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I'm attempting to use the Snowflake method to try and get around issues I tend to have with writing. I can pump out words, tons of words; not a problem. But, at the end of the day it's a relatively unfocused mess; so the snowflake method appeals to me because it's getting me to ask the hard questions early.

For those of you who have used it, how do you approach step 3? Characters have always been a problem for me, especially relatable ones that inspire reader investment. I understand at a high level want+thing blocking desire. I understand rising tension through conflict. Is that all I'm looking for here in step 3?

What are the right steps to take, bases to cover, to ensure you have successful characters at this step? I'm looking specifically for advice regarding the snowflake method itself; not general character building advice for other methods of writing, as valid as they may be.

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    Please can you clarify what the 'Snowflake Method' is? I'll admit I haven't heard of it before. I'm well aware google exists, but for the sake of the folks here, it may be easier to briefly explain here. – Matthew Dave Oct 2 '18 at 15:48
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    Nothing "ensures" successful characters. But I think the step is pretty well explained. The most important line is written in the last paragraph. "It doesn’t have to be perfect." Like all things and all steps. They are designed to make you advance and eventually complete something. – Totumus Maximus Oct 2 '18 at 15:51
  • Okay I have never used this method so I'm not qualified to answer the question but I will tell you why I've never used it; Step 1, trying to define where a story is going before you've seen the end of it is counterproductive to the process of discovering the narrative. Good stories come from having compelling characters and rich settings you can't create those characters or that depth when you're already trying to put the story together. – Ash Oct 2 '18 at 16:04
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    I'm not going to explain the snowflake method because I'm trying to figure out how to use it, not fully understanding it myself yet. While I appreciate the attempts at input here to try and get me to explain it or to speculate on how it is used, I'm looking for people experienced with the method to comment. – Kirk Oct 3 '18 at 1:27
  • I'm not an expert in the Snowflake Method, but I got the impression (perhaps wrongly) that the difficulty in using the third step stems from the difficulty to summarise the 'character points'. If that is the case, I suggest answering the points for characters from books you've read and admire. Maybe that exercise will help you have a clearer idea of how to go about it. – Sara Costa Oct 3 '18 at 1:46
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Preface: What the Snowflake method [SFM] doesn't provide. I have added this after my main post, to make this explicit.

In SFM Step 3, you decide upon your main characters motivation, goal, conflict, and epiphany. You provide a one-sentence story line. Clearly these notes do not determine your character's personality, if they are good or bad, if they are funny, irritable, kind or mean. "Motivation" might explain they are inherently good or selfish, but this is still not enough to make your character likable, human, compelling, etc. Unfortunately most people's "motivation," hero or villain, is given as shallow: For the hero: "They are her family thus she must save them," or for the villain, "He loves power and money". These shallow one-sentence motivations also don't make your character seem real.

In SFM Step 5, you write a 1 page character synopses to "tell the story from the point of view of each character." At the standard 250 words per page, this isn't much, and the point here again is plotting, making these stories fit together. It is not actually character development, other than making decisions for a character about what they do next. In any highly condensed representation of your story, you don't really figure out what makes your character tick, the incidents in her life that shape who she is when the story begins. Revealing these things in the course of the story, through conversations and reactions to others, is part of what makes the character feel real.

In SFM Step 7: You expand your character descriptions into full-fledged character charts detailing everything there is to know about each character. Birth date, description, history, motivation, goal, etc. "Most importantly, how will this character change by the end of the novel?"

The "History" component would help flesh out a character, explain why she is where she is, what traumas have led her to where she is, but the SFM gives short shrift to this, lumping it in with her birth day and "etc" in a "chart".

History is the soul of your character.

Her childhood dreams and aspirations shaped her, and are largely instilled in her by those that raised her. Her childhood traumas, losses, disasters and deaths shaped her. Some of these are what make villains and make heroes. The history that shaped her, and how she responded to it, is what makes her "real" to people.

SFM Step 8: Planning and plotting of scenes. All fine, but focused on plot, and still no history of the characters, so you are inventing that on the fly.

SFM Step 9: Optional, a summary of your story.

SFM Step 10: Write the first draft and solve small scale problems.

The Snowflake method doesn't help you develop "real" characters.

That is my conclusion of this preface. Now the OP asks, "What are the right steps to take, bases to cover, to ensure you have successful characters at this step?"

Because the SFM doesn't include a focus on a "successful" character, you need supplement it with a step 3(a), "Describe the driving personality points of your character, with incidents that justify each." if she is ruthless, why? What happened to her to make her that way? If she is fearful, or brave, or promiscuous, or chaste, or shy or bold, or funny or not, tell me why. If she has never been in love, why not?

The SFM guy says in Step 3, "Characters are the most important part of any novel," and in Step 5, "Editors love character synopses, because editors love character-based fiction."

Yet the SFM pays little attention to getting readers invested in the characters, showing their emotional makeup, the emotional events that shaped them, and why they are the way they are. It is more suited to an action novel, which can be fine fun. But although 007 is fun to watch, he's a cardboard character. We don't know how 007 came to be an agent, learned to kill, etc. He's pretty emotionless. By comparison Jason Bourne is a much more emotional character in the same vein, and feels more like a real person because of the emotional non-action scenes in those movies.

In my work, I consider a "successful" character to be one the readers feel like they know, so by the time they are halfway through the book their reactions to the character's actions are "yeah, that makes sense." A successful character is one the reader understands and is not neutral, the reader either actively likes them, or dislikes them. To accomplish that you need to make them human.

IMO, a simple list of traits (as I think the SFM encourages you to develop) doesn't work, for the traits to be coherent (not contradictory) you need a "why" behind them in the history of the character.

This is what was in my mind before writing the post below; to make your character "successful" you must do a bit more than the SFM details, or at least invest the character creation steps 3 and 5 with a greater focus on their personality and a history of how it came to be. A laundry list of traits does not make a person, nor does it make them likable or unlikeable. Their history results in their traits, and their actions towards other characters (and the reactions of those other characters) make them likable or unlikeable.


It doesn't make too much difference which method you use; good characters are good characters, and have been since before we began analyzing stories and coming up with templates to write them. That is all the Snowflake method is, one more template, like the three act structure, or Shakespeare's five act structure, or Brandon Sanderson's videos on character, etc.

What you want in your character is something the reader will have a strong reaction to. It doesn't have to be "extreme", but it should be obvious: They are kind, or they are mean. I always make sure my characters, all of them that are mentioned in more than one scene, have something they are very good at, and something they are very poor at.

Your hero(es) and villian(s) should be proactive. They have problems, and they take actions in some way to solve them. Others in the story can be reactive, but not the main ones.

If you want your hero likable, she should be liked by other characters, generally for reason, they are helpful or understanding, not cruel. The opposite if you want a character unlikable, she should be disliked for a reason, she is rude, cruel, murderous, careless, or otherwise selfish in some manner.

Most cases of "likable" and "unlikable" involve the extremes of "other oriented" or "self oriented", in the extreme case of unlikable, the villain has no care for anybody but herself, and will kill, or let others die, or ruin lives if it poses no threat to her, and brings her any advantage. However, some of the traits that make her unlikeable are advantages for success in politics, business or crime, or any kind of large organization (even a charity), where a little backstabbing, rumor mongering or unethical tactics helps one get ahead.

In the extreme case of likable, a person is so "other oriented" that she would sacrifice her life to save another. Slightly less extreme is risking her life, or sacrificing her time to help.

People can also be liked for their humor, or for their skill or expertise. In writing, you generally don't want to hit the extremes except in extreme circumstances. For example, Sherlock Holmes is not a very likable character, but we like him anyway, and he is written to do far more good than harm. We wouldn't reject him as a friend.

That is why my main characters have something they are good at, to increase their likability, and something they are not that good at (that matters and affects the story), to help humanize them and make them not relentlessly good, or good at everything. Preferably (to me) the good thing comes at the cost of the bad thing; but I don't consider that a necessity. Sherlock's detective skill, for example, can come at the cost of social skill.

It takes more than just a "high level of want" and obstacle. You need the reader to also want that for the character, because they believe the world will be a better place for everybody if the hero gets the thing she wants, and the villain doesn't get what she wants.

Having said that, what she wants doesn't have to be world-changing, she may want safety for herself and her kids. In the movie, Erin Brockovich wants justice that will result in care for the people of the town, fathers, mothers and kids that were poisoned. That's what she's fighting for, not to take over the world, but right a wrong.

Finally, I'd disagree with the notion that there must be a high level of want for anything specific. A coming-of-age story can be great without any particular villain, without any particular goal for the hero, just a series of events and problems to overcome that end up changing who they are. Little Women is still enjoyed by thousands every year, and the girls are just growing up and having their life experiences, good and bad.

On balance you want your heroes likeable, and those that get in their way unlikeable, and vice-versa for your villains.

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    @Kirk I've read it, and you asked "what else ... to have a successful character?" That is what I am providing you with, from a professional writer's POV. No, I don't use it, I don't write formulaic stories. They work, they make money, they bore me as a writer. Regardless of how you find your story, you STILL need what I answered above, to have "relatable [characters] that inspire reader investment". My answer gives you "the right steps to take, bases to cover, to ensure you have successful characters". No matter how you design your story, this advice in some form is a necessity. – Amadeus Oct 3 '18 at 9:29
  • This is a better answer, but I still think you're being too hard on the method/tool itself. It is not clear from that article I linked (which is a teaser) that the creator of the method is actually fairly in line with your viewpoint of what a character should be. This may feel like a reach too far for me to say, but I think you've prejudged something you don't fully understand. It's not for me to tell you what to do or how to think, but I will proffer that the snowflake method appears to me to be a method to end up where you think an author should end up. – Kirk Oct 5 '18 at 11:32
  • @Kirk it isn't for me, it is just another way of pre-plotting a book, and I am successful without that, because I write real character driven stories by developing real characters first, setting them loose and seeing what they do. The SFM is "formulaic" in the sense of providing a formula for pre-planned outlining of an entire story and then writing to the plan. I have not read the book or taken the course, but yours is not the first summary of it I have written, and for me focuses far too much on outlining to be useful to me at all. I'll take the 500 hour route I know works, thanks. – Amadeus Oct 5 '18 at 11:38
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    I'm not asking you to adopt it; I'm asking you to respect that a person asking a question on this site might have reasons for exploring a method, even if you would never use that method personally. I've tried the 500 hour method and it doesn't work for me. It would probably be better for us to end whatever this exchange is at this point; you've gotten the answer to a point that it's at least relevant to my question. Thank you for putting in the effort, I do appreciate it. – Kirk Oct 5 '18 at 12:07
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According to the linked website you provided, the points are pretty self-explanatory. Copy-pasting from the site:

  • The character’s name
  • A one-sentence summary of the character’s storyline
  • The character’s motivation (what does he/she want abstractly?)
  • The character’s goal (what does he/she want concretely?)
  • The character’s conflict (what prevents him/her from reaching this goal?)
  • The character’s epiphany (what will he/she learn, how will he/she change?)
  • A one-paragraph summary of the character’s storyline

These aren't enough to make a truly memorable character, but certainly a good start. I would say that all you need is sufficient familiarity with what it is you want to achieve with your story. I'll just run through this with my own main character and see if any epiphanies come to me regarding my thought process as I fill it in...

  • The character’s name: Amerei Gemcutter (only thought that really went into this one is ensuring it's memorable)
  • A one-sentence summary of the character’s storyline: Runs away from neglectful mother, finds a new family and purpose overseas. (the hardest part for me is summarising in one sentence, and if you can't, then perhaps your arc is too convoluted. I'm certainly having concerns given this one was actually a challenge to me)
  • The character’s motivation: Finding somewhere she belongs, having something to work for. (this doesn't take much thought if you already have a good idea of the themes you wish to explore; with me, it's themes of belongingness, neglect, existential boredom and why children act out)
  • The character’s goal: To run away from home, after that to be safe, after that to become a decent archer. (this is inevitably influenced by the previous point, but is just given a concrete form that manifests in the story text itself, not merely in the themes between the lines)
  • The character’s conflict: Her own judgemental nature and guilt complex over things she can't help, as well as conveniently ignoring things she can help. (there's two major forms of conflict; internal and external. I prefer internal conflicts, but external conflicts come in many forms, ranging from 'the evil overlord' to 'the storm that doesn't seem to end'. Once again, being intimately familiar with what you hope to explore with your story helps here)
  • The character’s epiphany: That sometimes, no amount of judging and inserting of oneself into a situation will change it, and one should, in oneself and others, only focus on what one can change (once again, this is strongly tied with theme; if you know what you hope to explore, this fills itself)
  • A one-paragraph summary of the character’s storyline: Resentful of her neglectful family, she runs away, hoping to be adopted by someone. Ends up overseas, experiences a trauma she blames herself for, and winds up taken care of by a foreign village she doesn't know. Struggles with belonging due to idleness and trauma, but makes friends as she relaxes and hones a skill (archery). Experiences another trauma at the end and comes out the other side from embracing that there are some things that cannot be helped. (this is essentially an elaboration on the first point, but assisted by all the previous points, hence why it's filled in last).

Now, sorry for the ramble, but by going through the process, I can safely say that the key to this exercise is to know what you're exploring and furthermore, how to connect the points you're making together into a cohesive whole. The fact my example doesn't fully do that shows that I've likely overcomplicated my own story. At the very least, it implies that my focus is fuzzy.

Honestly, it's a good exercise, makes you think hard about what you hope to explore with your characters. Thanks for introducing me to the concept!

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Since we lack a snowflake expert on writing.se, I went to the source and bought the book. That book is an experience, one which I don't want to regurgitate in full here, so to elucidate the material on the published article here's what the step 3 paragraph summary is asking for (and the elements you should figure out prior to writing it).

Step 3) The above gives you a high-level view of your novel. Now you need something similar for the storylines of each of your characters. Characters are the most important part of any novel, and the time you invest in designing them up front will pay off ten-fold when you start writing. For each of your major characters, take an hour and write a one-page summary sheet that tells:

The character’s name

  • A one-sentence summary of the character’s storyline
  • The character’s motivation (what does he/she want abstractly?)
  • The character’s goal (what does he/she want concretely?)
  • The character’s conflict (what prevents him/her from reaching this goal?)
  • The character’s epiphany (what will he/she learn, how will he/she change?
  • A one-paragraph summary of the character’s storyline

First, the paragraph you're writing for each character is a paragraph written as if that character were the protagonist of the book. You are attempting to write the 5 sentence paragraph you wrote previously for the whole book in the pov of the character you are currently analyzing.

The primary things advocated by the snowflake method for a character sheet in step 3:

  • What they value above all else (abstract motivations, should be at least 2 things that they value; things they would be unwilling to compromise on and are axiomatic to their thinking)
  • Goals (a set of concrete things they desire)
  • Conflict (what things stand in the way of achieving said goal; of sticking to their values. Ideally the events of the story will bring goals/values into conflict with each other so that the character has to make choices)
  • Epiphany (What thing will they realize due to the conflicts which compromise their goals values?)
  • A paragraph that emphasizes their stakes, reactions & change that represents their whole path through the conflict. Again, likely oriented around the same disasters outlined in previous steps.

Example - The Prestige - Borden (Spoilers - Movie)

Borden Values:

  • Getting his revenge on Angier (will not compromise on this)
  • Keeping the secret of his magic
  • Having the technically best magic show/being the best magician
  • His assistant, and then his Wife/Daughter
  • The sanctity of his perfect magic trick: the transported man.

Goals: (Concrete, obtainable, but difficult)

  • Star in his own magic show
  • Keep Angier from ruining/stealing his magic show
  • Be a better magician than Angier
  • Protect his family from Angier, himself

Conflict:

  • Because Borden's actions led to the death of Angier's love, Angier will not leave him alone to be successful.
  • Because he has been harmed by Angier, he feels he must get revenge on Angier
  • Borden has a secret that only he and one other person know that is destroying his life & relationships, but is important to keep to protect his act.
  • Borden needs to know the secret behind Angier's trick since it is showing up his own act, one he has sacrificed greatly for.

Epiphany:

He and Angier have done monstrous things that have cost them each everything (he a wife, a daughter, & a brother), and it wasn't worth it, but he can make the sacrifice to save his better half and potentially his daughter's future)

Paragraph Summary:

Borden and Angier are assistant magicians when Borden, through a lack of attention, kills Angier's wife by tying the wrong knot for a water escape trick and he loses his job and mentor. With no connections to gain an audience, Borden perfects his tricks on the side, but he loses 2 fingers to a deception orchestrated by Angier and then his audience after Angier steals and perfects the theatrics of the act. Driven by rage, Borden learns Angier's method and tries to expose, ridicule and bring down Angier's show only to have his close, personal assistant kidnapped; worse he is required to give up his trick to the man he hates to save his assistant's life. The journal he gave Angier, a red herring, tricked the man into traveling to America, but Angier returns with a magical device that he uses to perfect the transported-man act. When Borden investigates he believes he has seen Angier die below stage, only to be arrested for the man's death. Borden is on death row, his daughter is up for adoption, his wife dead at her own hand, and Angier, somehow not actually dead, desperately wants to know the original secret to the Transported Man. Borden agrees to give him the secret on certain conditions, but when his personal assistant learns the truth of Angier he murders the real Angier.

(As the author, you would spoil the ending, but I for reason's have not so fully done so)

While it's true that what we're largely after here is plot; by prioritizing story and conflict you end up with a pitchable, sellable story. But it only works if the characters are to be believed. A lot of who these people are is still missing, but knowing their core drivers means that the smaller details can fit in around the more important ones. If you fail to create interesting, likable characters in the later steps who believably end up in these situations with these values, then you haven't made good enough characters; but if you can do the normal stuff on top of this layer you are assured to have written a story this at minimum on point with stakes a reader can invest in; which does help with getting them to empathize with the character.

To respect the author & publishing, if you need more information on any of the points above they can be found in the book. I think the thing I was missing was the way the elements should play together to cause conflict & epiphany. The book is rife with examples that make the point clear; though your mileage may vary as the points are made via narration of an example story that illustrates both the method and the reason why the method is supposed to work. The book interestingly uses "dog-fooding" in that it is written using the method it describes and is therefor itself an example of how each thing should be used. Off-putting at first, but ultimately helpful.

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