Reader Friday: Best Conditioning Programs for Characters

Labor Day is past. Schools are in session. And with that, high school and collegiate athletic programs are in full swing. Football players gather on their field for conditioning and to practice their plays. Cross country runners pound the sidewalks of our cities and villages. Soccer and Field Hockey athletes work at conditioning and improving their skills.

But, what about our characters in our books? We are warned about two-dimensional “cardboard” characters, and are instructed to fill them out with backstory and motivation. Do we also provide them with a conditioning program to make them buff and tough and ready to take on the nasty plot twists and turns we will throw at them?

What conditioning and skill program do you enroll your characters in, so they can take on Goliath and eke out a victory?


What is the best conditioning program you have seen a writer employ to prepare their character for battle with the protagonist?

31 thoughts on “Reader Friday: Best Conditioning Programs for Characters

  1. Ⓠ What conditioning and skill program do you enroll your characters in?
    Ⓐ Back-story, primarily. Tenirax lost his father and inherited his books at an early age and was almost murdered by an innkeeper in Bilbao. Abilene was raised by his mother and forced to go west to work for his cousin. Sharon once believed that her doll was a real little sister. After 16 years at a dead-end job, Horus Blassingame has studied a foreign language in preparation for addressing a foreign conference. As a girl, Lucie used to work in the Sheriff’s office, and won medals for shooting, until her father was shot on the job. Hirand is in love with the princess, and, as an orphan, was deemed expendable and sent to fetch a wizard to heal her of a dire ailment. David worked hard on his father’s farm and explored the local ruins in search of treasure.

    Ⓠ Do they take on Goliath?
    Ⓐ Tenirax becomes a poet and slides a rude poem under the door of the local Bishop. Abilene befriends a desperado in the desert on his way west. Sharon must flee when realizes that the doll was substituted for her baby sister, who was killed by her father. Horus discovers he’s been taught the wrong dialect and soon must run from the police in a strange city, without a map. Lucie is asked to replace the current Sheriff after he’s shot like her father. Hirand brings back the wizard, only to find he is a sorcerer, who changes the Princess into a monster. When their town is attacked by raiders, David joins an order of armed monks and travels to their distant temple with his girl friend.

    Ⓠ Do they eke out a victory?
    Ⓐ That would involve spoilers, so I’m not telling!

    • Thanks for sharing your story, JG.

      Physical fitness, a conditioning program, or skills training is part of the backstory. And, you have trained your characters well. It appears they will have big challenges in taking on the antagonists they face. I hope their training serves them well.

  2. The MC in my current trilogy WIP has to outrun the bad guys. Fortunately, she’s an ex college cross country runner, and she still goes out for a daily jog.

  3. In my Blackthorne books, my covert ops characters have mandatory PT. In other books, I’ve had yoga, and running. My cowboys get plenty of exercise dealing with the everyday labors of a cattle ranch.
    In my Pine Hills books, the police station has a small fitness center.
    For mental “conditioning” some of my characters cook. In the case of Angie in my Mapleton books, lifting all the pots and pans for her diner also gives her plenty of physical exercise.

  4. Reading this post, I was thinking of those great stories you read where a character comes up against one obstacle after another and you as a reader are literally tense as the story reaches the conclusion. You breathe a sigh of relief as they win out in the end, whatever that win is.

    So when I think of conditioning for characters I think of tenacity. Your protag has to first be faced with several good-sized hurdles. It isn’t much challenge for an athlete to jump over a 2 inch hurdle, but a 2 foot hurdle is something else altogether. So if your protag only gets 2 inch hurdles, it’s going to be boring and your characters won’t need tenacity. Neither will your readers—because they’ll fall asleep.

    It sounds so obvious when I say it, but I at times as part of the revision process have to go back and say “Wait a minute. That was just way too easy for my protag. Where’s the conflict? The challenge?”

    • Good points, BK. Your “tenacity training” is similar to Terry’s mention of mental training. Gradually increasing obstacles to face and overcome is one way. Another would be to show some struggles the MC had to face in their past.

      Great comments.

  5. Faith and love to start. It takes them from being fraidy cats to achieving things they never thought possible. They may start out minding their own business and avoiding conflict, but mess with someone they love and look out.

    • Excellent points, Cynthia. You point out the importance of motivation. And without motivation, a character would be a “fraidy cat” forever. And without motivation, there wouldn’t be a story.

      Thanks for participating.

  6. Great question, Steve!

    Shawnee from my Mayhem Series engages in warrior training, like the Apache back in the day. It’s much harder training than, say, going to the gym, and involves mental, physical, and spiritual conditioning. My readers love those parts of the stories, and I love testing her limits, then pushing her even harder. 😉

    • Thanks, Sue.

      Great example in Shawnee. And she has a tough personal trainer. Mental, physical, and skill training all rolled into one. It makes the reader feel sorry for Shawnee, but it pays off in the end.

      Important points. Thanks! And have a great day!

  7. Love this question, Steve. As you mentioned above, my MC is a runner. In the first chapter of the first book in the series, she’s training for a marathon when she stumbles on a mysterious object that fuels the story.

    • Thanks, Kay. Running is a good example of conditioning that “conditions” both the body and the mind. BK called it “tenacity.”

      The Watch on the Fencepost is a great example of showing the conditioning and even making it part of the plot.

      Hope your day is a good one.

  8. Fun question, Steve! In my Empowered series, Mathilda Brandt had a rough and tumble young life, and got plenty of physical exercise from her daily actions.

    My cozy mystery heroine mainly gets her physical conditioning in from walking everywhere, and her emotional conditioning from her drive to help others, and learning from that. In book 2, she does take up roller skating again, one of the (hopefully) fun cozy subplots.

    Hope you have a great weekend!

    • Thanks, Dale. Roller skating is great. I remember (from many years ago) the excitement of a crowded roller rink, the music blaring, and every second a near collision. Always dodging at the last moment to stay on your feet makes a great analogy for physical and mental conditioning. Makes these old bones want to try the skating again. Or not.

      Have a great weekend!

  9. My main characters are Tawny, the investigator, who does zumba and hikes. Tillman, the attorney, runs, lifts weight, and boxes in his basement gym. Both work hard mentally, trying to piece together where missing people are hiding and who is causing trouble behind the scenes.

    If only their creator was in as good shape as they are 😉

    • Great stories, Debbie. Tawny and Tillman also get some mental conditioning from the verbal sparring between them.

      From what I’ve heard, their creator keeps a schedule that could run rings around a spring chicken.

      Thanks for your examples from your stories, and have a great weekend!

  10. Great questions, Steve! And happy-almost-the-weekend…

    In my first novel, Tom (MC), a Marine veteran, hikes almost every day in their mountain setting. And always carries a sidearm powerful enough to neutralize any cat/bear threat. It’s implied in the story that he trains with it regularly.

    In my second novel, Annie has to confront a mental obstacle-debilitating fear. Her character arc goes from being put down by it to squaring off against it for the good of her family.

    She’s a lot like me that way. 🙂

    • Thanks, Deb. Great examples of conditioning. In the second, Annie’s fear is as powerful as it could possibly be – fear of survival. And the motivation to overcome it is one of the most powerful motivators – for the good of her family. Powerful story.

      Have a great almost-the-weekend!

  11. While some characters need physical training to overcome Goliath, (for example, the Karate Kid or Rocky), the real key for satisfying characters seems to be developing the strength of character to get up again when adversity knocks them down. As BK says, tenacity is one aspect of this. Facing fears and making change trumps running miles on a track before facing the final battle. Yes, exercise/fitness (or the lack of it) are important elements of characterization, but I don’t think they’re as important as the internal spark that pushes the protagonist to the conclusion.

    I would have to disagree that backstory is what moves a character from 2 dimensions to 3. Round characters show a range of emotional states that rapidly cycle based on their current situation. They have to chuckle at a joke, rage at an injustice, worry when a loved one is under threat, feel fear when they’re faced with overwhelming odds or confidence when a plan comes together. Cardboard characters seem like inanimate chess pieces moved by the author around the plot board because their emotions are so far off from real humans if their emotional states are static, and that occurs even when they have voluminous backstories. I can easily tell a round character from a cardboard cutout well before any backstory is revealed just by the emotional cycles.

    When I’m done drafting and into the edit passes, one of the questions on my chapter checklist is whether the characters showed emotional change over the chapter. If they didn’t, I know I have work to do.

    • Good points.

      When I mentioned conditioning in the intro, I’m simply referring to attributes of the character that make it believable they can perform the tasks they will be called upon to perform. I agree that tenacity and strength of character are what make them satisfying.

      And, likewise, the range of emotional states that make a character “round” need to be logical extensions of how the character has become who they are and their motivation for responding as they do. And that development needs to be shown to be believable.

  12. Training montages work best in movies and long-ass fantasies or series. The rest of us use backstory. I had a heroine who was a softball pitcher on her weekends so she threw a scarily accurate object to distract or misdirect villains on several occasions. Another was raped so she traded her courses in child gymnastics for self-defense courses for herself. Some had lives that were nothing but training for whatever was thrown her way. I always made sure that their training had an emotional component to their story.

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