So, since the house sale fell through it’s back to trying to sell the house. But by now I figure everyone is sick of hearing about that, so time to move on to a new topic.
I’m going to talk about character building. In fact, that is what I’m going to be doing for the next few posts—all dealing with character motivation.
One thing I really like to think about when creating a character is “what motivates this person?” Most people in the world have something they want, and these wants will drive their actions through the story. Knowing these wants is important, because it allows the author to understand a character’s actions; more importantly it lets them figure out what actions a character is likely to take in a given situation.
Primary Motivation: Stay Alive
As my first writing teacher would say, it is best to start simple. I would say that, for the majority of characters, the #1 goal ought to be to keep breathing. There are, of course, exceptions. Someone who has been beaten down enough may see death as an escape to their suffering, and it isn’t uncommon for people to put their own lives at risk for the good of others when there is a threat, but as a general rule characters are pretty interested in staying alive.
An example I see of this going astray is when reading about battles in fiction, where the two sides meet and fight until one side is wiped out. Realistically, this almost never happens unless one side is unable to retreat and (for some reason) unable to surrender. It is part of the reason that when it does happen it is immortalized in history. Realistically, one side or the other tends to break long before then and 10% casualties is a devastating blow to a military unit which can take time to recover.
When going against this motivation it is vital to give the characters a solid reason for doing so. Protection of some other core value is a good one—for example parents defending their children from harm. Another way is to have the character be obsessed with achieving some goal, although generally this should be portrayed as a bad thing since such a preoccupation is likely to be so all-consuming it will be detrimental to their health, happiness, and possibly sanity.
Playing with this goal can be a great way to show characterization, and shifts in character priorities. For example, a corrupt guard who normally accepts bribes isn’t likely to do so when his employer might see the transaction. This could allow for a plan to go awry, forcing the hero to improvise on the fly. Alternatively a revolutionary who was always waiting for when “the time was right” to raise the flag of rebellion might be convinced to take immediate action following an atrocity.