How to Create Authentic Characters

Motivation in Character Design
Motivation in Character Design

 

Last week, we talked about using the right details to convey meaning. I mentioned starting your novel with characters and weaving the plot between them. But how do you build those characters?

Character design can be one of the most creative, exciting parts of writing. It can also be the most challenging, or the most frustrating—especially if you would rather jump right into the story. It helps to structure your character definition process. Worksheets can be useful, but only the right worksheets. If you’ve spent any time looking for writing resources on the internet, you’ve probably come across a lot of free documents that promise to help you structure character. They ask you to define how the character looks, what their favorite foods are, stuff like that. Superficial stuff. Those kinds of details can be fun, and it doesn’t hurt to include them, but what you really need to keep track of is motivation.

“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”—Kurt Vonnegut

Think about yourself. Why are you reading this? Maybe you’re here because you want to learn something more about writing. Maybe you’re motivated by a long-term goal you want to achieve. Or maybe not. Either way, there’s a reason you’re reading this, as there is for every action you take. It’s true in stories as in real life. Characters do everything for a reason. That’s what makes them real.

So where do you start?

One | History lesson: It’s good to have a general idea of the character’s entire past. This is information that probably won’t be put into the actual story, but it help to have as a reference along the way. Where was the character born? What language do they speak? What was their family like life? Knowing everything you can about your characters and their pasts can help you understand their motivations. That enables you to define their actions. If you figure all this out beforehand, it’ll be easier to keep continuity later on in the writing process. That means less changes you’ll have to make during the revision process.

Two | Desires: Now that you’ve defined each character’s past, you can figure out what they want. Think about how their life experiences have affected them. What motivates them more than anything else in the world? Sometimes what it first appears to be on the surface can be different than how the character actually feels. And sometimes one goal is a gateway to a greater one. For example, your protagonist might be an ambitious businessperson who seems only to be obsessed with the next promotion. That might be the face he or she wears externally. But their secret, internal motivation might be to make enough money to retire early and become a full-time artist. Those are the kinds of secrets that you, the writer, need to know. That’s the real motivation.

Once you have a character’s history and defining motivations figured out, you have a basic outline for their personality. This it what informs their actions. Multiple characters will act and react based off each other, in ways specific to and determined by their personalities. This interaction is what creates the plot.

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