Listening to the Writing Excuses podcast the other day, I came across a piece of advice that I found very interesting, and that is the idea of the “Three Pronged Character Attributes“. The concept is very simple, and that is the fact that each character in every book, especially important ones, should have varying levels of three huge characteristics. These characteristics are Competence, Proactivity, and Sympathy. Pretty much every character you come across in any book or movie are going to have distinct levels of each of those things, but lets go over what each of them really means, referring to these attributes as being scales that every character has certain values in.
Competence is probably the easiest to grasp: How capable is this character when it comes to dealing with the issues they are facing. It could be any issue, really. Whether it’s defending the realm against a horde of evil murder-robots, talking a friend out of making a terrible decision, or telling convincing lies to the people around them. Gandalf, for example, is extremely capable. His capabilities, in fact, are literally beyond our understanding (partly because they’re never really mentioned). On the other hand, characters like Frodo and Bilbo are not as competent. Where Gandalf has maximum competence, Frodo and Bilbo have very little by comparison. They don’t have zero, because they do accomplish things they set out to do, and get to where they need to go, but nothing is easy because their tasks are in sleeping, drinking, and being merry (although Merry is probably the best at that last one). Their skills certainly aren’t related to fighting Sauron and outrunning the Dark Riders.
Proactivity relates to how much a character will act without any incentive. Again, Gandalf is very high on this scale because he’s always trying to fight the darkness, even before Sauron’s huge plans are set in motion. He has a distinct goal and is always trying his best. And here, too, Bilbo and Frodo score low. They are all but forced out of the Shire because they are out of options. Bilbo gets more points here because he seeks adventure rather than being forced to flee, but he still has to be coaxed by Gandalf and the dwarves quite a bit. A character with low proactivity will generally react to what the antagonist is doing rather than taking the initiative on their own. Superheroes are generally good examples of not being proactive in their respective stories, even when their competence is high.
Sympathy is a little weird. You would probably be inclined to think of how sympathetic the character is to things going on in the story, but that’s not what this means. Instead, this slider is about how sympathetic we the reader is to their problems and their personality. This is where Gandalf has none because he is impossible to identify with. Characters that score high on this scale are generally pretty relatable. Finally we see Bilbo and Frodo score high, because they are thrown into this world they don’t understand. The reader and the hobbits are learning about the world pretty much simultaneously, so it’s easy to identify with their struggles. Frodo doesn’t want to go off in this war, he just recognizes he’s the only one that can do it. He takes this responsibility by necessity, not because he wants to, and that is something a common reader can identify with.
I’ll reiterate here that pretty much every character you experience is going to have clear places on each of these scales. It’s important to note that you may be inclined to put a character somewhere on one scale when they belong elsewhere, and having somebody be “zero” or “full” on any one of these scales is pretty rare. Dr. Strange, for example (at least in the movie) has very little competence or sympathy at the beginning of the movie, because his expertise isn’t where he needs it to be and he’s both arrogant and rich. He is very proactive, which leads him to be able to fill those other scales as the movie progresses.
So when you’re thinking about the main character in your book or story, think about where they fit on these scales, and how their character arc changes their place on them as the story progresses.