind to percolate and release ideas to flesh out the story. Thanks for sharing!

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