Why is your character here?
The Birth of a CharacterEdit
So we are going to just jump right into the deep end here. The only difference is, I'm not going to let you sink. You're going to swim. Let's get started.
In order to have a character, there must be a story somewhere. The good news is that this character can spawn from the story idea, or the story idea can spawn from the character. No matter which way you go about it, though, we need to know one thing: why is this character here?
This is important. Your character must have a reason for being in the story. The easiest way to give your character a reason for being there is to define the character's role. What role does this character fill in this story?
Why are they in the story?Edit
One of the most vital things to consider when creating any type of character is the overall story. Does this character even justify being in this story? If not, why are they there? Try not to create characters that serve no purpose. Each character needs to have a reason to be in the story, no matter what. There are only a few reasons a character should ever appear in a story at all:
- They contribute towards the accomplishment of the main goal or a side goal.
- They contribute towards the prevention of the main goal or a side goal.
- They serve an auxiliary purpose.
If you're paying close attention right now, you might pick up on a vital piece of the puzzle when it comes to character development: purpose. What is the character's purpose equates to what is the character's purpose for being in the story. If you cannot answer that question, you will likely start writing and the story will meander and it will feel like there was no point to any of it. The reader will end up disappointed at having wasted their time on something that had no purpose. Don't disappoint your reader.
The same thing applies to any supporting characters. They need a reason to be there other than just somebody your character interacts with. Obviously, there are going to be some side characters that don't contribute much to the overall story. Maybe your protagonist has a small exchange with someone on the bus. Throwaway characters like that are okay, for now we are just talking about your main characters.
Let's look at an analogy of a reality TV show. Let's go with a Survivor type show. Everyone on the show is there for one personal purpose: to win. We could also go so far as to say they are there for their entertainment value. The producers felt they would make for good TV. So far so good. What happens, though, when one of them turns out to be lazy? Maybe they never help the group, they just sit around and complain about how miserable they are. The others on the show invariably ask, "Why are you here?"
From the perspective of the other cast members, that person serves no valuable purpose. And many times in those types of shows, they end up getting rid of those people before long.
Therefore, if you have a character who serves no purpose, you might as well not include them at all. It will also serve you better to define their role for the story before you include them in it. If you figure it out later on, it could cause you to have to backpedal and fix parts of the story leading up to that point. You want to minimize this as much as possible.
Contributing Towards Accomplishing a GoalEdit
Your protagonist will most likely fit into this role. This is also going to be step two of the character creation process, but for now, just understanding what the character is doing in the story is good enough. You have to justify this character's appearance.
Because we want to create excellent characters, your main (and supporting) characters will have some goal to fulfill. Fulfilling that goal will be the resolution of the story. Your goal, then, as an author, is to place obstacles in the way of that goal. The harder it is to reach the goal, the sweeter the victory will be. The reader will feel that the character has earned it. We'll cover all this more as we go along.
So if your character contributes toward the accomplishment of some goal, it justifies its existence in the story, plain and simple. Whether this is a main character or a supporting character doesn't matter. Whether it's the main goal or a side goal doesn't matter either.
Contributing Towards Prevention of Accomplishing a GoalEdit
Remember what I said about obstacles getting in the way? This is where these characters come in. Usually it's the antagonist that fills this role. Ideally, you're going to want some characters who don't want the protagonist to succeed. This could be a villain. This is anybody who interrupts the protagonist's journey to the resolution. Sometimes this is a character who starts out in a helping role, who later (for whatever reason) tries to prevent the protagonist from achieving the success they desire. The possibilities are endless here. Revenge. Betrayal. Something else forces their hand. Whatever. If the character falls into this category, they justify their existence for being in the story.
Serving an Auxiliary PurposeEdit
Not all characters are going to be directly involved in the main storyline. These characters might just appear for an instant - the cashier at the story who serves another character, for example. The auxiliary purpose here turns out to be a logistical role. Or maybe the main character has a brief interaction with a stranger on the subway. Whatever the case may be, every character should serve to advance the story as a whole. If they don't, there is no point in having them in there.
Let's look at some possible roles a character might fill.
Your story is a miniature version of life. Just like in real life, we interact with people of all types. Each person we meet influences us in some way. We make friends, we fall in love, we have mentors, bosses, coworkers, neighbors. The ones who influence us the most seem to be more valuable to us. Conversely, those who don't influence us much don't get much attention.
You should try to reflect this in your story.
Here is a list of some possible roles a character could fulfill:
- main role: the protagonist or antagonist
- supporting role: the character directly supports another character toward the achievement of some goal
- emotional role: the character influences another in some emotional way that causes the character to learn something about themselves or the world around them (love interest, motivator, etc.)
- logistical role: the character provides some product or service with aids another character
- peripheral role: the character is a necessary fixture in the life of another character (boss, coworker, another student, acquaintance, etc.)
- informative role: the character contributes by providing information to another character
- instructional role: the character provides knowledge or a skill to help another character accomplish a goal (mentor, coach, instructor, teacher, etc.)
- offset role: the character is there to provide necessary relief in the event that another character is dry or boring, personality-wise (comedic relief, etc.)
- preventative role: the character tries to thwart the efforts of another
- deceptive role: the character is there to deceive another; subset of the informative or other role
Note that these are in no particular order, and the list is by no means complete. There are dozens of roles. A character may fulfill multiple roles as well. The important thing is that the character fills some role, giving them a valid reason for being in the story. We will definitely be fleshing out the character even more so that each one is unique and memorable in some way.
Move on now to the next exercise, where you will breathe the first signs of life into your character.
Exercise 1: Your character's role and purposeEdit
Now we will begin creating the character. You will use this character throughout the rest of this course guide. Write down the name of your character. Define your character's purpose and role in the story. What reason does your character have for being in the story? What role does the character fill? Define whether the character contributes to a goal, tries to prevent a goal, or fills an auxiliary role.
Exercise 2: Your favorite character's role and purposeEdit
Do the same as in the last exercise, only use your favorite character.
What does your character want?Edit
Now that you know your character deserves to be in the story (of course they do, of course), we need to figure out what your character wants. Because trying to prevent the character from getting what they want is what is going to heat your story right up. Conflict and tension are how stories keep from starving themselves to death, and by inhibiting your character from their goal, you can make your character suffer a little bit.
Characters who get everything they want on the first try, every time, are not realistic. We will cover this particular character later on in more detail and why you really want to avoid what's called the Mary Sue character.
- Sansa Stark just wants to go home to Winterfell, but the Lannisters won't let her (plus a lot more)
- Luke Skywalker wants to save Princess Leia and to become a Jedi.
- Batman wants justice for his parents and for Gotham
- Sherlock Holmes wants to solve the mystery
- James Bond wants to accomplish the mission, but he wants to have fun doing it
- Clarice Starling wants to catch the killer
The character needs a single, overarching goal that drives them. Once that goal is completed (or not), the story is over. That is the point of resolution. We'll cover all of this in our class on plot, but for now you need to understand that your character needs a goal and that sometimes these goals can change (Sansa Stark wants to be a princess; when she obtains that goal she comes to realize that being a princess under those conditions is awful, so her goal changes to wanting to escape the Lannisters). Characters can also have other, smaller things they want to accomplish along the way.
This goal, however, should be something the character desires with a passion. It has to be motivating to this character to want to pursue it, because the journey to that goal is, essentially, the story. Think about normal people here and what sort of things they are driven to do. Think about all the movies about real people and their accomplishments. How many of them were about people who just sat around or who half-assed their way towards something only to give up and pack it in? Exactly.
Readers want to see characters who struggle to get what they want, because there is a bigger payoff that way. It's also less of a time waste for the reader. They are giving hours upon hours of their time to consume the story, so make it worth their time.
Exercise 3: Your character's goalEdit
What is your character's primary goal? What does your character want more than anything?
Exercise 4: Your favorite character's goalEdit
Do the same as the previous exercise, only use your favorite character.
Why does your character want this?Edit
What is your character's motive?
Motive is what drives your character to action. It's not enough that your character has a goal, they must also have a reason for wanting to achieve that goal. This reason - the motive - will start to give your character some depth. Figuring out why they want something is one of the best ways to tailor their actions throughout the story.
What do they want to achieve? Knowing what they want is the first step. We already covered that, so we're moving along quite nicely. But why are they doing this thing they are doing?
Motive is what makes a character's actions believable. When a character does something, well, out of character, it's because they are either acting against the personality the creator has established, or they are going against their motives. They need a valid reason other than "just because." Just like how readers don't like deus ex machina plot developments (literally, "hand of God" - characters are saved from peril by pure chance or coincidence - we'll talk about that, too...), they also want to know why the characters want what they want. That's what helps make deeper characters.
This is what makes the backstory more than just a list of historical facts. Oftentimes, writers will just dump historical information on the reader without purpose. Doing so interrupts the story with meaningless trivia. By giving your character a motive behind their actions, we can avoid this type of backstory infodump. It also makes them easier to relate to.
Here is an example (without giving away any spoilers even. How nice am I?): the character Jaime Lannister in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series is known across the realm as the Kingslayer. He is vilified because he once murdered the king he was sworn to protect as one of the king's bodyguards. Martin created this character in such a way that as the reader, we also dislike him because of these things. But later on, when we find out why he did what he did, we begin to understand him and he becomes a character we empathize with instead. That's motive. And a great way to deliver the motive is to spoon feed the audience along the way.
Don't answer every question right off. By answering questions as you go along, it gives readers more reasons to keep reading, which is always a good thing. Spoon feed the audience these things. Don't infodump them onto the audience all at once.
So back to motive. Why does your character want to accomplish this goal? Why does your character act a certain way or hold a certain view? Readers are going to want to know.
Let's take a look at some possible motives.
Below is a list of some examples of motive. There are many more of these, and you can combine them to create an even greater dynamic.
- ROMANCE - The character is driven by a strong desire to win the affections of another, to impress this person, or because they are smitten and will do anything to please the object of their desire. At an extreme, characters are head-over-heels, and might even be brainwashed. Exploiting this character trait is how agents provocateur typically work. Examples: True Romance,
- REVENGE - The character is driven by a strong desire for revenge, no matter how big or small. This character continually fans the flames within, biding their time until they can get their vengeance. This is typically more violent than with JUSTICE, or simply more personal. It doesn't have to be violent, though. In the Punisher movie with Thomas Jane, Frank Castle gets his revenge by pitting the enemy organization against itself. Examples: Inigo Montoya, Braveheart
- GLORY/INFAMY - The character has an intense need to be remembered for something. The glory-seeker wants to be considered a hero, or a savior. The infamy seeker wants to be famous and it doesn't matter how they achieve this. One might want to be remembered for making a difference. The other might want to blow up a building to go down in history. Examples: Achilles, Timothy McVeigh
- LOYALTY - The character is driven by loyalty. Whether that loyalty is to an ideal, a specific person, it doesn't matter. It is a strong, intrinsic trait of their nature, a sense of honor.
- HONOR/INTEGRITY - The character is driven by a strong sense of honor. They cannot turn their back on their chosen code of ethics, be it chivalry or other. This is closely related to LOYALTY and JUSTICE.
- ACCEPTANCE - The character is driven by a need to belong. Most people want to be liked by their peers, but acceptance is the driving motivator for this character. This especially applies to characters in new environments (prison, school, job). They need to do things to make gain the acceptance of the others.
- JUSTICE - The character wants to exact justice towards those who have done him wrong. This is different from REVENGE, however. Characters such as this typically espouse the philosophy that the system is broken, or that it has failed them. Usually they want to only punish a specific perpetrator, or in the case of many superheroes, criminals. Sometimes used as a justification to fulfill darker inate needs (Dexter). Examples: Batman, Dexter
- GREED - The character is driven by a desire to have an abundance of something (money, things, power, food). No matter how much this character accumulates, it is never enough. The character is typically seen as being miserly. This is also usually done poorly; the character comes out too one-dimensional. Combine this with another motivator or sprinkle in some compelling positive traits to give this a kick.
- FEAR - The character is driven by a strong fear of some perceived threat. This is usually coupled with a different overt manifestation of an apparent motivator (the character appears to be motivated by ACCEPTANCE, but really they are motivated by the fear of being invisible). In more exteme chases, this character is paranoid. Something to think about: why does this character react to the fear instead of overcoming it? Examples: Mel Gibson's character in Conspiracy Theory, end-of-days evangelists
- AVOIDANCE - The character is driven by the desire to avoid something. This could be due to laziness (avoiding all manner of work), a specific person, or the consequence of something. Could be a subcategory of FEAR.
- DESPERATION - The character is driven by desperation. They simply believe they have no other options, and therefore will do whatever they can to get what they need. The man who will become a contract killer to avoid forclosure. The woman who takes up prostitution on the side to buy diapers. These characters respond to whatever is required of them, usually until they've had enough.
- COHESION - The character is driven by a desire to avoid conflict. They want the family to get along. They want the group to all be friends. They want the gangs in the neighborhood to stop fighting.
- PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT - The character is driven by a desire to be better. The reason usually ties into one of the other motivators, but this could be anything. It doesn't have to be cultivating oneself (learning new languages, going back to school, learning guitar), it could be about changing one's perceptions, improving health or fitness, being less affected by things like rejection. Examples: the nice guy who gets fed up at being walked on by women decides to hit the gym, change his style, and become less passive. In doing so, his ex discovers she wants him after all, but because of his new confidence, he no longer wants her.
- WORLD CHANGE - The character is driven by a desire to do something meaningful for the world. This may also tie in with GLORY, being remembered for something monumental. The character is usually an idealist in something particular, like the environment, peace, hunger, or civil rights. Give the character a new edge by not making him/her the cliche social justice warrior.
- QUEST FOR KNOWLEDGE - The character is driven by a need for answers. It could be strong curiosity, or it could be that they have a specific problem they are trying to solve. Furthermore, what other secrets are uncovered along the way that might change this character in unexpected ways?
- A SPECIFIC GOAL - This character simply has a specific goal in mind. Rocky Balboa is a great example. He wants to beat Apollo Creed. He trains hard to do so. Combine this with other motivators. Maybe a character finds out that a certain female rock star likes UFC fighters. So he decides to become one to woo her. (GOAL + ROMANCE)
- ESCAPE DESTINY - The character is driven by a strong desire to escape his or her fate. They believe they are destined for failure, death, poverty, solitude, misery, etc. Paradoxically this negative outlook might make them act in ways that might help them break their cycle.
- DESTINY - The character believes something is their destiny. It is a powerful enough motivator to cause them to do whatever it takes to achieve that end goal, which is the paradox. Was it their destiny? Or did they do it on their own? Maybe have a character not do these things because they think it's their destiny.
- SPITE - The character is driven to act because of jealousy or hatred of another. This is similar to REVENGE. The character might simply be an asshole who does spiteful things toward everybody. King Joffrey from Game of Thrones is a great example. Most of his wrath is directed toward Sansa, but he does spread it around.
- VINDICATION - The character is driven by a desire for vindication. He or she needs to redeem themselves for some real or perceived failure. This is closely related to PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT or ACCEPTANCE, though unlike the others it contains the specific parameter of past failure or transgression. Example: Lane's father has always been hard on him, and no matter what, it seems like nothing he does is ever good enough. Maybe becoming the world's best bull rider will finally prove his worth (8 Seconds). Example 2: Sarah missed the last shot of the game, which could have won the championship had she made it. She spends the whole next year blaming herself for her team's loss. She needs to redeem herself.
- PROVING A POINT - The character simply HAS to prove a point. This character will do whatever he or she can to do so. Usually this is spurred on by some other individual or group who thinks they are wrong about something. This one is closely related to QUEST FOR KNOWLEDGE.
Now that we've covered motive, move on to the exercises for this lesson.
Exercise 5: What is your character's motive?Edit
What are your character's motives for wanting the goal you stated in Part Two? Be as descriptive as possible.
Exercise 6: Your favorite character's motiveEdit
Do the same as the previous exercise for your favorite character.
Move on to the next section: Character Archetypes