On Writing: More About Character

Creating characters is one of the challenges and satisfactions of writing. We need to devise lifelike personalities for our story people, and we need to figure out why they act the way they do. Characters’ motivations for their actions are more important than their personality type. That WHY takes the character out of the ordinary.

In Practical Tips For Writing Popular Fiction, Robyn Carr states, “Some of the most common failures in motivating characters or plots occur from the following:

1. Foolish and or spontaneous actions.

2. Arbitrary decisions and/or behavior (making the behavior purposeful instead of arbitrary makes the motivation believable.)

3. Actions prompted by passive needs or emotions.”

We learn much about characters from their actions, but what the character does is not the defining element. Like with personality, the defining element is WHY the character does what he does. Characters can do anything, though they must be psychologically true and consistent. A character who is cowardly but does not hesitant to rescue someone from danger without any reference to fear or a believable reason for the action is not a well-written character.

Characters do change, of course, but the motivation for that change must be shown. Some basic personality traits do not change under ordinary conditions, so if a smart character becomes stupid or slow, he has to suffer some sort of trauma, as in Regarding Henry. Nor can a slow character suddenly become smart without intervention. The movie Phenomenon is a good example of how that can happen.

When it comes to storytelling, character is all. The plot and the character should be so intertwined that we never see them as separate. Character motivation, in many instances, is the plot — what the characters do and why.

In Story Robert McKee writes: “The revelation of true character in contradiction to characterization (the sum of all observable qualities) is fundamental to all fine storytelling. What seems is not what is. People are not what they appear to be. A hidden nature waits concealed behind the facade of traits.” And often, in that hidden nature, we find our character’s motivation.

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3 Responses to “On Writing: More About Character”

  1. Suzanne Francis Says:

    But I have never understood why characters have to be consistent, and motivated by only reasonable things. Real people are spontaneous, foolish, inconsistent, changeable, and quite unpredictable. Why wouldn’t we make our creations more human by giving them the latitude that humans have to do the unexpected?

  2. Bertram Says:

    Doesn’t it irritate you when an author sets up a character to be one way, and then has them act in another way without explaining the change? A silly example: a character loves children, then one day, for no reason, he kicks a kid. There has to be a reason, no matter how silly, otherwise it seems like the author doesn’t know what she is doing.

    Characters can be however an author wishes them to be, as long as she can make them believable. And usually, to do that, she has to show motivation. If a character acts foolishly or inconsistently, I’d like to know why. Even if it’s just that the character is overwrought.

    I don’t think the motivation needs to be reasonable. People and characters do things for the silliest of reasons.

  3. K.S. Clay Says:

    I agree with this. And people do always have motivations for what they do in real life. We may not know what everyone else’s motivations are, but they exist. There’s also something to be said for the idea that fiction is a way of taking life and trying to make sense of it. For it to make sense there has to be a certain consistency. This doesn’t mean character’s won’t surprise you sometimes, but that hindsight will be 20/20 and you’ll be able to look back and think “oh, okay. They did have a reason for doing that.” Whether it’s a “good” reason for not is beside the point as long as it’s something that would motivate that particular character.


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