The Power of Storytelling Part Three: The 7 Steps of Character Development

“If conflict drives drama, then what drives the character is inner conflict.” – Adam Lebor

In the first session of Adam Lebor’s storytelling course, we covered the the basic framework of a story, and how conflict is a key element to narrative drive.

Conflict, however, does not exist in isolation; it has an effect on and is affected by your characters. By understanding what drives your characters, you can bring the conflict — and therefore your story as a whole — to life.

In the second class we examined character development and the seven steps to creating a strong protagonist or antagonist. By exploring our characters’ backstories, we can understand their motivations and goals, and therefore make their actions more believable.


  1. Biography
    What’s in a name, you ask? Only cultural associations, and indications of a person’s background, education and ethnicity. Where and when were they born, what was their family like? All of these details will influence your character.

    I’ll be honest: I regret picking Lilith as a name for the protagonist of Above Ground. But it seemed fitting at the time since it conveyed a demonic aspect of herself related to leading men astray.

  2. Key events
    Certain moments in our lives shape the person we become. Maybe it was getting that lucky break and being forever grateful, or missing by a hair and becoming bitter and twisted. What moments define your character?

    Silver, the male protagonist of Above Ground, was abandoned by his parents as a child and brought up by a monastic wolf pack. The one time he let his guard down to love someone, she left too. Needless to say, he has serious trust issues.

  3. Inner conflict
    How have the key events in their life created inner conflict? Perhaps your character gets that lucky break, but thinks someone else deserved it more. They don’t want to give up what they have, but are insecure of being revealed as a fraud.

    Because of Silver’s childhood, he struggles to trust people. However, his bond with Lilith forces him to feel something towards her, and the dependency frightens him.

  4. Motivation
    What does the character want or need, and why? Character motivation is central to any story, and it is a good idea to ensure that your characters have a personal stake in what will unfold.

    Lilith’s main motivation is survival, which is a strong, personal want. But Silver’s motivations run deeper: he is driven by the need to help his ailing alpha, because if she dies, the entire werewolf pack will fall apart. Family ties are excellent tools to up the stakes for your character.

  5. Expert or everyman
    How does the character fit into the story? Are they an expert at their job, like Sherlock Holmes, and therefore driving the story? Or are they an everyman like Frodo, reacting to what is happening?

    I’d never seen this distinction spelled out before, but it offers food for thought. Lilith is an every(wo)man, Silver an expert. The type of character you choose will affect how they behave in the story.

  6. Plan of action
    How does the character plan to achieve his goals? Your character needs to make plans and take action to drive the story forward.

    A problem I had with the first draft of Above Ground was that Lilith was little more than a pawn being tossed around. When revising, I made her make decisions and find her own path — even if it often led her astray.

  7. Obstacles
    What is blocking the character from getting what they want, and how will they (try) to overcome them?

    While Lilith is battling werewolves and demons to stay alive, she also must overcome an second, inner obstacle: herself, and the realisation of who she really is. These external and internal obstacles make her life hell, but make the story that much more thrilling.

As someone who generally operates under the “make-it-up-as-I-go-along” technique, I found inventing character backstories surprisingly inspiring — particularly when exploring the key events and how they fuelled inner conflict.

Some authors write diaries for their characters, or letters between characters, to help further build their backstory. I found jotting down notes against each of the seven steps enough to get the ideas flowing.

What about you? What tricks do you use to get into your character’s head?


He didn’t know her.

She saw it in the blankness of his eyes, the numbness of his cheeks. Or maybe that was the drugs, spiraling away every trace of his intelligence.

Eva repeated her question: “Excuse me, do you know where the train station is?”

The binoculars slipped from his fingers and cracked against the pavement like a gunshot. Feodor jumped, spun in circles looking for an assailant. The streets were cold and quiet, steam rising from the gutters. Eva suppressed a sneer as he scuttled to collect the binoculars.

“That… that way.” He pointed down the street, then returned to spying on his own house.

By then it was too late: her men had done their job.

Inspired by the storytelling course I’m attending.

The Power of Storytelling Part Two: The Basic Framework of a Story

As mentioned, I’m attending a three-evening course on storytelling taught by Adam Lebor, a published author and journalist.

The first session examined creativity – and in particular, the key elements of a good story.

The session kicked off with us reading excerpts from our favourite books to get a feeling for different writing styles, as well as what draws us to particular tales. These excerpts were then used as a launching pad to discuss story structure.


Adam Lebor has a tidy, memorable formula: COCR.

You may think I (almost) typed a rude word — in which case, go to the corner of your room and have a quiet giggle.

Immaturity aside, it stands for Conflict, Obstacle, Climax, Resolution.

These four elements are the key to narrative drive; they make your story compelling, addictive, and just generally awesome. If you are struggling with your WIP and the story seems flat, it could be missing one of these elements.

Let’s start with conflict.

In order to have conflict, you need a protagonist and an antagonist.

In my novel Above Ground, the protagonist is clearly Lilith. The antagonist, however, is not a particular individual but society at large: the hatred and separation between humans and those living above ground is the source of tension in the story.

So what’s Lilith’s obstacle?

What does Lilith want or need — and what’s stopping her from getting it?

Lilith wants to get home alive, and the dangers she faces are the obstacles preventing her from returning safely. As she surpasses each obstacle, a bigger one shows up, driving the story forward.

Here comes the climax!

At the climax, all the events in the story come to a head. It’s the turning point in the story, and often a key moment in the character arc. (More about character arcs next time.)

If you’re anything like me, the climax is one of your favourite bits to write.

In Above Ground, the climax is when Lilith is offered the chance to go home whilst having to confront who she really is. The self-realisation puts her main objective of getting home into question — and she has to decide where her priorities lie.

On to the resolution

How does the story end? How does the protagonist overcome the obstacles and where does he/she go next?

In Above Ground, Lilith reaches her new home. It is not the home she was aiming for at the beginning of the novel, but it’s a home that suits the person she has become.

Conflict. Obstacle. Climax. Resolution.

A simple yet effective framework to get the creative juices flowing.


The next session of Adam Lebor’s storytelling course will look at clarity, focusing on character development of both protagonists and antagonists. I’ll let you know how I get on.

In the meantime, what’s the COCR in your story?

The Power of Storytelling: Part One

Human beings are hard-wired to tell stories. From the first caveman recounting his adventures through grunts and signs to his fellows sitting around the campfire, to the literary pyrotechnics of a David Mitchell novel, storytelling touches something deep inside all of us.

These are the opening words to Adam Lebor‘s crash course on storytelling — a course I will be attending next week.

All my previous invitations to similar courses have come from aspiring writers who can only write when drinking coffee, facing east on a rainy Thursday afternoon. The thought of being stuck in a room of similarly impractical artistes fills me with dread.

Needless to say, I have never accepted an invitation.

This time is different: my company has organised this course as a form of “personal development”.

Across three sessions, Lebor will cover the narrative arc, key elements of a good story, narrative building techniques, and how to use storytelling in everyday and business life. Participants also have to write a short story to present to the rest of the class.

The first session — next Monday — will kick off the course by looking at creativity and narrative drive. I’ll report back with my findings.

Have you ever been to a writing course, and would you recommend it?

Adam Lebor is an author, journalist and teacher of creative writing. He has written eleven critically acclaimed books – three novels and eight non-fiction works – including The Geneva Option, Tower of Basel and City of Oranges. Two have been shortlisted for literary prizes, and his books have been published in fourteen languages, including Chinese and Hebrew.

Part Two: The Basic Framework of a Story
Part Three: Character Development
Part Four (coming soon)

Two Months. One book.

I have a plan.

It is a good plan, an achievable plan. A fun one too, all going well.

I need to get back into writing, but the novel is refusing to cooperate. So my plan is to recapture my enthusiasm by revisiting the short story format.

More specifically, I’ve decided to release a short story collection in December.

I toyed with the idea of a werewolf follow-up to Hungry For You, but it didn’t quite take hold of my imagination. I needed a new challenge.

What could I write about instead?

I’ve done fantasy scenes with showy set pieces, but what about the quiet moments in between? The slices of life, the intimate times when we are most ourselves?

Those precious minutes are what I’m going to be exploring for the next two months.

And, all going to plan, I’ll have something to show for it come December.

Two months. One book.

Wish me luck.


Moving house is a necessary evil.

I am a creature of comforts, of routine, of things-are-fine-just-the-way-they-are-thank-you-very-much.

I am the homebody, the LOFNOTC. The reason why do not disturb phone settings exist.

Staring at the tower of boxes in the hallway, I cannot help but feel small and sad, cut loose from my moorings. The scented candles, the thick rugs, and all those little knick knacks I’ve collected from visitors over the years — all hidden from sight. Who am I without them?

I’ve left the worst job for last. In the bedroom, surrounded by dust bunnies, is my bed frame. The mattress is propped up against the nearby wall.

Wherever I live, my bed has to run east to west. It’s a good bed, solid oak, king size. But now I have to take it apart, and even though I have done it many times before, I feel as if I’m dissecting my own child.

(Not that I have children, but my bed with its crisply ironed sheets and separate head board inspires in me a strong parental affection.)

I kneel beside my bed, put the electric screwdriver to use.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper, the same way I whispered to my visitor last night. His knick knack is still in my pocket — a silver ring, its rounded corners pressing into my leg.

I’d first seen him in the local park, liked the look of his tattoos. It had taken months before I’d found the opportunity to talk; we’d both been caught on the same train carriage, and I had accidentally-on-purpose bumped into him. A few more “chance” encounters turned into drinks. Enough drinks and I could invite him around. And then, last night….

Moving was a necessary evil, but at least my bed could be put back together again.

As for my visitor, I’d have to find another one.


October is by far the best month of the year.

There’s #stoptober to stop smoking, #soberoctober raising money for Macmillan Cancer Research, not to mention my birthday.

I’ve also just discovered Books Are My Bag, a campaign celebrating brick and mortar bookshops. They’ve come up with the fairly catchy #bookadayuk meme for October – and I’ll be taking part.

For October 1st – a book to curl up in front of a fire with – I am going to go for one of my all-time favourites: The Northern Lights by Philip Pullman.

What’s yours?

(Psst! Follow me on twitter @am_harte!)



She was waiting for him outside his front door, wearing one of his old hoodies she’d purloined in the early days of their relationship. Her hood was up, face in shadow, fingers curled into the sleeves.

“Hi,” he said, and even though he knew he should be angry he couldn’t help his tentative smile.

The blossoming jolt of relief froze when she didn’t look up. “We need to talk.”

Her voice was flatter, deeper than he remembered. But she’d been gone for so long that maybe it was his memory at fault.

He unlocked the door and waved her through, found himself staring at her slim black jeans and picturing the legs beneath. Remembered them wrapped around him. She led him into the kitchen — neutral territory — and leaned against the counter with her arms crossed, head down.

He decided to make her wait just to show that he could, and grabbed a can of Coke from the fridge before sitting at the kitchen table. He snapped open the can and for a long moment the only sound between them was the hiss of releasing pressure and the roar of passing traffic. Part of the joys of living near the M1: never-ending noise pollution.

“You’ve been gone weeks,” he said when she didn’t speak.

She still wouldn’t look at him. “I’m not sure how to tell you what’s happened.”

He took a long swig of Coke, wondered if it was the bubbles or the anger that was making his stomach churn. “You didn’t answer my calls. You just… disappeared. I went round to your house and your flatmate said you’d gone on holiday. Holiday.”

“I’ve been in hospital.”

“Yeah, and I’ve been in Canada.”

She sighed, turned to look at the raindrops dappling the window pane. Outside the sun was setting through a layer of uncertain clouds; English weather at its finest. But all he could look at was her, with her figure shrouded by the hoodie. He wanted her to take it off, wanted to remember the curve of her arms. When she turned back towards him he caught a glimpse of her cheek. It looked different. Paler.

“It started…” Her voice faltered. “It started,” she began again, “as a scattering of white flakes across my feet. I rubbed my heel, watched snowflakes of dry skin swirl gently to the floor. Thought nothing of it because I’ve always had hard skin.”

He opened his mouth to speak but she beat him to it.

“Then it spread to my legs. I began to moisturise, exfoliate. Every evening I’d peel off my jeans and watch a shower of skin drift to the floor.”

“I know, I remember,” he said. “What does this have to do with anything?”

She continued without missing a beat, her voice so measured it was riling him up. “When it spread to my chest I went to the doctor. He thought it was a severe fungal infection. He gave me creams — “

“I put those creams on you.”

” — but they didn’t work.”

He spluttered into his Coke. “You said it was getting better!”

Finally, her calm broke. “I lied, and a decent boyfriend would have noticed. It’s been the hottest summer in years and I’ve had to find excuses to wear long sleeves and maxi skirts, and yet more excuses to put you off the only thing you ever seem to think about.”

He stood. “I knew it. You’re always going to hold it against me, aren’t you?”

From the shadows of her hood came another sigh. “I’m sorry. That wasn’t fair. Can I just… finish what I need to say?”

“Hurry up.”

“When it spread to my face I was admitted to hospital.” Her voice was so small and quiet now he had to strain to hear her over the traffic. “I got sick leave from work, and told you I was going back home for a while. I didn’t think I’d be in there for that long, kept in isolation, tested and studied as every inch of my skin flaked off in ever-increasing chunks. Near the end of my infection, the entire top layer of my skin decided to separate from the rest of me. I was shedding, and as I peeled off the skin of my foot I decided I was losing my mind.”

Guilt constricted his throat. He sat back down, gestured for her to join him, but she stiffened.

“You’re better now,” he said. “You’ll be okay. I promise.”

“I am better. But I’m not the same.”

“I don’t understand.”

“When I was in the final stage of infection, the doctors noticed something strange. The skin underneath wasn’t raw or damaged. It was new. And it was different.” She edged forward, taking great care to sit without exposing so much as an inch of herself. “As the old skin fell off I began a patchwork of skin tones, brown and white.

“I could feel my face peeling so I asked for a mirror. They wouldn’t bring one at first but I begged and begged… The one they brought was only tiny, a handbag mirror barely the size of my palm. I could just about see half my face at any one time, and most of it was still covered in old skin. When they weren’t watching, I picked at a corner and tore off the old skin, and… and — “

She reached up and pushed back her hood, letting it fall to her shoulders. ” — and then I was you.”

There Be Pirates!

The other day I came across the following forum post:

Where to download above ground a m harte?

I have been looking for a reliable way to find and download this book for free, but I so far I got nothing solid. [...]

I am looking for specific titles, and usually they are not classics, like Dorian Gray or Wuthering Hills, but new literature of fact, like above ground a m harte?

So, is there something I am missing, or is there no reliable way to find such interesting books to download for free?

My initial reaction was annoyance.

How could someone want to steal from the “little guy” – the indie author? How could someone want to steal at all?

Buying Above Ground will set you back all of £2. It’s cheaper than a Sainsbury’s meal deal. Come on.

But the calming effect of time has given me a different perspective.

People are working hard to pirate my book, and there is nothing I can do to stop them. While it’s unfair that they want to enjoy the fruits of my labour for free,  they do want to read my novel. Is that not the tiniest bit flattering?

So to all you pirates out there, I say this:

Torrent Above Ground. Heck, ask me for a free copy. I’m glad you want to read it.

But if you can’t — or won’t — pay for my books, then I ask for your support instead.

Post an honest review of my book on your blog, Goodreads, Amazon… anywhere. However long, however short. Just spread the word.

It’ll cost you nothing, and will make a difference to me.

There be pirates, yes. But pirates can have honour too.

Signs You’re Procrastinating

Procrastination affects the best of us — but how can you tell if you’re under its dreaded curse?

This post is for any writers seeking a diagnosis on their procrastination levels. If this sounds like you, please call a doctor immediately.

Are you procrastinating?

You sit at your desk to write, and then…

  1. You find yourself reading nail polish ingredients.
  2. You examine everything else on your desk except for your laptop and/or notebook.
  3. You realise the messiness of your desk is a distraction and tidy everything away.
  4. Making tea or coffee is all of a sudden essential.
  5. You may as well do the dishes while the kettle boils.
  6. You decide that now is the best time to clean your keyboard. With a toothpick.
  7. You finish your tea and make a sandwich.
  8. You look up the origin of sandwiches on Wikipedia.
  9. Twitter is somehow open despite a personal promise not to use social media.
  10. You spend several minutes reading a blog about procrastination.
  11. You write this post.

Oops… guilty as charged.

(Psst! I shall be without internet for a couple weeks, so if I don’t reply don’t get offended!)