Main Characters are Two People

Olmec six feet high found in jungleAt times, my protagonist lacks the third dimension. Today, I found out why.

In her book, The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal, PhD, suggests that our prefrontal cortex’s ability to say, “I will,” “I won’t,” and “I want” separates us from the animals.

It’s as if there were two people inside each of us, she says – one who wants to be thin and one who wants a donut.

To bring a character to life, it may be essential to include the thing that this brilliant PhD health psychologist from Stanford considers the defining human trait: self-control.

Every living, breathing, leading fictional character contains two different people who are fighting for control. It’s an internal war.

Like everything real, the level of internal conflict falls naturally into a bell-shaped curve.

Heroes will often be outliers in their area of strength, of course…

Johanna, for instance, doesn’t hesitate to sacrifice herself for her autistic brother (he’s fighting depression in the latest version, actually).

But when it comes to other things, she needs to struggle more than I want her to.

Sometimes she needs to lose a battle against herself.

In “Writing Two Things for Magic,” I noted that the human mind finds euphoria in following two different things at the same time, such as two simultaneous melodies in a song (like a descant).

In creating characters, the same principle applies.

We find magic and euphoria in a character who brings both of their inner fighters to the war. One wants immediate gratification, the other wants a tougher goal…

It reminds me of what I’m doing right now. Part of me wants to surf the internet and check my email, another part wants to become a successful independent writer.

Enough surfing for now?

By the way, you might want to check out The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal, PhD. So far it seems like it could be a life-changing book.

M. Talmage Moorehead

My current in-progress version of Johanna’s novel (written by her from another universe) is kind of different. If you’re interested in intelligent design, weird artifacts, genetics and psychology from the perspective of a nineteen-year-old “Hapa Girl,” it may be a fun read. In this version, Johanna is a genius geneticist with a younger brother who struggles with depression, though you wouldn’t know it to meet him. Her evolving story starts here.

It’s an experiment called, Hapa Girl DNA, and is a hybrid itself – a tightrope crossing of fiction and non-fiction. “Hapa” is the Hawaiian term for “half.” Johanna is half Japanese and half Jewish. In writing her novel, she and I ignore some important fiction-writing rules, partly because we like to test dogmas and partly because it’s fun to try new things.

But the “rules” are essential knowledge to anyone crazy enough to either break them or follow them mindlessly.

So you could download my e-book on fiction writing, the second to last chapter of which gives my current opinions on many of the dogmatic rules of fiction writing. Downloading that 10,000 word file will place you on my short list of people who will be politely notified when my traditional novel is done – possibly before the next ice age. (No spam or sharing of your info. I haven’t sent an email to my list yet. It’s been over a year.)

Next time you’re writing emails, if you think of it, please tell your best and hopefully weirdest friend about my blog ( Thanks! I appreciate your thoughtfulness.


6 thoughts on “Main Characters are Two People

    • I tend to subconsciously avoid writing conflict, but as I’m always reminding myself, conflict is probably the main force of narrative drive (the exothermic energy flow of a page-turner). Having an inner conflict is sometimes a useful break from all the external conflict we try to write.

  1. Thanks, friend!

    Getting that feedback felt like an episode from my earliest college days, when I landed the lead roles in two plays. During the performance of one, from the stage I could hear people in the audience sobbing; and after a performance of the other, I met my mother, who had attended, and who looked as if she was in shock. She said, “I came here thinking you’d never be able to play a convincing middle-aged woman: after all, you’re my own 17-year-old daughter. But you made me forget who you are!”

    I think it takes tapping into your inner Method Actor, to write such moments for characters that will take readers away from themselves. I wish more people would give the book a real try, so they could get that feeling. A bunch of folks say it’s on their TBR, and I’ve published lengthy previews at two sites, but it sells poorly, perhaps because it deals with controversial, unpopular or unpleasant people and problems that many book-browsers are afraid of, so when they pick up the first faint warning of what may be to come, they drop it like a hot rock. (I know the cliche is “hot potato,” but when a potato cools, people pick it up again. That just doesn’t seem to happen, with my novel.)

    • And you can act! That’s a rare talent, too. Hang in there with your book sales. Obviously you know more about publishing than I do, but you might check out Opinionated Man’s section dealing with “pushing your blog.” Let me go find it for you…
      I ran into this stuff yesterday and read the whole section in shock at what the guy’s done. 40,000 followers in one year? Yesterday I had about 20 after about one year.
      The problem, of course, is time. We need to write books, not just push blogs or whatever. It’s a fun conundrum, though. Beats working in a field that’s killing you.

  2. “Every living, breathing, leading fictional character contains two different people who are fighting for control.”

    “We find magic and euphoria in a character who brings two inner fighters. One who wants immediate, easy gratification, and another who wants a higher, tougher goal…”

    “…she needs to struggle more than I want her to.”

    This was why my Lana and Dillon felt so real to write. It also was nice to get feedback from a few readers who reported getting that involved in my characters’ lives: one reviewer reported wanting to weep; another reader told me that whenever a character she disliked appeared on the page, she’d yell, “No! Go away!”

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