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Monday, April 5, 2021

Sanderson's Character Scales

Hey everyone, today I'm here to share a perspective on characters that comes from #1 New York Times best-selling author Brandon Sanderson. I love learning from Sanderson because he's prolific, experienced, and successful (Wheel of Time, Mistborn, The Way of Kings . . .). I also love learning from him because he shares concepts and techniques that I have found nowhere else. Lately, one of his concepts has been revisiting my mind--his character scales. 

So in this post, I'm going to explain what they are and how they work, while sharing my own ideas and interpretations along the way. Let's dig in!

Brandon Sanderson's Character Scales

When it comes to characters, Sanderson envisions that each one has three "scales" or "dials." Basically, these are three different components that make a character interesting to the audience. They are . . . 

1. Likeability--how much the audience likes, empathizes with, or relates to the character

2. Competence--how skilled the character is (this often appeals to the audience through wish-fulfillment)

3. Proactivity--how motivated and proactive the character is (when the character has a significant goal and is taking action to reach it, the audience becomes invested in their journey)

These aren't either/or attributes, but spectrums. 

For example, we could say that each category can be measured from 1 - 10, one meaning the character scores very low in that category and ten meaning he or she scores very high in that category. 

In BBC's Sherlock, Sherlock scores high in competence and proactivity--he loves solving cases and he's very good at it. In those categories, he may be an eight or nine. But when it comes to likeability, he scores lower--he's a sociopath who can be a real jerk to people. In that category, he may be a three or four.

In contrast, Katniss from The Hunger Games is quite likeable (she volunteers herself) and competent (have you seen her shoot arrows?), but in regards to the real antagonist, she's rather passive. She doesn't really believe Panem can change. And for most of the series, she's actually not very interested in defeating the government. However, by the end of the series, this is her primary goal. She grows in proactivity.

It's possible to have a protagonist score low in two of the three. Harry Potter is likeable, but he's not very competent or proactive when it comes to dealing with his problems. Through his journey at Hogwarts, he becomes more competent and more proactive. 

Before we continue, there are a few points I need to make. 

- The likeability scale is based on how the audience feels about the character, not necessarily how other characters feel about the character. You may have a character that no one seems to like (such as Harry), but the audience still likes, so he may score high there. Likeability typically relates to how the character treats others (petting the dog), is treated (usually unfairly), or how similar he is to the audience (relatability).

- Competence can be measured a few different ways. It might be something like learning magic or shooting a bow, but it may also be something more subtle, like being a skilled negotiator or a born leader or having a silver tongue. A character may be competent in more than one thing, of course, but often this category relates to skills used in the plot. For example, if Katniss is really great at card games, that's not really related to competing in the Hunger Games, so she might as well not be great at card games--it doesn't matter, because it's not pertinent.

- "Proactivity" is always a term I hesitate using in the writing world because it actually means slightly different things depending on how you apply it. Structurally speaking, a protagonist must be proactive to have a great story. The protagonist has to do things to make plot happen. The protagonist has to do things to make story structure work. But characteristically speaking, a protagonist can be innately passive--meaning he or she has no real desire to move forward in the story, but is forced to because of the stakes. For example, Shrek really has no desire to save a princess, but if he doesn't rescue a princess, then he'll lose his swamp (stakes). He doesn't care about Fiona, he just wants to not lose something. This is what Sanderson's proactivity category is about--character not structure. To learn more about characteristically passive protagonists, check out "Getting Passive Protagonists to Act."

The character scales are not restricted to protagonists. They can be applied to any character to get a better understanding of him or her. For example, John Watson scores high on being likeable--he's probably the most relatable character in Sherlock. But he's lower in proactivity (sometimes he wants to have a normal life) and competence than Sherlock (which is why he works well as Sherlock's Influence Character). 

In The Hunger Games, Peeta is decently high in likeability and proactivity (early on he says he doesn't want to be a piece in the Games, he wants to show the Capitol they can't control him), but he's not particularly competent within the context of the plot (the Games). (However, one may argue that his likeability helps him in that he's more likely to get sponsors.)

Let's round out our examples, shall we? In Harry Potter, Hermione starts off as rather competent and proactive--she's doing everything she can to learn magic. But as a bossy know-it-all, she's not very likeable. By the end, she becomes more likeable. 

Most characters will start with one or two categories high and one or two categories low. 

For example, in the Farm Boy trope, the character is usually low in (pertinent) competence, higher in likeability, and maybe in the middle (a five) for proactivity (generally speaking). 

Villains will often be low in likeability, high in competence, and high in proactivity (generally speaking).

Positive steadfast protagonists are often high in likeability (unless the author is making it too easy to be good, in which case, they get annoying) and usually lower in proactivity (the reluctant hero, if you will). Often they are fairly competent (generally speaking). 

With that said, it's not impossible to have a character start with all high (like perhaps classic Superman) or all low, but the more focal that character, the more difficult that character will probably be to write, in a satisfying way. It can be done--for example, Leia in the original Star Wars scores rather high in all three categories--but it can be challenging. (I've heard plenty of people and writers complain about how difficult it is to write an excellent Superman movie.)

It's also possible to write characters who are about average in everything--but still, usually not as interesting. 

If you start looking around at characters, you'll almost always find them to be high in one or two and low in one or two. 

So, what is the point of all this? Well, a few actually.

One, with these scales, you can get an idea of how interested the audience will be in the character. If your protagonist is a jerk, and you are worried about it, you can bump up the other two to help compensate, a la Sherlock. You can also make sure to emphasize the other two more than the low likeability. You can check to make sure you aren't trying to write a "Super" man--unless, of course, that's the point. And you can make sure you aren't trying to write someone who isn't that interesting--someone who scores low in all three. 

Two, using these scales to measure your characters can give you a sense of how your cast functions. Sherlock and John pair well together because they are opposites in likeability. They are also sometimes opposites in proactivity. Same goes for Katniss and Peeta, and Harry and Hermione. 

However, this is not to say you can't have characters together who are close to the same--like Harry and Ron. But when that happens, often, the two are more likely to function as a unit. Harry and Ron are both learning to be more competent and proactive together (and thanks to the help of Hermione). 

You can also find interesting combinations, like pitting a very competent and proactive antagonist against a passive, incompetent protagonist. Or what about a likeable antagonist and unlikeable protagonist? 

It's just another way to gauge and measure. In one of my WIPs, each of my trio members is low in a different category, and I feel like that brings a sense of balance to my cast.

Three, the scales can give you an idea of how a character may grow or regress through the story. By the end of Sherlock, Sherlock becomes more likeable. By the end of Harry Potter, Harry becomes more competent and proactive. By the end of Hunger Games, Katniss becomes more proactive. 

It's also possible to slide down. Anakin becomes less likeable (and yet, more competent) as he becomes Darth Vader. 

And you can slide a character one way through the middle and back by the end. In Sam Raimi's Spider-man 2. Peter Parker slides down in competence through the middle, as he loses his powers, but regains them by the end.

In a sense, you may say that moving a character through these categories is a sort of character arc. After all, technically, a character arc just means that a character grows or changes (or . . . maybe doesn't). But I wouldn't say this is the same as The Character Arc--which is thematic. The Character Arc is about worldviews and value systems. It's about Harry learning love is the most powerful force. It's not about Harry learning to do magic or sticking up for himself. Those may be "character arcs" but they aren't The Character Arc (if you get me)--that's how I look at it.

However, these scale "character arcs" may play into The Character Arc. Sherlock's Character Arc is about valuing emotion and social relationships, which feeds into the theme of the whole series. So surely, growing in likeability--starting as a jerk and ending as a caring friend--connects into that. 

In short, while moving along these scales may be thematic, it's not necessarily directly thematic. It may be part of The Character Arc, but it isn't exactly the same thing. 

I believe these scales can be particularly useful for steadfast characters, as it gives them more motion, without compromising their steadfastness. This helps keep them from feeling stagnant.

For example, in a show I recently watched, the positive steadfast protagonist holds the correct worldview in the beginning, is tested to his breaking point in the middle, and proves his belief true at the end. 

However, in the process, he must move from being passive to proactive. He doesn't really want to deal with the antagonist--he is only dragged into the story by high stakes. In the second half of the middle, he struggles with trying to be proactive. At the end, he completes a "character arc" by initiating the final confrontation with the antagonist. 

In this sense, a character may have multiple character arcs. And heck, if you have more than one theme in the story, he or she may have multiple thematic arcs--which we'll talk about on a future day. 

For now, I hope you find Sanderson's scales useful to you. 

You can hear Sanderson talk about the scales himself, in his Youtube lecture on characters.


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