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
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”,
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 –