Use value systems to build characters

Stories make sense

Among the great reasons humans love stories is the fact that stories give meaning to the world, and that they deliver a message to the public, answering in their own way the great existential questions about life, death, love, time, law, technology, freedom, family, etc.

In order for a story to touch us, it obviously has to speak about what concerns us.

For authors, defining the meaning of a story is therefore one of the necessary preparations for scriptwriting work: first we decide what we want to tell the audience, before finding out what plots we are going to tell them to get that message across.

So, for example:

  • Kafka’s novels, The Castle and The Trial, represent the idea that there is no justice in this world, there are only absurd authorities, strange and incoherent characters.
  • The Columbo series shows that intelligence can defeat cunning and that the police can defeat crime.
  • The comic book Asterix and Obelix shows that the weak can resist the strong, that a village can resist an Empire, that union and solidarity are strength.
  • The three films The Godfather I, II and III all have in common the fundamental theme of the relationship between father and son, and more generally the values of loyalty, solidarity and respect that must govern family relationships.
  • Many rap songs revolve around the theme of the resilience of the disenfranchised, asserting that one can preserve one’s dignity and pride despite the adversity of misery and violence.
  • Millions of love stories prove that love is the most precious thing in the world, millions more prove that it will lead you to destruction and death, and all agree that this passion defines us.

But, how do you deliver these messages effectively? How, starting from a general idea of the order of discourse, can we obtain a narrative, a sequence of dramatic actions?

The method that I will propose here consists of constructing a more or less complex system of values and assigning its elements to characters. It is partly inspired by an idea developed by Robert McKee.

Building a value system

What I call a value is one of those great philosophical principles, one of those great ideas in whose name humans act.

We can mention dozens of them, even if the number is limited: love, solidarity, respect, dignity, friendship, strength, courage, beauty, innocence, justice, peace, order, faith, honesty, greatness, nobility, etc.

We can find more specific ones: love for a specific person; loyalty to one’s country; faith in such and such a God.

Once one has determined the value at the heart of the story one wants to elaborate, one can quite easily find an opposite, contrary value.

For example:

  • Beauty ≠ ugliness
  • Justice ≠ injustice
  • Peace ≠ war
  • Order ≠ chaos
  • Etc

We thus obtain a conflict of values.

Conflict of values

Assign values to characters

Assign values to the main characters

A story tells one or more plots, and a plot shows one character, the Hero, trying to reach a goal, and is contradicted by another character, the Antagonist, who tries to reach the goal instead of the Hero, or to prevent the Hero from reaching the goal.

Therefore, it is easy to understand that this conflict between characters must also carry the conflict between values. Therefore, one assigns a value to the Hero, the opposite value to the Antagonist, and thus their conflict begins to express the conflict between the values they carry.

Assign values to secondary characters

Likewise, as usual the main characters are not alone in the world, but surrounded by allies, one can also attribute values to them – but in lesser forms, because if the allies carried the central values and the Hero and the Antagonist carried only diminished forms, one would have the feeling that these allies are more legitimate than the Hero and the Antagonist.

If the central value is beauty, then one can get a character system like this:

  • The Hero wears the maximum beauty
  • Hero’s allies wear less beauty
  • The Antagonist represents the maximum ugliness.
  • The allies of the Antagonist represent a lesser ugliness.

In order not to assign the value each time in the same way to each secondary character, one can vary by deriving the value in a contrasting way.

Thus, taking the example of a Heroine lawyer whose goal would be to defend a just cause, her allies could be :

  • A repentant former convict (thus, the opposite of the opposite of value)
  • A magistrate put in the closet for professional misconduct (he loves justice, but has lost the right to render it)
  • A law professor (she loves justice, but teaches it without practicing it)

While its Antagonists could be :

  • A rigorous and narrow-minded judge (he loves the law more than justice)
  • A moralist lawyer (he loves morality more than justice)
  • A dishonest plaintiff (likes his interest and doesn’t care about justice)

But, wait… isn’t all this somewhat simplistic?

Yes, of course it is. And yet, you can already recognize the structure of stories made to be simplistic, because they are intended for children: the Hero is a particularly good little boy, or a particularly beautiful little girl, who joins with other characters who look like him, only less well, and they are opposed to a horrible monster, very mean and ugly, whose henchmen are just a little less mean and ugly.

To make a more subtle story, there are several options.

Use several values

The first is to define SEVERAL central values: for example, beauty, or intelligence, but also kindness, or daring.

In this case, one of the values will be assigned to all the characters, and not only to one of the teams; while the other value will be assigned only to one of the teams or to some of its characters.

This could be as follows:

  • A young woman, very beautiful but not very confident, gets involved in modeling and finds herself the victim of models who are equally beautiful, but scornful or even cruel to her. However, by her kindness, this young woman will succeed in making friends, allies, and make a career despite the bad moves of her rivals.
    • In this plot, one of the values forms the general theme of the plot – beauty – and the other value serves as a means of making a moral distinction between the camps: goodness will win against evil.
  • Or, an eccentric scientist is hired in a team of researchers. They are all very intelligent, but he stands out for his intellectual boldness, his ability to think “out of the box”. By dint of daring, therefore, starting from a challenger position, he will eventually convince their superiors to be appointed to head the team of researchers, ousting a less innovative rival, and find a decisive innovation.
    • In this plot, the intelligence value is commonly shared, but the boldness value makes the difference.

Use different but not opposing values

The second way to obtain a more subtle conflict of values is not to choose the most obvious antonym as the opposite value.

Thus, beauty does not necessarily have ugliness as its opposite. It can just as easily be opposed to “inner beauty”, or nobility of soul, or elegance, or humor.

We can therefore create a conflict between physical beauty and soul beauty, or beauty and elegance.

For example, we can say:

  • Two men A and B compete for the love of another man, C. A is very beautiful, but without grace. B is not very handsome, but very elegant. After a long hesitation, C ends up preferring B.
  • So elegance ends up taking precedence over pure beauty.

Place the conflict of values at the heart of the characters

A third option is to place a conflict of values at the very heart of the characters, preferably the main characters: thus a Hero can be torn between crime and redemption, or between love and hate, or between loyalty and betrayal.

Finally, an even more contrasting range of values can be built up, for example by using 3 nuanced groups :

  • A group of contrasting forms of physical beauty (standard beauty, androgynous beauty, mature beauty, non-conformist beauty…)
  • A group of other contrasting forms of physical beauty (elegance, charm, sensuality…)
  • A group of non-physical forms of beauty (artistic soul, greatness of soul, kindness, goodness…)

By distributing these values to a variety of characters, one will obtain coherent effects of contrast and harmony, conflict and harmony.

These are some of the things you can do with values.

In a complex story made up of many plots, one can therefore deliver a complex and subtle message using value systems.

Want to know more? These value conflicts can also be used to build plots!