What makes a character real?
Some may say it’s their quirks. Some, their flaws. Many writers like filling out sheets upon sheets of get-to-know-you questions to discover who their character is while others like throwing him into a situation to see how he reacts.
No matter what our strategy entails, there are shared pieces of the human experience that must form the core of our characters. Without them, readers can’t relate. In this article, I’m addressing four of these characteristics: goal, motivation, values, and origin.
Goals can take limitless forms. A goal can be as simple as asking a girl out or as complex as saving the world. In its most basic form, a goal is what our character wants.
The backbone of our character’s skeleton is his goal. This single element affects how he acts, speaks, and thinks. If he has no desires, he’s worse than flat. He’s purposeless. He’s a pawn that’s glued to the chessboard. He doesn’t move.
Let’s say we’re trying to flesh out is a villain named Edward. We don’t want him to be aimless, so he needs a desire. After brainstorming a bit, we discover our villain has a thirst for gold.
Now he can step into our story as a pawn. If he wants this shiny stuff, he’ll have to do something to attain it. He might rob banks, mug bypassers, or start a non-profit organization and skim money off the top of what it earns.
Now that’s some action. Edward won’t be wandering around our story like a lost lamb. He’s going to be preparing, planning, and eventually taking. He’s moved from observer to player, and our game of chess gets a whole lot more interesting.
Though desires get a character moving, a character without a motivation behind his goals is as shallow as a random red shirt in Star Trek. Without motivation, our character’s legitimacy disappears.
Think about it. A person acts for a reason. He quits his job for a higher paying one because he can’t afford the mortgage. He gets married because he wants to share life with another. Those are motivations.
Readers rarely relate to a character who does not have a driving force behind his actions. Motives deepen characters like cross-hatching adds dimension to a sketch.
in Crafting Dynamic Dialogue: The Complete Guide to Speaking, Conversing, Arguing, and Thinking in Fiction, Gloria Kempton writes,
“Motive, even more than behavior, reveal whom our characters are deep down inside because behavior is external but motives are internal.”
Readers can understand a goal, but motivation shows readers who they’re really dealing with.
What is Edward’s motivation for stealing? Perhaps he wants money so he can buy stuff. Perhaps he likes the way gold glitters in the sun.
These are (marginally) solid motivations, but if we want to make our characters ultra-deep, we must go beyond our first impressions. We must look for motivations under motivations.
Say Edward steals money so he can purchase cool things. But he also sets aside a large amount of it in case something goes down. It lends him a sense of security. He can bribe danger away with the flash of gold. With riches, he feels invincible. That’s truly why he desires gold.
Goals and motivations have regulators. If we didn’t have a way to logically (or emotionally) weigh our choices, our existence would be random and meaningless. The same applies to our characters. Their values determine their motives and goals.
Let’s apply this to our villain, shall we? Edward steals money because he believes it’s the most efficient way to gain wealth and security. He steals because he believes he deserves it. He deserves what he steals because he’s stronger and smarter than his opponents and therefore worth more. Underneath his goal and motivation lies a survival of the fittest mentality.
A character’s values are important because they affect far more than one or two goals. They can reach into many areas of a character’s life. For instance, if Edward truly believed that worth is based on someone’s ability to take, he would be completely justified in his own eyes if he killed someone he deemed lesser. What he believes about worth applies to his other actions.
The worldview that permits a character to believe and act the way he does must have a source. A character doesn’t become brave, loyal, wicked, or good at the jot of a pen. His ethics are shaped by his childhood, past treatment, etc.
Edward wants money because he wants security, right? Perhaps he was missing this assurance earlier on in his life. Maybe his father didn’t earn enough money to provide for him when he was a kid, and Edward’s family was homeless for a while. They lived in the wrong part of town, and Edward was beaten because he didn’t have the strength to escape or the means to bribe his way out. With money, he feels safe from those stronger than him. It gives him an advantage.
Connecting backstory with a character’s actions brings realism to the forefront. Our characters are forever stained by their pasts, just as we are.
Though our character still needs surface details, this structure will form a solid base for his development. If our character has a solid origin, value, motivation, and goal, he’s well on his way to becoming that one-of-a-kind personality readers will love, defend, and remember long after the adventure ends.
What are your favorite ways to flesh out your characters? What memorable characters can you remember that have these traits?
The Introvert (A.K.A. Gabrielle R. Pollack)