March 12, 2020

Change the World with Your Writing:Taking Characters to Greater Depths (Part 1)

p.m. terrell   @pmterrell

Award-winning "Twist and Turn" author

Heraclitus, the famed Greek philosopher, said that “change is the only constant in life.”

When envisioning readers, it’s important to understand that each one is undergoing change. Changes may be subtle, such as steadily growing older. Other changes may be dramatic, like a sudden personality change. Some can be seen with the naked eye, such as a spine that’s more stooped, while others are invisible because they are taking place internally.

A book that stands the test of time and becomes a classic is one in which the main character is completely transformed. This often occurs when an average individual encounters extraordinary circumstances. Those situations may be positive or negative on their surfaces, such as winning a lottery or losing a limb, respectively. However, what begins as a positive or negative often transforms the character in the opposite direction. It is that spiral that the accomplished writer should seek to portray, and the more detailed the circumstances, oddly, the more readers will identify with the character.

In this segment, we’ll focus on the external force, and in Part 2, we’ll explore the internal force.

An external force is something that occurs outside the control of the character but which impacts them as dramatically as being picked up by a tornado.

The shorter the span, the higher the suspense. This makes an external force ideal for mysteries, suspense, and adventure in which a clock is ticking—figuratively or literally. Three Days of the Condor, the hit 1975 political thriller, was based on a book by James Grady entitled Six Days of the Condor. The length of time was shortened to create greater suspense. Both the movie and the book begin when a CIA researcher returns from an errand to discover everyone in his office has been murdered. This is obviously an external factor he could not have controlled. What he can control, however, is what he does next, which is to transform internally from a sedentary researcher to an active covert operative, all while on the run.

The longer the span, the deeper the transformation, which makes it ideal for literary works. Consider Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. As the book opens, the country is on the eve of civil war. The war is the first external factor she cannot control. She loses the man she loves to another, buries two husbands, both parents and a child, and very nearly loses her beloved Tara. She is unable to control any of those circumstances, but what she can control is her own internal transformation. As she grows internally, her external environment changes with her.

To make the story far more compelling, the character must be taken to their very depths. They must fear that their world has been altered irrevocably, and their future is uncertain. The formula then becomes:

1.      Their external world has changed in a manner in which they had no control.
2.      Something deep inside them must come to life. It can be the struggle for survival, as in Six Days of the Condor, or the struggle for the survival of the world in which they wish to live, such as Scarlett’s yearning to hold onto Tara and the plantation life she once knew.
3.      The external events must grow more sinister, darker, and deeper. The antagonist must be more powerful than the protagonist, thinking and acting one step ahead of our hero until the screws tighten so rigidly that the reader cannot imagine how the hero can survive.
4.      When the hero is completely boxed in, the inner transformation that has been taking place since the struggle began now becomes an external transformation that catapults our hero toward the climactic scene.

Notice that there is no mention of the hero actually winning in the climactic scene because even if they lose, the journey is complete.

p.m.terrell is the award-winning, internationally acclaimed author of more than 24 books ranging from historical to suspense. She has used stressors in many of her books, including divorce (A Thin Slice of Heaven), a new job (Kickback), moving to a new place (Vicki’s Key), and others. Her most popular books, Songbirds are Free and River Passage, are creative nonfiction about her ancestors’ roles in migrating west in America while many of her suspense incorporate Ireland, her ancestral home, including Checkmate: Clans and Castlesp.m.terrell’s newest suspenseful ghost story April in the Back of Beyond.


  1. Hi Trish, I remember that movie Three Days of the Condor. It had me on my seat. Did not get to read the book, now I wish I had. I think the external forces are great to use. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  2. Thank you for having me, Susan! I loved the movie and the book, and found it fascinating how they shortened the time frame in order to ramp up the suspense.