Monday, January 28, 2013

Character Development Series: Question #6 - Lack and Compensation

We're getting close to winding up our character development series. But in my opinion, we've saved the most important questions for last.

Early on in this series we talked about human nature - dreams and goals. We also discussed the difference between how we (and our characters) see ourselves, versus how we believe others see us (and how both can be in conflict with how we actually appear).

Whether you've taken the time to go through the earlier questions and exercises or not, I'd challenge you to address this question for all your major characters. Because the answer will have a serious impact on your story:

Question #6 - How does your character see themselves as "lacking", and how do they over-compensate for it?

See, here's the thing: Everyone has goals (we'll get to that in the next question). But we also have self-inflicted boundaries or perceived flaws.

If your characters are like real people, each will see something in themselvest that they believe leaves them lacking. And because this issue is "big", they will do or say things to compensate for it. The problem is, in our humanity, we have a tendency not to gently balance out our flaws, but to rigidly and exuberantly over-compensate.

1. The short man believes his height leaves him potentially unattractive as a mate. So he picks fights, is overly sensitive about being "weak", and uses a booming voice to mark his presence in a room.

2. The woman who was bullied in high school finds it hard to believe anyone can truly like her. She overcompensates by giving extravegant gifts, being the "life of the party" in social situations, and always offering to help anyone who needs it, even at expense to herself.

3. The powerful guy believes no one can see (or care about) the real man behind his money and status. So he doesn't allow anyone to get close to him in case they prove to just be after his wealth or favors. He holds even the kindest friends at arm's length and refuses to trust anyone with his deepest feelings.

These examples are overly-simplified, but I wanted to make sure the theory is clear: Figure out what your characters believe to be their greatest weakness or flaw. Then figure out how that belief drives them in their day-to-day life. How has it shaped their personality? And how do they react out of that pain or weakness in relationships?

Next time you hit a hiccup in your manuscript, ask yourself whether that character's overcompensation should come into play. Or has the moment come for them to pull back the layers and lay themselves bare?

Your Turn: Any questions? Tell us about your protagonist's lack and overcompensation!



  1. I wish Blogger had a like button. Great post. I haven't focused on this as much as I should and I think it's a fantastic idea. I have one character who's worried about her own problems, so she tries to fix everyone else's. It works really well. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Awesome compensation! Very realistic. And thanks :)

  3. The apartment building that I've been renting a suite in has recently lost the ability to produce hot water. It has been over a week now, and we only get hot water sporadically (e.g. for a couple of hours each day, and in a completely random manner). I talked to the building manager, who initially assured me that it had been fixed, but after a couple of days, the problem came back. Should I ask for compensation for lack of hot water?