What makes a character feel like a person? This is a question I’ve heard from many beginning writers. It’s not easy to make up a whole human being for a story. People are complicated. We’re multilayered, we have emotions, we have quirks and bits of ourselves that might not always seem consistent. We don’t always speak in grammatically correct sentences.
While I’ve taken some terrific writing classes, where I learned the most about developing characters was in an acting class. In this class I learned very clearly that everyone has some sort of motivation at all times. These motivations create actions that are visible to the audience of a play or movie. No one walks across a stage for no reason. There’s always a purpose behind it. That person wants something, and they’re working to get it.
What the character wants might be momentary motivations like being hungry, (visible action: make a sandwich), or they might be more over-arching motivations, like wanting to become the world’s best surgeon (action: go to med school, but also self-discipline yourself to work and study and save on the path to getting you there), or wanting revenge (action: kill that person who killed your father, but again, there’s also the planning and behaviors that get you to that point). Motivations might also be less tangible, like seeking a parent’s approval, or a sense of belonging, or redemption.
Thinking through what your characters want, both in the moment as they make themselves breakfast, and in the long-term as they interact with other characters and plan their actions, is my first advice to writers thinking about how to create believable, relatable characters. What actions would a redemption-seeking character use to convey that goal if they’re in a room with the person they’re begging forgiveness from? What about when they’re in the room with a friend who still thinks well of them? What about a passing stranger? Or, if a stranger starts chatting a protagonist up on the bus, the writer should think about why they’re doing that. Are they lonely? Are they bored? Are they nervous and trying to distract themselves? If someone were watching this in a play, what physical cues would they see that give a hint of that stranger’s motivations?
If it can be seen in a play, it can be written in a book.
Thinking through motivations helps writers avoid side characters who seem to float in and out without purpose, and it gives energy to protagonists’ actions that helps drives the story forward.
Now, where do those motivations come from? Why was my protagonist’s father murdered, and why does she still want vengeance? Thinking through backstory is part of what I’ll touch on in future posts. Stay tuned!