Welcome to the second post in a series, “I Have a Story Idea, Now What?” This time we’ll be talking about characterization.
Obligatory disclaimer: there is no one true way to write or outline or plot or edit. What I’ll be doing in these posts is talking about how I do things, and why, and what I’ve struggled with. Feel free to use anything that seems useful and ignore the rest.
Characters are usually one of the first things that come to me when I’m working on a story. They’re one of the things I started with a natural ability to do–which means when I needed to take the next step to improve my characterization, I had no idea how the hell to do that, because it had all been instinctual up to that point.
Like I said last time, taking something you do by instinct and learning to do it consciously is one of the hardest things you can do, whether it’s writing or art or music.
I went on my way convinced I did great characters, until I gave my second novel (now safely trunked) to some critique partners and almost everyone talked about how passive my main character was, and how she let too much happen to her instead of taking action. I was gobsmacked. What had happened? She was quirky and interesting! She had a gun! I wrote good characters! Did I forget how?
Well, what had happened was that some of my other writing skills had finally caught up and surpassed my characterization. So now I had to learn how to build characters.
I did a lot of digging into different techniques people used. I learned there are endless character surveys ranging from a character’s appearance to what the name of their best friend in elementary school was. I spent a lot of time on those, and ultimately, they didn’t really help me understand who my character was. They were just facts about them.
Now, if those help you, that’s great! For me, they were often more a way to make myself feel like I was “writing” when I was really “procrastinating”.
Then I had my hiatus from writing, which lasted about ten years. When I got back to it, I got back into finding some ideas for how to build strong, proactive characters. If I had to boil it down to just one thing, one absolute in a realm where I don’t believe in many absolutes, it’s this: give your character something to want.
And not just “want” like “boy, I want a cheeseburger”, but “want” like “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die.” The sort of want that defines them and their actions in the course of the story.
One of the better books I’ve read on the subject is Debra Dixon’s GMC: Goal, Motivation, Conflict. Now, you’ll notice that she bills this as “the building blocks of good fiction”, so she’s not just presenting this as a book on characterization. I’ll go into the whys of that a little more next week when we talk about plot.
So, for me, “goal, motivation, conflict” boils down to a few simple questions:
- What does the character want?
- Why do they want it?
- Why can’t they have it?
Simple questions that can have some incredibly complex answers. And it’s worth noting, that sometimes a character’s goal changes–often it does, in fact. Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz wants to go somewhere magical, then to find her dog, and then go back home. A lot of stories revolve around a character finding out that the thing they thought they wanted more than anything wasn’t what they really wanted at all. So you can also think of it in terms of “What does the character think they want?” and “What does the character really want?”
Since I’m such a big ol’ Star Wars fangirl, I’m going to pull an example from The Empire Strikes Back. So we have Luke Skywalker. Here’s how we might answer his questions for the second movie in the trilogy (and you’ll see why I picked the second in a moment).
- What does he want? Luke wants to train to become a Jedi like his father.
- Why does he want it? It’s the right thing to do, and he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps.
- Why can’t he have it? His friends are kidnapped by Darth Vader and he has to decide which he wants more.
GMC works great for a romance, where you have two protagonists who ultimately want the same thing but don’t realize it at first. And it also works a treat for fleshing out your antagonist–because they need goals and motivations too!
Speaking of antagonists… funny thing about Luke’s father…
Obviously, in Empire we learn that Luke’s father, Anakin Skywalker, that he’s idolized his whole life, and even more so once he learns that his father was a Jedi, didn’t actually die, but is the trilogy’s villain, Darth Vader. And that gives us a chance to use GMC on Vader himself.
- What does he want? At some point between the first two movies, Darth Vader learns that the pilot who destroyed the Death Star is his son. He wants his son back.
- Why does he want it? One could argue for some misguided fatherly love, plus wanting a part of his relationship with Padme back.
- Why can’t he have it? Well, it’s tough to form a relationship when your son only thinks of you as the monster who killed his mentor, his best friend from back home, etc, etc, etc.
Plot comes in the spaces of figuring out how the characters each work to get what they want, and how that puts them in conflict with each other–in Empire, Vader is Luke’s obstacle to finishing his training, but at the same time, Luke is both Vader’s goal and his obstacle.
Which means, by the way: Some part of your protagonist’s goal, motivation, or conflict has to be connected to your story idea.
If it’s not at all, you’ve got the wrong protagonist.
If your protagonist wants to, say, grow the perfect tomato (goal) in order to impress the girl next door (motivation), but there’s a drought going on (conflict), that’s all well and good… unless the story you want to write is an urban fantasy.
BUT: if your protagonist wants to grow the perfect tomato (goal) in order to impress the girl next door (motivation), but there’s a drought going on (conflict), and in the process of combating the drought the protagonist discovers that it’s being caused by a witch’s curse that they have to put an end to… well, then you’ve managed to tie it into your story. And might have a pretty funny story at that, if all your protag wants to do is get back to their garden, damn it! (Wait, that might be Sam’s story arc in Lord of the Rings, now that I think about it.)
By knowing what your character wants, the thing that drives them, you end the problem of the overly passive character, as long as they’re always working toward their goal.
There are other valuable things to know about them. My favorite thing is knowing what their worst fear is, the absolute worst thing that could happen to them. Because then, of course, you make them face that in the climax of the book. The main job of an author is to make your characters miserable!
Almost everything else about a character–their looks, their mannerisms, whatever little quirk they have, those all flesh out a character and make them more lifelike, but that’s just the frame. By knowing what they want, and why, and why they can’t have it, by knowing what they fear more than anything else, you’ve got the engine. You’ve guaranteed that they won’t just stand and look lifelike on your stage, they’ll move and do things and drive your story.
Knowing the name of your character’s best friend in high school won’t do that. Unless maybe their best friend in elementary school is now back as their archenemy. That would be pretty awesome.