For writers — the Onion theory of character

How do you create compelling characters?

There are four popular theories.

Theory one is that you create a long questionnaire of characteristics, fill them out, and you have your character. Popular with creative writing classes, especially in schools, many writers find that these create lists of characteristics, but not characters.

Theory two is about motivation. Actors believe in this one. Find the character’s inner motivation, and you have found the character. When the playwright has already got the words and the actions sorted, this is a good method of interpreting the character. However, it isn’t a good way of producing characters from scratch — at least, not on its own.

Theory three is the backstory approach. What has your character been through? That tells you who they are. In real life, though, we know that two people can go through exactly the same experiences and yet come out quite differently.

Theory four is the archetypes theory. The wise counsellor, the ingenue, the pragmatist. Call them stereotypes if you prefer. That might give you some thoughts on why this may not be the best way to achieve unique characters.

Naturally, you are expecting a fifth theory, and I will not disappoint.

The answer, quite naturally, comes to us from the Simpsons — arguably the greatest catalogue of modern cultural theory to ever be packaged in a cartoon series about yellow people.

Bart Simpson: Dad, am I bad on the inside?
Homer Simpson: No, but the layers of badness reach almost to the center.
Bart Simpson: But there’s still a kernel of good inside me, right?
Homer Simpson: I don’t know. Kernels are kinda big.

Before unpacking that, or unpeeling it, we need to ask ourselves what compelling characters are.

First off, we need to recognise that they are not real people. They are, quite literally, no more than the impressions of people which create an effect on the mind of the reader as they enjoy the story. Is that reductive? In a certain sense, but it is also liberating. No-one has ever come up with a convincing scientific theory of real character. Myers-Briggs, Belbin, Freud’s Id, Ego and Superego, the ancient theory of four temperaments — these and others may persuade for a time, or in certain situations, but they fall short of describing real people. If it were necessary to have an accurate theory of what real people are like in order to write compelling characters, then there would be no fiction.

Second, we can be thankful that the mind of the reader (or audience of a film or play) fills in the gaps so we don’t need to.

Marlene was seventeen years old when her father was killed in a shoot out with the police. She heard about it on the Tuesday, and completed her application to police college that evening. She sent flowers, but did not attend the funeral.

I’ve kept this as dry as possible. It could be a social worker’s report. The point is, you have already begun to form a picture of what Marlene is like. Lest you see this as proof of the Backstory approach, here is another one.

“Only you can find the path,” said the man with the crimson beard and Ottoman shoes. “It lies over mountains and through a river, but find it you shall. Of this I am certain.”

This character is straight from the archetype theory, dressed up only with a vaguely Turkish appearance. However, you now have in your mind such a man. It might take us a couple of paragraphs to take us from the prosaic, real world description of Marlene to her meeting with the man with the crimson beard and Ottoman shoes, but provided that the writing is not absolutely terrible, your mind will weld them together.

Third, although the mind will make do with virtually anything, we have all come across characters in books who are absolutely captivating. Some writers never achieve this, some writers achieve it occasionally, and some writers achieve it so consistently that it is clear they are not merely lucky, but know something most writers don’t. It’s often been pointed out that we know more about minor characters in Dickens than we know about major characters created by most other writers, but that observation falls short: Dickens had the ability to make characters utterly memorable in just a few lines of text. Uriah Heep, Mr Micawber, Captain Cuttle, Magwitch. Shakespeare is able to take an identical archetype, for example, ‘the fool’, and give us Feste in Twelfth Night, Touchstone in As You Like It, and the Fool in King Lear.

Fourth, however they exist in our minds, the readers encounter the characters through the linear mode of story. Unlike a painted portrait, which we might look at in a different order depending on what part caught our eye first, a character in fiction, theatre or film is introduced to us in the way the author chooses to, and in the order the order chooses to.

Conclusion from these four points: 1 — characters are compelling because of the impact they make on the reader, not because they are ‘real’; 2 — the mind will make do with whatever you give it; 3 — there is at least one way to write great characters which at least some authors can do consistently. In other words, the quest to find that way is not in vain; 4 — unlike real life, the story determines the order in which the character is revealed.

The Onion Theory

Onion theory character

Onion theory of character

Shakespeare’s Memory

The base thought behind the Onion theory is that the most important thing is for you, the writer, to have a method for fixing the character in your mind and remembering how to write about them. I make no claims that people are really like onions. All that is necessary is that you can use it as a way of organising your thoughts. Underlying this is my belief that Shakespeare and Dickens created characters imaginatively: they didn’t need charts or tables to tell them what the characters were like — though Dickens made extensive use of spider charts to keep his plots together.

There are other things which connect the greatest writer in English and the greatest novelist in English. They both had an extraordinary grasp of evocative description. All writers describe, but Dickens and Shakespeare seem able to effortlessly describe in such a way that we feel we are there. As anyone who has struggled to write evocative description can attest, writing in this way at all requires two things — imagination and memory. Spending a lot of time can help us achieve such passages (sometimes), and occasionally its better to just stop writing and go and visit the scene, or look at a National Geographic picture, and describe that. Neither Shakespeare nor Dickens had access to photographs, and both of them — unusually for writers — wrote at extreme speed. Shakespeare is reputed never to have blotted a line, and Dickens was so confident of his abilities that he did not even start writing the next chapter until the previous one was in the shops.

It would not be unreasonable to argue that Shakespeare and Dickens had exceptionally good memories, as well as febrile imaginations.

The Onion theory, then, is about supporting memory and imagination. It’s a framework. I don’t subscribe to the archetypes method, or the motivation method, or the backstory method, or the questionnaire method, and I’m not even sure that a method on those terms can even exist. Nonetheless, if you like any one of those, or all of them, or something entirely different, you can still use the Onion to imagine, organise and remember.

So, this is the Onion theory:

No matter how characters or people really exist, we experience them in layers, so it makes sense to organise them in layers.

In the diagram above, I’ve sketched out six layers that make sense to me. What those layers actually are is unimportant. The ‘clever’ bit is sketching them out as an onion (we’ll come to the arrows in a moment). At any particular point in the story, we’re encountering the character through one or more of those layers — the onion helps us to navigate those layers.

Example Onion

Onion theory of character

Onion theory of character

Let’s go back to the example:

From the middle —

  1. The Inner Self
  2. Motivation
  3. Values and Priorities
  4. What I do
  5. What I say
  6. Reputation

If you don’t like these, create your own — just make sure that they are next to each other in story terms. I will explain how.

Imagine that two characters are talking about a third — very much one of the narrative techniques that Jane Austen favours. We are on the reputation layer, the outermost. Intuitively, we as readers know that the reputation layer tells us the least about the character, and the least reliably. However, it creates the greatest sense of fascination and mystery.

The layer next to that — in my Onion — is What the character says.  In narrative terms, it’s easy to move from reputation to dialogue. Intuitively, we know that dialogue brings us closer to the character, but not reliably so. Unless with either the story or the character is naive, they will use dialogue to conceal as much as to reveal, to impress as much as to express, and, as often as not, simply to fill the silence.

What the character does is intrinsically closer to who they ‘really’ are (if that means anything). Actions speak louder than words, particularly unconscious actions. Narrative moves easily between speech and action.

Values and priorities are closer to the heart of the character, but telling the reader what they are comes across as clunky. If the character decides to tell other characters what their values and priorities are, they will generally be lying, unless its a moment of compelling intimacy. Values and priorities are revealed rather than declared — they come out in what we choose to wear, what we buy, what we choose to save when in danger (the turning point of the Sherlock Holmes story A Scandal in Bohemia). More importantly, they are revealed in what we choose not to do, even though it is easy and pleasant to do it. In story terms, the values and priorities will come out when the character is under extreme pressure. This is where the things they are prepared to die for, or at least give up other things for, come out.

Motivation is as often as not concealed in good stories. The characters themselves may not even know why they do things, and, even if they do, they are often concealing this. Motivation is revealed in patterns of behaviour, shown over the course of the entire story. Often it will only become truly clear in the moments that expose values and priorities.

What is the Inner Self? This is fascinating. Some novelists constantly dangle it in front of the reader by making us privy to several characters’ inner voices. Some novelists keep it hidden even in the main protagonist. You may be able to sum up your character with the phrase ‘deep down, x is just a y‘. You may shy away from anything anywhere near as reductive. Certainly, though, any revelation of the inner self is going to be in the context of revealed motivations. A story that went in the same paragraph from reputation to inner self would be little more than a film-maker’s character notes.

Not convinced? No problem. If you think it’s more natural in your writing to go straight from Reputation to Action, then sketch out your onion that way.

The arrows

So, what are the arrows under the onion? Events. The things that cut through your character, some of them being mere glancing blows, others going straight to the centre, are events. Think of your onion as a real onion, and your events as a cook’s knife. Generally speaking, all that the casual observer can get is the outside layer. Reputation, perhaps conversation. In the normal course of things, you don’t go much deeper than that. Mostly, you don’t get involved in the significant things they do. Penetrating to their priorities, motivations and inner core is something that rarely happens.

Story, though, makes us privy to anything that the author wants to show us, and events are the means by which that happens. Incidentally, the events before the story begins constitute themselves the back story.

For example, in Pride and Prejudice, this is how we see the character of Mr Darcy unfold:

  1. Lizzy hears about Mr Darcy — reputation
  2. #event — the dance
  3. by this means, she hears him speak — conversation
  4. #event — he persuades Mr Bingley not to spend more time with the Bennet family
  5. by this means, she sees what he does — action
  6. #event — Mr Darcy proposes to Lizzy
  7. by this means, she sees (or, at least, we the reader see) that passion is more important than position — priorities
  8. #event — Mr Darcy overcomes the Mr Wickham scandal, at cost and reputational risk to himself
  9. by this means, she sees that his motivation is true love, not merely romantic passion — motivation
  10. #event — the marriage actually takes place
  11. by this means, we, the readers, are left with our own deductions about the inner self of this enigmatic man. At the very least, we now know that his defining characteristic is not pride, or, if it once was, is so no longer

This is, of necessity, a fairly reductive reading of Pride and Prejudice, and I am not suggesting that that great work is an exemplar of the Onion model. Rather, this analysis is merely designed to show that it is events at each point which take us deeper into the Darcy enigma.

Let us consider something quite different: The Hobbit.

  1. We begin by hearing all about Hobbits, and about how unadventurous they are.
  2. #event — the dwarves arrive unexpectedly for tea
  3. by this means, we hear quite a bit of Bilbo’s mode of conversation, which is particularly important because he is not trying to communicate anything at all, but merely to manage an awkward situation
  4. #event — Bilbo runs out without a handkerchief
  5. by this means, we see Bilbo in action for the first time. True, he has done things, such as serve food, but this is the first time he has chosen to act
  6. we now spend a lot of the story to-ing and fro-ing between action and speech, until
  7. #event — Bilbo is lost underground and has to face Gollum alone
  8. Bilbo has a riddling game with Gollum, and escapes with the magic ring. For the first time, we are down to Bilbo’s values and priorities — most importantly, he chooses not to strike Gollum while he is helpless
  9. there is a great deal more story (after all, it is a story), until
  10. #event — Bilbo gives the Archenstone to the elves in order to save the dwarves — even though it means he will lose them as friends
  11. by this means, we discover what Bilbo’s motivation really is — Bilbo is motivated by a combination of affection and sense of duty. Everyone, including Bilbo, Gandalf, and we the readers, is surprised by this, though it fits well with the rest of the story
  12. #event — Thorin’s reconciliation with Bilbo and his death
  13. by this means, finally, we get to the innermost character of Bilbo, which, incidentally, we were told at the beginning, but which didn’t then make a great deal of impression. He is a combination of the adventurous side (Took) and the homely side (Baggins), and it is these two things warring within him which make him both grocer and burglar, and which also provided the motivation which we have previously seen.

Again, there is a great deal more to The Hobbit, but, once more, we see that it is events which cut through to the next layer.

What about a really savage chop with the knife — can we go straight from reputation to inner self in one event? To some extent, this is what Joseph Conrad is trying to do with his trio of characters in the Marlow narrated stories Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim and Nostromo. Kurtz, Jim and Fidanza are known primarily through their reputations.

For Kurtz, this is established across the entire river journey. Jim is principally known as one of the villains of a ship abandoned by its crew leaving the passengers to drown, and Fidanza is known throughout the novel as the incorruptible Nostromo. Conrad’s interest in these three heroic or anti-heroic figures is to take us straight from the reputational to inner self. In each case this is established by one or two remarkable events.

Kurtz is perhaps the least satisfactory — he has been drawn deep into the heart of darkness (which he has helped create), and it is his reported suicide (Mistah Kurtz, he dead) and his dying words (the horror, the horror) which tell us all we’re really going to know.

Jim, or Tuan Jim as he becomes, is defined by two events. His abandonment of the pilgrims at the start of his story, and his willingness to accept a bullet as retribution for the death of Dain Waris, even though Jim has saved all of the local people. At his very kernel, Jim is an honourable man. Marlow’s narratorial style means that we rarely see the action or hear his voice, and so we are left to weigh the evidence as to whether or not this is really true.

Fidanza — the titular Nostromo — is by far the most successful, because the entire façade of incorruptibility is revealed to be no more than a desire for reputation by two events, one of which results ultimately in his death. When a local politician commits suicide by weighting himself down with one of the ingots that Fidanza was supposed to be safeguarding so that he drowns, Fidanza himself steals the entire content of the lighter, not because he is a thief, but because he knows that people will not necessarily believe his story. There is a chance (inevitable in his mind) that people will believe he stole that one ingot, and his reputation will be destroyed. By stealing the entire lighter, he is able to successfully claim that it was sunk, and his reputation remains intact, at the cost of his morality. Subsequently, for exactly the same reason, he marries the wrong daughter, continues to have an affair with the one he really loves, and is accidentally shot as an intruder.

Nostromo, the novel, is without doubt a masterpiece. Heart of Darkness is a great novel, but not for the character insights it gives into Kurtz, but rather for its descriptions of the Belgian Congo. Lord Jim does not — for me — really work. A man who has been written off as being dishonourable proving that he is more than honourable is a powerful motif, and often re-used, such as in Beau Geste and Merry Christmas Mister Lawrence, but I don’t personally get the sense of insight that Conrad is looking for. Nostromo’s dilemma, on the other hand, is a grand version of one we have all faced: tell the truth and be taken for a liar, or tell a lie and have it taken as the truth. The way he bisects Fidanza’s character by having him make the immoral choice is magnificent.

In conclusion

The Onion theory is a method of quickly sketching out for yourself what a character is really about. For incidental characters, you might want to just have a couple of layers — speech and action. It really is not necessary to sketch out the back-story of a man who sells your protagonist a bunch of flowers, nor work out his inner motivation (though, of course, you can if you like), but he will still benefit from a distinctive voice and a particular way in which he carries out the action of selling. For major characters you may feel there is a layer missing. By all means create another layer — though perhaps not too many, lest it becomes another questionnaire.

It is also entirely up to you when and whether you reveal the inner layers. Part of the enigma of Bart Simpson is that we never discover what the inner Bart is truly like. Despite Homer’s rather downbeat assessment, we know that, at the motivation layer, Bart is torn between the desire to be bad, and the desire to do good. Bart is actually one of the most morally driven characters in any cartoon series. We know that, at her core, Marge wants to be a good person, Lisa wants the world to be a better place, and Homer is an easily distracted comfortaholic. Bart, though, we can never quite figure out.

Perhaps that inner kernel is bigger than we all imagine.

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