A Character Formula: Delight, Fear, Loss, Illusion, Ambition


For character-driven stories, you need to know characters well. Even plot-driven stories require knowing the main characters. Try my own DeLFIA method for addressing the essentials as they impinge the plot.

Write character name or function (protagonist, antagonist, associates). (Let’s assume female protagonist.) Then write —

She is DELIGHTED by . . . .

and brain-dump. Then go on to —

She has LOST . . . .

She FEARS . . . .

Her ILLUSIONS are . . . .

Her AMBITIONS are . . . .

(see, DeLFIA)

Ignore universal fears like death or harm, or universal ambitions like staying alive. Concentrate on those particular to this character.

When completed, DeLFIA helps plotting. Consider your protagonist primary, then work others in as possible:

DELIGHTS should draw them deeper into the plot past obstacles. This positive motivation forges relationships, good or ill. Protagonist admiration on some level may make opposing the antagonist difficult, or make them indulge some favoured associate’s mistakes too long.

LOSSES give motivations for fears, ambitions, even illusions. At least one loss should be made good by the end of the tale — new attachment, restoration of belief or situation — as fits, for a positive note and sense of growth that readers like.

At least one AMBITION should be fulfilled by a novel’s end (feels good after 100,000 words) and one should be thwarted or abandoned (feels realistic that not everything goes their way). 4ex, if your protagonist priimarily wants to marry the prince and win the throne, either she gets the throne and loses the prince, or vice versa. Ambitions often shape the climax, in a character’s decision of what to keep and what to give up.

ILLUSIONS, false ideas, should mostly be challenged and stripped, for growth. These give plot incidents. Keeping illusions represents stagnation, which can be used, too, usually in a secondary character.

Force FEARS to be faced, often to destroy illusions. Run protagonists through their nightmares. Facing fears or illusions should provide extra internal energy to the actual or major climax.

An actual loss or fear, can be used for the Disturbing Event. This starts the story as character-driven with this thread of personality.

Secondary characters’ DeLFIA should interweave with the protagonist’s. Are ambitions in conflict? If one’s delight triggers another’s fears, how will they grow past that? Do they restore losses for each other?

For the antagonist, DELIGHT might set the protagonist opposition or cause tactical mistakes as they indulge themselves. The true sadist will destroy a village when leaving it untouched would have fooled, not warned, the good guys. Antagonist LOSS might motivate any of these. FEARS, plucked by protagonist actions, make antagonists strike or flee. ILLUSIONS cripple them (growth is not required of and often denied antagonists). AMBITIONs are usually what heroes oppose.

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