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How to Write Less-is-More Characters

Part 4: Your Character's Life Position

In the last part of this series we looked at the dynamics between characters, and how that can help us work out how a quiet character might behave. This week we'll look at the fundamental life positions that a character might act from.

Life Position

The Life Positions is a set of four fundamental positions from which each person views themselves and others. This is dynamic and we can switch from one position to another, but we tend to have a favourite.


One of the first times we see Colin interact with anyone is when his new landlady answers the door. He has a friendly, puppy-like smile on his face, and this establishes that this character assumes the best in people and considers himself a good, likeable person too.

Fanart of Hiccup and Toothless from How To Train Your Dragon.
Hiccup and Toothless from How To Train Your Dragon. Hiccup is not dramatic but his commitment to I+U+ generates drama from others. Art by sugarpoultry.

Writing your own less-is-more character:
The I+U+ position invites the least drama, as it means we assume the best of both ourselves and the other person. Most people tend to enjoy the company of others who exhibit I+U+, as taking this position makes us easy to get along with. A person who adopts this position will generally get on with life without throwing spanners into the proverbial works, either for themselves or other people. They are generally resourceful and have strong potential as leaders.

Leadership requires good communication which means that a character may speak quite a lot, but won't invite drama when they talk. As such, a character in this position will still be less-is-more but probably won't be quiet.

Breaking such a character requires having them interact with U- characters who will wrong-foot them in ways that will put them in danger.

Examples: I've already given Littlefoot from The Land Before Time as an example of a mild-mannered character who is noted for being likeable. He fits in nicely here as an example of a character who demonstrates an I+U+ position too, as is Hazel from Watership Down. Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon and some versions of Knuckles from the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise fit, too.


As stated above, Colin has a basic trust in the goodness and competence of other people. That can be interpreted as naivete, but it also makes him easy to get along with. What separates his attitude (and the attitudes of the other characters listed above) from arrogance is that he sees others as equally good, valuable people as he does, himself.

I+U- is different from this. This position relies on the character to see others as lesser than themselves, especially as intrinsically less valuable as people than themselves. Usually this will manifest as attacking the other person either verbally or physically and being unapologetic about themselves.

Writing your own less-is-more character:
I+U- is a popular position in fiction, especially for antagonists and villains. It adds instant drama as the characters that the antagonist comes into contact with will probably object to being seen as less and may well fight back. An I+U- character may be bluffing in their position of assumed superiority and may be masking a feeling of I-U+ (see below; some people call this "having a chip on one's shoulder"), but this isn’t in the spirit of the less-is-more we’re looking at in this blog post.


The one break that we see on-screen in Colin’s positive I+ outlook towards himself is his fear of being seen as dirty, which he mentions when he talks with his mother about having contracted HIV.

Fanart of Hiccup and Toothless from How To Train Your Dragon.
Hiccup and Toothless from How To Train Your Dragon again. Hiccup acknowledged Toothless' strength from the start but developed a relationship with him that didn't require I-. Art by Elin Tan.

More generally, he also has reservations around presenting his sexual self to others, even in an environment where his sexuality would not be expected to be considered a problematic issue. That may be due to a fear of judgement from others. He doesn’t date, not even while living in an LGBT-inclusive house, which suggests that his self-consciousness runs deep. We only see him express his sexual thoughts and feelings covertly while living in his first lodgings, and then more directly shortly before his death, when his brain tumour begins to interfere with his impulse-control – and when he does, the people around him are distressed to see how Colin's illness has robbed him of his civility. They try to preserve his modesty, knowing very well that Colin would be mortified to express himself in this way if he had his full faculties.

Writing your own less-is-more character:
This life position makes a character think, feel, and behave as if they are inherently vulnerable. It can prompt people to want to protect them, or it can attract abusive types – sometimes both. Some people find being vulnerable intolerable and will mask it by flipping I-U+ into I+U- to deflect attention from their weaknesses to the real or perceived weaknesses of others (see I+U-, above). It tends to create a lot of drama for these reasons.

While I- is a quick way to achieve a helpless/'Victim' or Rescuing dynamic (see part 2 of this series), care must be taken that the character isn’t being woobified - unless that is a deliberate choice. To prevent woobification, give the character some genuine strengths and allow these to shine in your story. A strong Adult Ego-State is a good strength, as that will allow a character to solve their own problems and avoid unnecessarily becoming a Victim, even if they sometimes find standing up for themselves or going on frightening missions taxing.

I'll finish this section by saying that there’s nothing wrong with giving a character a problem too big to solve as a way to tug your readers’ heartstrings, as per Colin. Problem-solving skills and emotional resilience are excellent qualities, but some problems are just unsolvable.

I- U-

Colin is not prone to this life position due to his faith in human nature, and notably it’s only when he’s dealing with something he cannot shrug off, solve, or reason with – the HIV virus – that he feels defeated. Even when he does, his attitudes towards other people does not become more negative and he is still gentle and as kind as he can be to others, his impulse-control notwithstanding.

Writing your own less-is-more character:
This is a favourite position for emo characters, and it can enerate either intense drama, or deaden it because the character feels they have nothing to fight for as 'everything and everyone is so bad'. In practice however, introducing a character with an I-U- position who never shifts from it can risk losing the interest of many readers. I-U- needs to be earned to have the most impact. Note that if a character is truly I-U- then they will have no faith in the goodness of other people, not just life situations.

Remember, the life positions are dynamic, and characters tend to shift between one and another, with one that they tend to default to.

In the next part we're going to talk about psychological hungers: the character's needs, which drive their tendency to seek drama - or not.


Ernst, F., 'The OK Corral: the grid for get-on-with'. TAJ, 1, 4, 1971, 231-40. (otherwise known as the 'Grid for What's Happening')


Title image by sharkie19 and used with their kind permission.