Characterisation: The Grand Trio

by limebirdlizzie

When reading a novel or short story of any genre I always find that one of the major pit falls is characterisation. If the character is poorly established, poorly named and/or difficult to relate to, then I don’t get past the first chapter, unless of course the plot line is immensely intriguing.

One of the first things we learnt about in my novel writing module at University was the grand trio. This is the basic foundation to building and establishing your characters and their believability in your story. Without solid characters, even the most amazingly well written story can seem tedious and dull. Your characters are the main focus of your story and therefore time and attention must be taken on each one to ensure that they have a purpose and a reason within your plot (even the most fleeting characters that are just passing through must have reason to be there).

When first considering your characters, you must put into place the foundation of who they are and who they will become as the story progresses. Forget picking out a name for the moment. There is no point having a beautiful, whimsical name just because you like it when it actual fact it doesn’t suit your character. To start establishing your characters you should put into place the grand trio, which is as follows.

The Basic Need – this is the source of all motivation. This usually relates to “old stuff” , needs and wants relating to experiences in childhood or adolescence. This can be anything from being loved, to be in control or being accepted.

When considering your character’s basic need, think about the circumstances that may have created this basic need. I always find that writing a one off scene featuring your characters in the past help you to understand a little more about where your character has come from. By creating these snapshots into the past it allows you as a writer to really understand your character a little more, making them a lot more dimensional. You can come to really understand what has shaped him or her into becoming what he/she is at the start of your story. For example if the basic need of your main character is to be loved, then perhaps this need is created because of some form of abandonment in their past.

Now I am by no means saying you should do this for each and every character in your novel, however I recommend this process for each character that plays a significant part in the story, as it really helps you to understand them and develop them to the extent where you have created a living breathing person who lives inside your novel. If you as a writer understand your character and can relate to them, then it’s easier for your readers to do the same.

The second part of the grand trio is the Fatal Flaw. This is the first layer of ambivalence. This is a personality trait that is rooted within the basic need. If allowed free reign this could potentially destroy the character’s life. The fatal flaw can be anything from stubbornness or rage to obsession or recklessness.

Following on from the example above, if the basic need is to feel loved due to being abandoned early on in life. The fatal flaw of this character could be passivity or people pleasing to such an extent that she allows people to control her and walk all over her.

When considering the fatal flaw think about which one gets them into trouble most often, what exacerbates small problems into larger ones? Think about if they are aware of this flaw within themselves or whether they do it without realising. Do they seek to limit their flaw or do they consider it a virtue?

Again writing short one off scenes that show the fatal flaw in effect is a must and also helps to identify where in the novel the fatal flaw can come into play and really show off how much of a problem it is even if your character never realises it before.

The final part of the grand trio is the greatest strength. This is the second layer of ambivalence. The same principle as the fatal flaw, the greatest strength is again rooted within the basic need but this time when it comes into effect it can save the character from his/her fatal flaw. This can be creativity, intelligence, courage or anything that will allow your character to be given the strength to persevere and grow within the story.

Carrying on with my previous example, the character’s basic need was to feel loved due to abandonment issues, the greatest weakness was people pleasing/passivity. In this case her greatest strength could be empathy.

When considering the character’s greatest strength, think carefully about what strengths your character will have, something that constantly redeems them, rescues them from difficulties. Again think about if they are aware of this strength within themselves or does it come through only when they are confronted with difficulty.

When your character is presented with a complication or crisis within your story then the basic need will kick in and at this point they will resort to either their fatal flaw or their greatest strength. Depending on how the story is to end for your character you get to chose which wins out in the end.

Of course characters are more complex than this and will have more than one strength and more than one flaw. However once you have this foundation in place then you will find that other character traits fall into place a lot easier.

This is where naming your characters come into play. Once you have built up a personality and a grand trio it is a lot easier to find a name that suits your character. If you have a fairly mundane character then there is no point in calling her something exotic because her character will never live up to the expectation that the name brings.

If you build this foundation for each character that has a significant role in your story, writing short snapshots into their lives as you go then you will have folders (whether virtual or solid) full of information that really bring your character to life making them a lot more three dimensional.

Once you have your characters in place then you can start considering their grand trios and how they relate to the plot line and the story that you want to tell.

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36 Responses to “Characterisation: The Grand Trio”

  1. Great debut Lizzie, sorry it’s taken me so long to get your first post up! This is really great advice and definitely something that I will take in to account when I’m writing my next story. Glad to have you on board! :)

  2. Nice piece.

    Always a fine balance between plot and character. One difficuly I found was resisting the urge to tell all the characters’ back-stories at the beginning of the book. Back-stories may help establish the characters, but it slows the pace and plot development.

    • I always had that problem, I love all the back stories of characters but it isn’t easy (or interesting) to put it into the novel, which is why as I develop the characters using the grand trio I tend to write short stories about key moments in the past of my characters. It’s really fun, though it can be very time consuming!

  3. I love it, Lizzie! What great ideas. I’m going to implement them very much in the rewrite. :)

  4. Thank you for sharing. I am writing a screenplay for my final writing project at Uni and your post has helped me to really add the final touches to my main character and her role within the plot/story. I will print this post and include it in my reflective journal.

  5. Thank you for such great advice!

  6. This is really useful, thank you. Characterisation is everything (or almost everything anyway!). I can’t remember which author it was who said that they always create their characters first and then let the characters tell them the story – it sounds like a somewhat pompous thing for an author to say, but I think there’s a lot of truth in it. When you’re writing fiction, it’s fantastic when you have those moments where you don’t want to stop writing because you can’t wait to find out what’s going to happen; it seems a ridiculous feeling to have when you are the one creating the story, but if you have really brought your characters to life then that can be exactly how you feel.

    • Honestly I rarely plot my story at the beginning. I develop my characters first and then write what I feel. By the time I get to the centre point of the story I usual have a plan of where it’ll end up. Every writer has process they go through to write and my process is to always look at my characters first because whichever author said they develop their characters first and let them tell the story is, in my opinion, correct, but that doesn’t apply to everyone. I was told, while at University that my way of writing is wrong. I believe however that no way of writing is wrong, you do it how you fell is best and easiest for you.Once I know the plot line, I can go back and change little bits and pieces to make it all fit in and flow nicely.

  7. great advice! I’m quite thankful that the main character in my book is based on myself; and the other characters are based on real people whom I already know. I hope the story is very interesting to everyone, my editor came back to me today and said that it was very interesting and well-written! There is hope!

    • I’m really glad your editor liked your work! (I am in need of an editor for my current work can you recommend yours?) One thing I will say about the characters being based on you and people you know is that it isn’t really advised. I was taught by an already published novelist at University and she, in her wisdom, told us that characters based on yourself and people you know are the hardest to develop and the hardest to relate to.
      By all means take aspects of yourself and your friends (goodness knows I do it all the time) but give your characters something that is just their’s, it’ll make them really come to life and come into their own, rather than being stuck in a box of being that person in your head that you know fantastically but isn’t known to your reader.

      • well, my book is a semi-autobiography, which i suppose is a bit different than a novel – the only MAJOR difference is that the story is based in Scotland instead of where I’m from…. it’s mostly autobiographical in that sense. My editor is a very close friend who, very kindly, did it for free :)

  8. Nice post.

    I don’t always go about things this way. Sometimes a name pops up and the character is built around it. According to my writing group, I did a great job of this with a character named Eustace.

    I’m still settling on a name for my main character in my backstory novel (yeah, I know, that simple scene turned into a novel – oops!). There’s always the question of whether to make the name really in line with their function/personality (which can perhaps be too much of a give away), make it in the right tone (which might be subjective), or even make it opposite. This gets rather difficult if the character evolves a great deal during the story or is very complicated (perhaps constantly wavering between selfishness and altruism).

    I read a great short story once where the main character was named Joy and was just the biggest curmudgeon. The contrast added emphasis to her personality.

    As an aside, I’ve gotten plenty of long looks when I’m surrounded by baby name books at the library – everyone thinks I’m pregnant when I do this. :)

    • One of my graveyard books (i.e. one that I wrote but will never see the light of day) was called, “The rise…and rise of Eustace Black.” He was a bit of a hapless character and the name just seemed to suit!

    • I actually own several baby name books and I owned half of them years before I was pregnant with my daughter!
      I can understand where you’re coming from, sometimes a name just comes into your head and that is the name you want to use. Developing the characters is my process of writing, but it isn’t everyone’s.
      Every writer has their own process of getting into the story and no way is wrong, this is just my way of doing it.

  9. Great first post. As someone who has not been through a university writing course it is interesting to see the scaffolding that can be used when constructing a story. I’m not sure I would go through all of the steps you mention e.g. writing backstory etc. but the ideas are there and will definitely percolate in the back of my brain!

    I love playing with names and, in one unfinished piece of mine, every name means something (anyone who knows the origin of the name would have a clue to something about that character).

    • I understand that it can be long and tedious to write copious amounts of back story that might never make it into the novel itself. This was just one step (out of hundreds looked at over three years of study) that we tried as writing students. If you didn’t want to do it to this extreme then maybe try writing 32 interesting points about each character. This can be personality traits, name meaning, looks, absolutely anything you want. I always try to make the names mean something but sometimes you just been a boring plain name for your character. Take Harry Potter for example, nothing amazing or interesting about that name but look at his character and everything he achieved within the seven stories!

  10. Really good advice. Characters are key!

  11. Great post. I’m fascinated by characterization and find myself reading with an eye to how authors show the various character traits of the people in their novels. Thanks for boiling the essentials down to the grand trio — if we writers can keep those elements in mind as we write, the story will be stronger for it.

    • I believe that strong characters can make for a strong story without doubt. I’m really glad you enjoyed this and I really hope that you find it helpful!

  12. Hi Lizzie, welcome to the gang, really useful first post. I never studied creative writing so it really helps to read this kind of advice.

    Now if I interpret this right, we should create a little Top Trumps card set for our characters to really understand them? Cool!

    • Kind of like top trumps :) I have huge folders for some characters, pages and pages worth of details, family trees and short stories from their past. I really enjoy characterisation and the more detail you add in the more you feel as if you know your characters.
      I’m glad my first post helped.

  13. Excellent advice as others have already said! Some of those “previous sketches” could easily make their way into the present story as flashbacks or revamped into a present-day event for the characters, too. The more we know about our characters, the more believable and 3-dimensional they’ll be in the story.

    • Another way of adding in back story to the novel (without being too boring) is to add it in slowly and in passing. For example: ‘The night was heavy and damp with the threat of rain, I could smell it in the air. It took me back to the night of my tenth birthday. I had been hiding from my brother in the back of the garden, nestled into a hollow within a large overgrown bush. He’d been bullying me relentlessly all day. He was older than me and as a child he had been terrifying. I reached into my bag and pulled out my umbrella as rain began to fall.’
      This is a simple memory triggered by the smell of rain in the air, but it puts across the idea of what her childhood was like without going into huge amounts of detail. This one sentence can be a whole short story within your own notes but for your novel, this is all it is, a passing mention.
      (Please forgive the example, I wrote it off the top of my head.)

  14. Lizzie, this is excellent advice. Thanks for breaking it down and explaining it. :)

  15. Welcome on board, Lizzie!

    One of my favorite parts of writing is characterization. I love building 3D characters, no matter how minor they might be nor no matter how bad they might be.

    I love the idea of The Grand Trio, and I will certainly apply it when I take a closer look at my characters in my WIP.

    • Really glad you liked it, I was rather nervous with my first post. It seems to have been a hit and I’m glad that so many writers will be attempting it! :)

  16. The main character in my story needs a bit more work. After reading this, I think I need to define her basic need and greatest strength some more. Thanks!

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