Monday, October 17

Which Character is the Heart of Your Novel?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I read an article a few weeks ago on io9 about how Bones is the heart of Star Trek. As a huge fan of Leonard “Bones” McCoy (both the DeForest Kelley and Karl Urban incarnations), I completely agree. The balance between the emotional doctor and the logical science officer was not only fun to watch, but allowed the show's writers to explore different views on a topic and examine it from several angles. And created most of the best laughs in the series.

Great stories have emotional centers. They have a character who considers the emotional impact of our protagonist’s actions and how the plot events impact the protagonist. When characters are too focused on end goals and results, this heart character stops everyone to point out how a particular plan or action is going to affect others.

In my series, The Healing Wars, Aylin is without a doubt the heart of the tale. She cares about people (especially my protagonist), asks the hard questions, and makes everyone think about how their actions are going to affect the world and people around them. She’s even willing to do what it takes to protect her friends from themselves if she has too. When the stakes get too big and start to overwhelm everyone, she’s the one who brings it down to what matters and makes it all manageable.

Which is a huge benefit to have in any story where “saving the world” is part of the plot. Heart characters allow you to remind readers (and characters) why this monumental goal is personal. It shows how small actions and sacrifices can affect the larger world and bring about change. It takes what is too big to comprehend and makes it small enough to understand.

Take a look at your current WIP and ask:

Who is the heart of your story?


While stories don’t need every character archetype, I think the heart character connects a story in a way that resonates with readers. We love the lovable character. We want to understand why everything that happens matters. The heart character also gives us someone to care about even when the other characters are being less than noble.

What character embodies the emotional questions and ideas readers will feel and ponder?


Any story that explores larger thematic questions needs a heart character to keep those questions grounded. Pondering what it means to be human loses impact when everyone is being rational and acting in ways that real humans wouldn’t. Emotions are messy and irrational, and that side of human nature is worth representing.

The heart character is also useful for asking the questions characters don’t want to think about. The best friend can see why the romantic heroine is sabotaging her relationships, the mother can see why her son is hiding from his friends, the child can ask the innocent questions that only a kid can ask—yet cut right through the BS adults often surround themselves with.

Which character cares for the others, both emotionally and/or physically?


When the protagonist hits the Dark Moment of the Soul or the All is Lost moment in the story, a heart character is often the one who helps them through it. No matter how many mistakes have been made, how many people have been pushed away, or how bad the choices to get there were, the heart character forgives—even if they make the protagonist earn that forgiveness.

The heart of your story will capture the hearts of your readers, so it’s worth spending a little extra time to get this character right. And if you discover you don’t have one—decide which existing character would be stronger if they were a little more emotional and focused on the people around then. You might just find your breakout character readers will love.

Who’s the heart of your story? Who’s the heart of your favorite story?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).


A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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13 comments:

  1. When I read the post title, my first thought was my secondary POV character, but I told myself it had to be the primary character. You just explained why my instinct was right. Thanks! I'll pay better attention to her insights and reactions.

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    1. Most welcome! Our protagonists are important, but they're not the "center of the world" as much as they think, hehe.

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  2. Janice; what a great post. I didn't realize one of my characters was the one that should show this side of the novel. It really opens up her voice. Thanks!

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  3. Thanks for the awesome post, Janice. Just one question: can more than one character (say three because in my WIP there might be) be the heart character?

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    1. Sure. It's an archetype, not a role, so if it's an emotional story you might have several characters who are more emotional or focus more on the emotional aspects. Or they might all be the hearts of particular characters in a multi-POV novel.

      In a single-POV story, even though several characters might "have heart," odds are one of them really embodies the emotional core of the story and is most involved in the plots, subplots, and arcs relating to that. (if not, that's fine, but this is typical).

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  4. I have a character I can tweak a little to make him a perfect heart character, and I see how it will benefit the whole story. Thanks for a great article!

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  5. I love the interaction between Bones and Spock.
    Both my hero and heroine have a person who is their mentor character who could be the heart of the story. Would it work to have two hearts? Can the mentors play that part?

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    1. Sure, especially if they each reflect a different emotion or aspect of the story.

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    2. I felt they would need to be different but hadn't thought about them 'reflecting a different emotion'. Thanks.

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  6. I'd never heard this label applied before, although I'd identified characters with this role. Thanks, it's handy to be able to describe something quickly. As I read the post I thought 'oh, it's this character!' Then I read the next paragraph and thought 'no it's that character!' At different stages different characters take on this role so I'm pleased to hear more than one can embody this role.

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  7. So much of writing is in how you apply it, so it's handy to see how something works with your story and characters. Tweak it, play with it, adapt it--go wild if you think it'll serve the story.

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