Building characters is one of the hardest steps of writing a story. Without a character in mind, you cannot tell a story and so it is an important step but what makes a good character? What makes the reader care about the tiny life you put onto a page? This post will discuss the sympathy, motivation and understanding of a character that needs to take place for the character to be strong and well-rounded.
Before I get onto that, I would like to announce that we finally have a name for the writing feature on this blog.
In case you missed it, I recently posted a poll to give my writing posts a name and here is the result:
For the last 3 or 4 days, it looked like I would have needed to have flipped a coin to choose between Paws and Prose and Pawfect Prose, but on Sunday, the tie broke at 5/4 and Backbone Writing got it’s first vote! Bit too late, Backbone… maybe next time?
So, yep. Paws and Prose is going to be the section of my blog that talks mostly about writing, writing processes and any projects I have. It may also include any successes I come across at getting my work out there.
Now if you are anything like me, one of the hardest things to do when you are a writer is to create a character that pulls at the reader or audiences heart strings, moves the plot along and is so vivid that they could be a person that once existed.
Without a good character, your plot could literally full apart and you lose your audience but a good character doesn’t necessarily mean that the character themselves are good. You only have to look at Walter White to see that.
He is the modern Macbeth; the baddy of the modern world. He is manipulative to a point that it actually affects us as an audience, he makes us want to route for him to win.
This is done through many techniques.
As a species, we are mostly compassionate. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but usually, we feel sorry for others, want to help, want to look after our children, nurture them. And this is how the show gets to us and what we have to think about when we think about character.
These techniques could not have worked to give us a character that is like Walter White alone, they have been blended into one character.
Now, before we move on to the next section of this blog, I would like to warn you that there will most likely be spoilers of Breaking Bad—though I am going to avoid what I feel are the big ones if I can—to point them out to you, I am going to change the text to purple if a paragraph contains a spoiler.
*Trigger warning: terminal illness – mentioned at paragraphs with a star.
Sympathy and Motivation
Sympathy and motivation usually go hand in hand. This is because the motivation of a character is often (though not always) caused by some tragedy that they must resolve or prepare for.
The motivation of the character is one of the strongest aspects to character building. If Hamlet wasn’t motivated to find the truth about his father’s death, then there would have been no play (or should that be plays 😉 ). If Katniss’s sister was not picked for the Hunger Games, then Katniss would not have been motivated to volunteer and the story would not have held together.
*A similar thing happens with Walter, he is motivated by his need to provide for his family and is afraid that his time is running out after his diagnosis of cancer. He fears for his son’s future and prospects, whether he will want to go to college and how they will afford it if Walter:
- cannot work
- is dead
This is one of the reasons we start routing for Walter, despite knowing from the first scene of the show that he is doing something illegal. We sympathise with him, especially after we see his heavily pregnant wife and severally disabled son.
When you create a character, you really need to know what makes them tick. Think of a clock, one of the analogue ones. They have cogs that move around. They move in such a way that the hands of the clock know what speed to move at and where to point, but take away any cog and the clock stops.
Put a piece back wrong and the clock will either still be broken or maybe, depending on what you did, run backwards. This is what you want to avoid with your character but also at the same time do.
Let me explain. If you take away the cogs from your character before they work, then the character is broken, but if you make sure the cogs of your character are ticking first and quiet strong, then when you take them away, break the clock, it is more affective.
The cog that is taken away, or even the threat of it being taken away, from your character is usually one that we identify with. A birth right. It could be anything from a loved one, freedom, life or many more things. These cogs can be called their values, the items, people or parts of life the character loves most. What makes them happy.
This moves on to the next technique.
Most of the people watching this show will be adults, depending on the age rating in the country watching it and how lenient the parents are, that means that most people watching it are going to have adult lives. Maybe they have a family of their own or thinking of starting a family. So they see Walter and imagine themselves in Walters shoes. They want him to win because they cannot bear the thought of their children and partner going without so they understand where Walter is coming from.
So, it goes without saying that if your audience does not understand the motivation of the character because they have no reference point, nothing to link it to their own life, then they are not going to be emotionally invested.
If you write a book about climate change and give it to a child but the character is an adult, going through adult day life, the child is not going to be as invested because they can not relate to the adult world.
If you give the child a different book on climate change but the character is the same age, has similar interests and the character’s adventures help the protagonist understand climate change, then the child is going to be more invested because they understand the character in the book.
So, just to recap, a good character needs to be motivated, that motivation usually comes from the threat of their loved things or loved ones from being taken away, or in some cases, come as a result to trying to achieve the thing that they love.
An example of this is the Back-up Plan when a woman who really wants a child has an IVO but is then conflicted after meeting the love of her life. Another example is in Look Who’s Talking when a mother tries to find her son a decent father after giving birth through a one-night stand.
But these motivations we can also understand. Or at least, indirectly. It is human nature to want to have children and it is also in our nature to want to raise them the best as possible.
That brings us to survival. After all, we may never say this in normal conversation, but having kids is to insure our survival in one form. All characters want to survive but not all in the same way and not all characters are in the same situation so must adapt.
Once you have motivation, sympathy and understanding under your belt, you need to make your character fight to get their goal and to survive. That is what Walter is doing. He has kids, but he is physically dying and he doesn’t want to die so he is surviving in two ways. Through his children and by making a name for himself.
So after you know your character’s most valuable possession, the thing that gets them moving, the threat and you’ve tailored this to your target audience, you need to know what your character is going to do in order to survive.
It doesn’t matter what form their survival takes because every characters survival is different. In the Hunger Games, Katniss survival is through the lies of another person. In one of Jaqueline Wilson’s books, Lily Alone, Lily survives by taking care of her siblings and hiding the fact that her mother abandoned them—while this is not the way we would want a child to survive, we understand that the fear of care, being separated was strong enough for her to hide the truth.
So survival takes all forms but what matters is that while they are surviving, their motivation and our understanding are always lit. This keeps the character strong, vivid and realistic.
All for one simple reason. We know why they are doing something and we understand the motive behind it. We are likely to sympathise with the character.
A turn in the character
There is always the point when a character develops—or at least a good character develops. They change, never to be the same again. Sometimes this is for the good, something that was needed to happen, such as Wendy from Peter Pan. She has all the freedom she wants and at first she loves it but then she realises she misses the comfort of home, she starts to value what she took for granted.
Sometimes, it is for the bad such as Walter. Originally doing bad for good intentions, he crumbles under greed, becomes an overbearing and obnoxious character. At this point we know the characters motivations and reasons from the past, have been emotionally invested by him so even though we no longer want him to win, but at the same time also do, we can’t stop watching. We now need to know what is going to happen.
Once your character has stabilised and are becoming closer to the climax of their own story, there should be a point where they are starting to turn. Values that they held close are now lost or values they lacked now there.
I hope you enjoyed this post, I am thinking of giving away free character template sheets, what do you think?
Don’t forget to subscribe to the Monthly Newsletter.