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Writing tip: drilling down into your character's motivation

Lilly Birdsong By Lilly Birdsong Published on November 1, 2015

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When writing, understanding where your character is and where they are going is one of the most important aspects of crafting a good story. First I always think about what inspires me as an author, but after I know what drives me the next step is understanding what drives my characters.

Some authors go to plot first, then fill in the characters later. My personal preference is to really conceive of strong characters first, because I believe that with a strong enough character, you can throw your characters into any plot and just sit back and watch the plot unfold.

For me, my characters almost write the stories themselves.

So, as you think about your main character, go back and think about those things that inspire you. When you think about your inspiration, you may start to conceive of a character who is inspired by the same things you are.

When it comes to a character, the first thing I think about is that character’s Motivation. What drives this character?

We can break this up into a few concepts:

  • Character’s Strengths
  • Character’s Weaknesses
  • Personality Traits
  • What is your character’s primary goal?
  • What hurdles must your character overcome?
  • What challenges will this character face trying to achieve their goal?
  • How will the character’s inherent personality traits help them achieve their goal?
  • What personality traits will prevent them from achieving their goal?
  • What secondary goals does your character have?
  • What kind of people does your character attract?
  • What kind of people does your character repel?
  • What kind of people is your character attracted to?
  • What kind of people is your character repelled by?

These are just some ideas to get you started. Depending on your character’s inspiration, and your character’s goal, these questions may spawn other questions. For example, if your character struggles with self-image, then a physical description of your character may be necessary at this point. Or, it may be irrelevant.

I think it’s important when thinking about your character’s motivation to understand that there is always a difference between how a character is and how a character is perceived. This is always true in life - depending on how people interact with each other, they only actually see one part of that person. This is true of characters, and those who interact with your character.

They don’t have all the information to know your character. The only person who really knows your character - is you.

So think about how your character thinks, behaves, acts - and how the world around them will perceive them.

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If you’re writing an Anti-Hero, then often the difference between how a character is and how they are perceived is actually really huge. Someone who is brutally open and honest may seem quite transparent, but even a character like that has secrets. So consider this:

  • What are your character’s secrets?
  • What is your character trying to hide?
  • What is your character afraid of?

The more you dig deep, the more depth your character will have. From my point of view, really getting into the mind of your character will have a great impact on the plot of the story itself. So it’s important to think about these questions before writing the plot.

You may have some general idea of where the plot is going to go - I hope you do - but that might change, when you dig deeper into your character.

Don’t be so married to your plot that you’re not willing to change it.

Think about it this way - if you’re too close to your plot too early on, then you’ll end up forcing your character into the plot. This sort of thing will either result in your character behaving out of character, which will weaken the plot itself. Or, it will make your character feel uncomfortable, which you may be able to work back into the story. But this will almost always end up feeling unnatural.

For this reason, I really prefer to work out my characters fully first.

Of course, it’s natural that your character’s profile and motivation may evolve throughout the course of your story. Just like a person, your character will be affected by the experiences they go through. They will change, they will adapt.

If your character is going to go through a major transformation, however, this should be planned.

What is the catalyst for this transformation?

Why does your character choose to change rather than to stay the same?

These ideas are a springboard for you to take your idea to the next level. Follow, and see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

I am a Sci-Fi writer. I love drinking whiskey, hanging out with my 2 cats, and kickboxing. Check out Children of RIVA if you're interested in my work. Oh, and in my spare time I work ... Show More

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