Creating Strong Characters

Because characters are what builds your story, because our reader has to relate and sympathize with our character, has to care about what happens to them, we have to work harder creating the characters in our stories. Even the best stories go nowhere without sympathetic characters. We could study characterization for weeks even months before we nail the ability to create someone like Harry Potter or Scarlet O’Hara or Sherlock Holmes.

On top of that, those who teach this particular facet of writing all have different ideas on how to go about creating memorable characters. Some like to write pages and pages of character charts noting everything they can think of about their character right down to where they got that scar on their elbow. Others, like myself, prefer to come up with a character, then write two or three chapters challenging her in every way possible so we can learn all about what makes her tick. Then there’s the astrology gimmick. Give her a birthday that fits neatly into one of the many charts such as Pisces or Taurus or the like. Still others think that psychology is the best way to go.

One of the most popular books on this subject is Goal, Motivation and Conflict by Debra Dixon. I happen to like knowing the goals, motivations and conflicts for my characters, but even so I usually learn them as I write those first few chapters. I get to know the characters, how they will act and react to each other and what happens to them. We all know that they must grow throughout the story so that they are often not the same person in the end that they were in the beginning. While writing keep an eye open for goal, motivation and conflict.

That brings up the all important character arc. Without a goal, what motivates her and conflicts, there could be no character arc. And without that arc, there would be no plot. So characters with goals, motivations and conflicts and how she journeys from point A to point Z form the arc which becomes the plot of your story. Sounds simple. But of course, it isn’t.

Let’s consult Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs Pyramid. What do all humans have to have to exist, and in what order must they have them?
First: we must breathe, drink and eat, live in a survivable climate, rest and sleep, avoid pain and have sex. Aren’t we all happy sex is on that first, most important level? But it’s there for a reason, isn’t it? Without it, the species wouldn’t survive.
Second: we need safety, comfort, protection and a means to guard ourselves against predators.
Third: we need to love and be loved, care and be cared about.
Fourth: we crave esteem, the respect of others and we must above all respect ourselves.
Fifth and last: we must have actualization. If we are healthy and have achieved all those things that go before, then we must continue to experience these needs, even though we’ve already achieved them.

Here’s an easy way to challenge your character, to find the beginning of your book. Place her at any level of the pyramid and take something in that level away from her. She already has what lies below. What she does to get back what she’s lost is your book. Conflict is what will keep her from getting it, motivation is why she wants it back, goal is that thing which she has lost. There you have your book. Now, write it. Build your character as she changes from one who feels lost, or has lost something important, to one willing to fight or do anything to attain that goal once more.

This can get interesting, because if she’s willing to do anything, then she may lose something else in our pyramid, like self respect or the respect of others. Continue to challenge her, don’t let up. Have no pity. See what she does. But remember, don’t let her do something that will make the reader dislike or hate her. She must remain the hero of your story. She can do some bad stuff if her motivation is true and the reader can understand why she does what she does.

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About veldabrotherton

I'm primarily a writer, but I also speak and teach workshops and co-chair a large critique group. My brand is SexyDarkGritty and that applies to my western historical romances, mysteries, women's fiction and horror novels. After almost 30 years in this business, I still have something to learn and attend conferences to network with other writers, publishers, editors and agents.
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4 Responses to Creating Strong Characters

  1. Chris V. says:

    Excellent advice. Will have to try the pyramid test. Good idea to keep in mind.

  2. zhadi says:

    I really like this, Velda! I love the idea of playing with the pyramid and seeing what develops…

  3. Helen says:

    Really great idea to use the pyramid to challenge your protagonist. I’m going to keep that posted somewhere so I can refer to it.

  4. Pyramid – why didn’t I think of that? lol Good post – think I’ll give it a try.

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