To Give Them Life, Get to Know Your Characters

People act and react in accordance with a hidden set of rules that are unique to each one of us.  Our own sort of hierarchy of priorities.  Far more complex than a simple set of physical drives that need fulfilling in order of urgency we act emotionally, spiritually and intellectually in addition to the physical.  People can be very hard to figure out but so long as they are of relatively sound mind they can usually be understood if you can get to their core motivations.  Start with yourself.  What did I do today?  Why did I do that instead of something else?  It’s okay for the answers to seem obvious, you are you after all.

We need to craft characters who are just as complex as real people so that even when they surprise and confound us it further reveals their inner motives.  These revelations have to be supported by everything the reader has learned about them so far in the story or there will be a noisy alarm going off in their brain screaming “Fake! Fake!”  If every piece of the puzzle fits after the latest revelation the reader has an “Ah-hah!” moment instead, which is much more satisfying.

Getting consistency in character action can only be accomplished if we know our characters motivations from the start, even if they are trying to hide their motivations from the other characters.  Once you understand what your character really wants in life then you can start to see how they will react to any situation they encounter.  Consider these properties of your character and question how they prioritize them.

Properties of Motivation
1. NEEDS: What does my character need most in life?  Needs may or may not be known to the character.
2. LOVES: What does my character care most about in life?
3. WANTS: What does my character want most?  Wants are known to the character.
4. FEARS: What does my character fear most in life?
5. HATES: What does my character truly despise?

Pick one of your characters to work on through all of these exercises.

STAGE I:  Practice Getting Into a Character’s Voice

Try writing a letter to someone you know really well, then instead of sending it write the response to yourself as if you’re them.  Try to think like the other person, write the kind of letter you would expect to get back from them.  Then try writing a letter as a character in one of your stories to another character in a different story and write the response letter if you like.  They can only send one letter each before the two stories are separate again forever.  What do your characters think is the most important thing to tell each other?

STAGE II:  Mapping the Major Motivators in a Character

Take one of your characters and write a quick bio of them.  Try to answering these questions:
What does my character need most in life?
What is it that my character cares most about?
What does my character want most?
What does my character fear most?
What does my character truly despise?

STAGE III: Look for Characterization Inconsistencies in Your Existing Project

Take a look at your favorite scene featuring the character you’re work-shopping with these exercises.  What traits are they shown to have in this scene?  Make a list of them.  How are these traits reinforced in other scenes?  Do you ever accidentally contradict these traits in action or dialogue?

Now compare your list against the quick bio you made in Stage II.  How is your character stacking up against their bio?

These exercises should get you spending time with your character so you can learn what your goals are for them and who they really are as a person.  Best of luck and happy writing!

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