Sit back and close your eyes. Who are your favorite book or movie characters? Are they Scarlett and Rhett? Perhaps Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia? Sam and Frodo? Ahab and the whale? The Lone Ranger and Tonto? The list goes on and on. Why are these characters unforgettable? What about them causes us to laugh and cry and wonder if they are all right?
The key is that the writer defined the characters with believable traits and clear motivation. We care about those characters. We live our lives vicariously through them. To many readers, their favorite characters must be real people because they live in their hearts and minds.
How does a writer create memorable characters? She establishes wants and needs that lay the foundation for critical motivation. If I asked you to take a moment and write down all of the things you wanted, the items might fill a book. But if I asked you to compile a list of what you needed, the project becomes a little more difficult. We don’t always know what we need, but finding out becomes a process of soul searching and experiencing life. But when needed items become goals, we are motivated to go after those things vital to our survival.
Character sketches provide great help to laying the foundation for our characters. They force us to think—brainstorm about what motivates the character. And there’s that word again: motivation.
The roots of motivation are unmet needs. How these needs are fulfilled depends on the character’s integrity, established over time through life experiences, inherited factors, and environment. No wonder we humans are flawed characters! No protagonist is perfect. No antagonist or villain is completely evil. But some characters have more flaws than others, and out of those flaws come weaknesses and room for character growth. Out of the admirable traits come our heroes and heroines, who have the stuff that gives us hope and help us to believe again in the goodness of mankind.
All of us have a need for relationships, significance, and security. These critical needs are supposed to be filled by God, but we, as flawed “characters,” look for fulfillment in other areas, and those areas become our weaknesses. Examine your character’s struggle. Does he/she have a need for sex, for material goods, power, work, education, or the arts? How are those weaknesses manifested? Does your character seek to satisfy his basic needs in ways that honor God? In short, what motivates the character?
My suggestion is to study your character from every angle to determine the underlying factors shoving them out of bed each morning. Interview them. Live with them. Go to dinner with them. Place them in settings that are unlike the previous scenes. Would you take a vacation with them? How a character reacts and responds to the events surrounding him determines who he is. Steer away from predictable behavior but stay within the perimeter of the traits you have assigned.
The next time you are reading a dynamic novel or watching a movie that has you sitting on the edge of your chair, take the time to discover the characters’ motivations. This article has just touched on the volumes of information about writing memorable characters. I hope I’ve given you inspiration to discover the techniques behind the scenes.
Check out my website at www.diannmills.com and sign up for my newsletter! Also, I have a book trailer for Breach of Trust, a March 1 release.