What draws you into a book? Is it the thrilling plot? The sizzling romance? The comical situations?
Or is it something more?
I am willing to bet that the reason you love your favorite book is not because of the plot but because of the characters that move through the plot.
As a writer, it is absolutely crucial to create characters that are well-rounded and real. So just exactly how is this done?
Creating Real People
A couple weeks ago I discussed the idea of using archetypes to develop a general idea of your character’s profile. While the universal elements of archetype may draw a reader initially to a character, there must be something more than just kiddie pool depth for your characters to become favorites. They must be real.
Real people have good qualities and bad qualities, or flaws as they are often referred to in the writing world. We see these traits in people through their actions. You don’t hear people going around announcing “I’m cynical” or “I’m adaptable” to the world (usually), and even if they did, you wouldn’t believe them until you saw it through their actions.
I can say I’m a morning person all I want, but until you see me actually willingly getting my butt out of bed before 9 AM and happy about it, you might doubt it. By the way, if you haven’t guessed, mornings and I are not on speaking terms.
Thus, as a writer, it is critical to determine the personality traits of your characters, both good and bad, and determine ways to show this subtly through their actions.
Positive and Negative Traits
If you are like me, at the beginning, I struggled with deciding what are personality traits and the behaviors that go with my characters. Enter one of my favorite writing resources, Angela Ackerman’s and Becca Puglist’s Positive and Negative Trait Thesaurusus (or thesauri, depending on your grammar philosophy).
Each thesaurus includes a definition, category (they have a whole intro section on this), similar attributes, possible causes, associated behaviors, associated thoughts, associated emotions, positive aspects, negative aspects, examples in literature and film, traits in supporting characters that may cause conflict, challenging scenarios, and even how a negative trait can become overcome.
Whenever I create my hero, heroine, and even my “villain”, I am sure to pick out 3 – 4 positive and negative traits each to help define my character. Sometimes the traits are a major part of their character, and sometimes the traits are just one of those little quirks that people have.
Determining How a Character Behaves
After I have listed out their traits, I also list out the associated behaviors I can see my character doing. Sometimes I begin to see a pattern of behaviors that are repeated across traits and I realize these behaviors need to be something highly visual in my storyline. For quick reference sake, I “distill” my characters down to a few, easy to reference traits and behaviors to post onto my bulletin board.
Here is my heroine’s “distilled” list:
Values: Security, Loyalty, Honesty
- Holds on to goals long after prudent
- Unparalleled sense of morality
- fight for what is right no matter what
- Ferocious Loyalty
- Not letting others help
- Refusing to admit defeat
- Acting without thinking of the consequences (courageous, impulsive)
- Acting in response to emotions (this and the next behavior cause inner conflict at times)
- Firm control of emotions
- Light manipulation to keep attention away from self
- Thinks in metaphors
- Growing quiet, lost in thought
- Creative problem solving
It might still need a little fine tuning, but I use it as a general list as I work through my story.
What about you? How do you determine what traits your character has? What traits do you admire in heroes or heroines?
You’ve learned part of my process above, but the traits I love most in my hero and heroines are quick wit, loyal, independent, and strong senses of justice. This is perhaps why most of the stories in my head center around some of those themes.
Come back in a couple weeks when I talk about Creating Well-Rounded Characters – Giving Them Life on 3/15/17.
Previous Post: Creating Well-Rounded Characters – Archetypes
Developing a well-rounded character takes time and purpose. I tend to be a panster (a writer who writes by the seat of their pants), but I have learned to develop my characters thoroughly before beginning to write.
Many authors do a character interview to help get to know their characters. I am slowly learning to do that using Susan May Warren’s SEQ technique (check out her book about it here), but I have also added my own twist to discovering the inner workings of my characters.
So what are those key components to take into consideration when developing a character?
In addition to SEQ, I like to explore my characters archetypes, positive personality traits, negative personality traits, and character backstory. Today I just want to focus on archetypes.
What are Archetypes?
Archetypes are just universal patterns of behavior that have positive and negative aspects.
Caroline Myss, “a pioneer in the field of energy medicine and consciousness”, suggests each person has a combination of about 12 archetypes that make up their psyche, each having varying degrees of presence in your life depending on your situation. I don’t get into all that “new age” feel stuff, but her collection of 72 Archetypes Cards are very useful in developing fictional characters.
Some examples of her archetypes are:
- Child – Orphan
- Child – Wounded
Developing Character Archetypes
For my characters, I choose between four and six archetypes that define who they are during my story. In fact, the list above is the archetypes I chose for my hero and heroine in my WIP.
Each archetype has positive and negative traits. Because the prostitute archetype might be a little concerning to you, I will share that one as my example.
“The Prostitute archetype engages lessons in the sale or negotiation of one’s integrity or spirit due to fears of physical survival or for financial gain. We prostitute ourselves when we sell our bodies or minds for money, or when we compromise our morals and ethics for financial gain… The core learning of the Prostitute is that self-esteem and self-respect make you impervious to selling out.”
– “Prostitute”, Caroline Myss Archetype Cards Booklet
Caroline Myss adds more, but as you can see from this description that “Prostitute” is not exactly what you first think. No, my heroine is NOT sexually immoral or active. What she does do is compromise her morals due to her fears of physical survival.
Have you ever compromised your morals due to self-preservation? It doesn’t have to be big and earth-shaking. It could be the one time you blamed your toddler sibling for eating all the cookies before dinner, even though you believe lying is wrong. See how the archetype can be used for everyday situations?
Picking out four to six archetype cards really helps to round out your characters and make them multi-dimensional. The general strengths and weaknesses are outlined for you to expand upon and fine-tune for the uses of your own story. Characters can even have overlapping archetypes, yet be completely their own person, just like the human race in real life.
Because archetypes are universal in nature, readers will connect to your characters because they see aspects of themselves within the story.
When developing your own characters, I highly recommend taking into consideration their archetypes. If you struggle with archetypes, I suggest picking up Caroline Myss’ Archetype Cards.
What other archetypes are you familiar with? Still confused? Leave a question below. I promise to get back to it as soon as I can.
Do you have any resources you use to help develop your own characters?
Last week we took an In-depth Look at Character Goals. This week we will examine the why of external and internal goals. At the end of the post you will find application questions to guide you on your way.
What is Motivation?
Goal and motivation co-exist. You cannot have one without the other. In fact, when defining our goal, motivation is taken into consideration. Motivation is the reason why they take action. It is what drives them.
The character wants his goal because of the motivation. It is the why.
Make It Compelling. Make It Urgent.
Motivation is important. It is a major element which helps us to empathize or connect with the character. My motto with motivation is “Make it worse.” This adds to the urgency of the goal.
The great thing about the fiction world is you can do what ever you want as long as the reader understands the why.
Your character has a loan they cannot repay? Make it worse. A bank will repossess your house and the items you own, but what a merciless loan shark would do can be far worse. Imagine how the plot would be different for each of those scenarios. Which story line will be more compelling to read?
Taking Motivation a Step Further
Motivation shouldn’t only drive your overarching goal, it should drive your character’s every decision and action.
- Why did honest Joe steal from the bank? Because his family was being held captive and would be killed if he didn’t.
- Why did the rich heiress choose the even richer rogue instead of the man she loved? Because her family was in financial ruin and her little sister would not be able to receive treatment without his infuse of money.
Give a reason which will make your characters willing to risk anything and everything to achieve their goal. Give them no other choice. A weak motivation leads to a weak story.
One Last Tip
Character motivation needs to match your actual character. Make it possible. Your story can be wildly crazy and believable as long as you have the right motivation.
Would a Union woman cut off her hair, pretend to be a mute boy in a Confederate prisoner camp, and secretly help Confederate men to escape? (If you are a history buff at all, you can imagine the risks that woman is taking. Doing so is completely against her best interest.)
If you give her the right motivation, it could be a completely believable story.
- What is your character’s goal?
- What is their motivation?
- How can you make it worse?
- Is your motivation believable for the character? Would they really make that choice?
- Do your characters have a purpose that moves them toward their goal for the scene you have created?
Share some of your answers in the comments below. I would love to hear your thoughts. Are there any other guiding questions you would add?
May God bless your journey to follow “The Write Call”,
In a continuation of our look at GMC (Goal, Motivation, & Conflict), today I am focusing on an in-depth look at character goals. At the end, I will leave you with some guiding questions to help you develop your own character goals.
Last week we defined a goal as answering two questions. What does the character want? What is compelling them to take action?
Everyone has goals in life. Today my personal goal is to overcome this sinus infection, however, I do not believe you would want to read a story centered around that goal. Why not? For one, it is gross. Secondly, it is not a compelling story that grips at your heart and soul to keep you turning pages.
So what makes a compelling goal?
Think about the stories you love to watch and read. I can guarantee you the main character’s goal is one that is life altering. The consequence of not reaching their goal will negatively affect them in a serious manner. It is for this reason they take action.
For example, in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Belle’s goal is to save her father from dying in the Beast’s tower room. If she does not save him, her only remaining family member will be lost to her forever. She would be left to live alone and possibly accept Gaston’s proposal. Horror of horrors. These consequences compel her to action. Achieving her goal is worth any sacrifice.
A novel example would be from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennet has the goal of marrying for nothing less than love. When the very rich and arrogant Mr. Darcy first proposes, she is compelled to refuse him. Why? Because money would not be worth the life of misery.
The previous examples were external goals. (An external goal is something tangible.) According to Debra Dixon, author of Goal, Motivation, & Conflict, you characters should not want something they already have or want more of it.
To develop a strong character, you must create a goal in which they desperately need what they do not have. Mrs. Dixon describes it best:
Dangle a carrot just out of their reach and make sure they haven’t had a bite in weeks.
– from Goal, Motivation, & Conflict by Debra Dixon
Not only should they desperately want it, they should also urgently need it. The more urgent, the better.
In the interest of achieving their goal in time, they will make choices they would not have previously considered. Urgency will push them to make choices that go against their own best interest.
Internal goals reach down into the emotional soul of the main character. It is what they feel. I find that usually the character arc, or what the character learns, goes hand in hand with the internal goals.
One of my characters will learn that real love is not based on what she does, but who she is. Therefore, I have made her internal goal to be feel worthy of love and attention. In the beginning she feels she must earn the love of her inattentive caregiver and subsequently the love of the man she hopes to marry.
This, combined with her external goal, forces her to make decisions which she would never had made before. Some of the choices she makes will have dire consequences. You want to keep the reader wondering if they will ever learn their lesson and achieve their goal, all the way to the black moment a the end.
- What is your main character’s goal?
- What is the consequence of not achieving their goal?
- How can you make them more dire?
- How can you make the goal more urgent?
- What choices would your character have to make that go against their best interest?
- What do you want your character to learn throughout the story?
- What could be their internal goal?
- What makes them desperate for this feeling?
- What will be the consequences if they do not achieve this internal goal?
Share some of your answers in the comments below. I would love to hear your thoughts. Are there any other guiding questions you would add?
The first step to developing a novel beyond the initial concept is to develop your GMC. If you are a newbie like me, you might not know what those three letters represent. Let me share what I have learned.
What is GMC?
GMC stands for Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. These three concepts are developed around your individual characters.
- Goal – What does your character want? What is the reason they take action?
- Motivation – What is driving them to achieve their goal?
- Conflict – Why can’t they have what they want? What is preventing them from learning their life lesson?
Each character you develop will have their own external and internal GMCs. Just in case those old Literature & Language classes are fuzzy in your memory, external means you can touch it or achieve it without emotion, while internal revolves around the emotional.
Here is an example of Little Red Riding Hood’s external and internal GMC:
Debra Dixon does a fantastic job of explaining each aspect in her book Goal, Motivation, & Conflict. In fact her book was so useful, I have included it and links to purchase it on The Write Resources page.
Over the next few weeks I will be using what I have learned from her book to explore more about GMC, but for now, why don’t you try your hand at GMC?
Take your favorite fairy tale character or even your own made up character and share their GMC. You can copy and paste the following into the comments if need be:
- External Goal –
- External Motivation –
- External Conflict –
- Internal Goal –
- Internal Motivation –
- Internal Conflict –