Three Steps to Honestly Disturbed Characters by Wyatt Bessing

BooksWelcome back to monthly columnist, Wyatt Bessing. A writing coach and teacher, author, Wyatt Bessing shares his fun take on games, play, and how they help our writing. This month Wyatt gives us three steps to creating honestly disturbed characters. Fiction writers, enjoy!


How many times have I sat in a meeting at the school where I work when I’m not writing, squirming in my seat, glancing out the wide window in the conference room, losing myself in the tops of the trees and in the broad, blue, cool sky? My whole body strains, revolting against the confines of my seat, as I try to focus and present myself professionally. What I really want to do at those moments is run through forests, hike along lakeside trails, dance, or write.  But I must control myself.

In my column last month, I wrote about focus and intensity in writing, suggesting some ways you might reduce distraction to put yourself fully into your work. This month, let’s flip that around and create some distraction and disturbance!

Worry not, gentle writer. I’m not requesting that you torture yourself (which is not to say that a little challenge and stress can’t motivate great writing), but rather that you inflict these challenges on your characters. Look deeply into your character’s psyche, and make them squirm.

Good writing is always honest, whether it’s telling the truth about life, about the world, or about deeply held personal emotions. Even fantasy and science fiction must capture readers with honesty, showing us the deep truths beneath the imaginary lives and worlds of its inhabitants. As Pablo Picasso observed, “Art is a lie that tells the truth.” By taking an honest inventory of your own insecurities and distractions, you can bring those to your fiction and embody them within your characters.

What are your insecurities and distractions?

Lately I’ve been struggling with writing a novel about a social activist who wants to use his art to change the world. He’s been living on the beach, hiding from a world he believes has exiled him. Now he must return with a new art opening. As the novel opens, Curtis is in his friend’s study, struggling with jotting down notes for his speech.

I know what Curtis wants, and I know the forces in the world standing in his way, yet I’ve written the scene a dozen times. What’s missing? I realize that the missing element is internal conflict, the specific ways in which Curtis’s personality hinder him in his progress.

Try this exercise:

Step 1: Find a scene in which your character wants something. This should be easy! After all, every scene must have a distinct character need and the struggle to achieve it. Reread your scene. Is it lacking anything? Tension? Conflict?

Here are the boring opening sentences I wrote without considering my protagonist’s inner flaws: Curtis bent over the mahogany writing desk, gold plated pen in hand, scribbling out notes on index cards. He was unfamiliar with the tiny implement and somehow irritated by its ostentatious surface. He was more used to a hammer or a welding torch. But he knew he had to write something amazing to captivate his old fans.

Step Two:  Brainstorm ten ways in which your character might feel distracted or insecure.

Here’s my list:

Feeling trapped.

Insecure about a physical trail.

Insecure about skills.

Sore from some recent physical activity.

Pleasurable daydreams.

Anxious worrying.

Cold, flu, or other sickness.

Feeling overwhelmed.

Attracted to or repulsed by another character in the room.

Feeling groggy or hyperactive.

Step Three: Choose two of these distractions and write them into your character:

This is my new scene, with the newly flawed Curtis. Considering my own fears, I recall feeling boxed into that conference room, obligated to stay but desperately wanting to run. That could be Curtis’s distraction…. He feels trapped and insecure.

Curtis peered around the boxy office, wanting to escape. But he could hear the crowd already assembling in the gallery just beyond the office door. There were high pitched squeals, the laughter of young women. He peered in the mirror over the desk. He wasn’t young anymore. He saw the salt-and-pepper sideburns creeping down his face, the crow’s feet clawing at the edges of his eyes. No one could mistake him as a hip, young artist anymore. His pulse quickened, the very room becoming a tight rib cage from it felt his beating heart might explode. He was too accustomed to the beach, the wide open, where you could look out across the ocean forever.

After writing your distracted character, ask yourself, “How can he/she use his or her flaw or distraction to his or her advantage?” This might become character development for a later chapter. Perhaps, in his rousing opening speech, Curtis lets all his pent-up emotion fly free from the confinement of his space, erupting from its container. Or perhaps he gradually begins to notice that people are seeing him as a mature artist, one with more depth of experience than he ever had when he was young.

Of course, you don’t want to let your characters get to that point – turning their flaws back into strengths – too soon. Let them struggle and writhe in their seats for awhile.



Wyatt Bessing

Wyatt Bessing is a writer, writing coach, and learning specialist. His stories and essays have appeared in, Outsider Ink, national educational assessment materials, and in the anthology Dance, Human Rights, and Social Justice. Through his workshops, website, and blog at, he guides new and experienced writers in crafting more effective, expressive, and striking work. During the day, he works at Star Academy in San Rafael, teaching reading and comprehension skills to students with learning differences in elementary through high school. He lives in Santa Rosa, CA with his wonderful fiance and co-creator, Sarah Laugtug.


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