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writing deep-dive: character

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

About six months ago, my husband wrote this note and stuck it up on the refrigerator:

He did this because every single time I got stuck on my novel-in-progress, the reason was character. Either my character was doing something that didn't fit, or (more frequently) I didn't know enough about my character to write the scene.

Plot logistics can cause you problems, but shallow character-building will stall you out. To really move a plot forward, you need realistic motivations that inspire characters to act, whether they are acting nobly or evilly. Not only will this help you avoid the cliche workshop feedback of "I just didn't really buy that X would do this," but it will help make your writing richer and more universal--more capable of commenting on human nature and the human condition.

Kurt Vonnegut's famous advice on character is that "Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water." It's true advice, and has gotten me through many scenes and short stories, but I'd like to discuss it more deeply when it comes to novels, video games, TV shows and other long works. The fact is that almost everybody on the planet wants something more than just a glass of water. Real people's--even evil people's--wants are much more complicated. Human desires are emotionally and experientially driven. Whatever it is that the person wants, even the glass of water, they usually want it for deeper reasons. What's the real reason someone wants a glass of water? It's not just that they're feeling thirsty. It's that they want to survive. Why are they walking in to get a glass of water rather than drinking from a faucet in the bathroom? Both methods would get them water, quenching their thirst and their need for survival. But people also have desires to be civilized, to have the convenience of a mobile cup of water, and on top of that, getting water in a glass is a life-long habit. People get glasses of water, and so does your character. It's important to understand the emotional and social drives behind human desires. Doing so will help you create better conflicts between characters, and it will lend a richness to your writing when it comes to the minutia of the world and the character's actions.

For example, it's common to attribute greed or materialism to bad guys. But I have never met a real-life human being who wanted to become wealthy or accumulate objects just because they like money or stuff, full stop. That's not a real thing. People project their emotional needs onto money and material objects all the time, and it can look a lot like greed, but most often those people are motivated by deep-seated emotional cravings that money and objects help to assuage, such as:

-a yearning for leisure time

-a need for independence from others

-hatred for their jobs

-intense insecurity that leads them to need the status wealth brings

-a fear of financial instability and loss

-a need to achieve goals for a sense of self-worth

-a desire to help others around them through charity and gifts

and on and on.

What's interesting about accessing these more emotional and social needs behind a character trait is that it helps you build corresponding character traits and actions. If you're building a greedy villain and he just fucking likes money, there's nothing else to add. Everything that character does will be about getting more money. But if you're building a greedy villain who desperately desires leisure time, then you also have a villain who perhaps doesn't believe in the afterlife and wants to maximize his life here on Earth while he can. And that character doesn't like to have his time wasted by bullshit bureaucracy. He may also fear death, scoff at religion, and hate doing things inefficiently. Knowing these things about your character will give you a lot more ammo for scenes. The first, flat character who just likes money robs a bank and there aren't a lot of interesting details to add to the bank robbery. But the second character robbing a bank...that scene writes itself. Perhaps the teller is wearing a crucifix around her neck. How will he respond to that? What if there's a long line at the bank when he goes in to rob it, and his plan involves passing a note to the teller? All of a sudden we have more details, more inspiration for interaction between characters, and the world comes a bit more alive.

A great example of well-crafted character development is Stannis Baratheon in Game of Thrones. We know he wants the Iron Throne, and he refuses to bend to his younger brother’s claim even though Renly has a larger army and more popular support. But the writers didn’t stop there. Stannis’ insistence on his own claim to the throne comes from his extreme commitment to justice and rule-following. And because the writers knew that about his character, they were also able to provide small, character-building details: the history of why the Onion Knight followed him, for example, but also Stannis’s habit of correcting other characters’ grammar. It fit the character, because the character’s main, underlying motivation was a dedication to the letter of the law. This depth of character development also served as a great touchpoint for the audience to understand when Stannis had left his own principles and character behind. The writers didn’t have to hit us over the head with clunky dialogue about Stannis being true to himself, because Stannis’ true self was evident in all of his mannerisms. We knew without saying when he violated his true self.

In general, I have found that when I am stuck on a scene or a plot point, it's because I don't know these details about one of the characters, and I don't understand their motivations, and so conflict is falling flat and the story won't move forward. I don't bother to do all this development for every single character before I begin writing (though I definitely do it for main characters), but when I'm stuck I isolate the characters and try to understand what's truly motivating each of them. Sometimes it happens in a character you already know fairly well, but sometimes it's a side character who for whatever reason is playing a leading role in this scene. So when you stall out a bit, stop, consider your characters, and ask yourself why they want what they want. Is it true? Would they really want this? Or is it something else and this "thing" is incidental? What's the true driving force here? Once you figure out those truths, the dialogue and actions will write themselves.

Who are some of your favorite characters in literature? Do you think the author understood their underlying motivations?

And who have been some of the more disappointing characters? Could they have been fixed using this method?

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