Do you know what scares me the most?
Character development is something that I wanted to write about (again) today. Often, as writers–and even readers–we think about what defines a character in very limiting terms. Motivations are something we almost always put at the forefront of what makes a character who they are. Character A is going on this great journey to find a pirate’s treasure. To win the hand of their greatest love. To defeat the evil wizard and save the kingdom. To win the favor of the king or queen and be the hero. To win a singing competition and get a recording contract. I could go on and on forever about things a character could be motivated by. Things that are superficial on their surface.
Additionally, I could write about deeper motivators, like emotions, that propel characters. The love of their partner, their family, their children. Greed and lust and envy. Fear of one outcome over another. Motivation for a character is important to a story. It is the catalyst for the character doing the most interesting things in the story. If a character was not in love with the princess held prisoner in a castle by a fearsome dragon, they would not traverse the kingdom at great risk to life and limb just to save her. Of course, maybe the character is more motivated by the acclaim they will receive by accomplishing the feat, but that is neither here nor there. They still had an emotional motivation that made them do action A, action B, so on and so forth.
Emotions are probably the biggest motivating factors to characters.
What scares me most is hope. Let me explain.
Imagine a character who has been working at the same company for five years. Putting in overtime, taking on extra work, busting their hump, trying to prove their worth. Their boss says they are going to get a promotion that they have been begging for over a year. It seems as if all of the hard work and sacrifice is going to pay off. FINALLY. Then the time comes…and they are declined their promotion. They are told: “We need to see improvement in this area” or “that area.” Their bosses tell them to try again and maybe they will get promoted “next time.” So…the character sets off working even harder. Longer hours, more blood, sweat, and tears. They sacrifice even more. They know that next time–next time–they will get that promotion. Two years pass…and they are denied the promotion again.
What motivates them now? Hasn’t hope turned into a poison? The thing that burrows into their soul, leaves a bitter taste at the back of their throat, makes going to work each day absolute torture?
Of course…maybe the character starts looking for a new job. Maybe the story was not so much about a character finally getting a promotion that they have worked seven years to get–but instead, being motivated by disappointment to find a better job. Somewhere they are appreciated and treated well. Maybe the story ends, not in a promotion, but with an entire new life and direction for the character.
Do you ever do this as a writer? Do you ever really dig deep and wonder what is the real and true motivation behind a character’s actions? Maybe you are, in fact, writing about a knight who is traveling across a dangerous kingdom to slay a dragon and save a princess. But…what is really motivating them? Maybe the knight wants the fame and notoriety? Maybe the knight wants to find the love of their life? Maybe the knight was simply bored? Or maybe the knight hoped that this adventure, this quest to beat all quests, would add meaning to their life?
And maybe when the knight pulls off their helm in the princess’ tower to give her a kiss, the knight is a woman, not a man. And the princess is totally okay with that. In fact, she is relieved. This is what she has hoped for, too. That would be cool. I would read that story.
But I digress.
Maybe this knight (male or female) gets to the castle, slays the dragon, ascends the tower…and is met by a guy with a mushroom for a head and is told: “We’re sorry. Your princess is in another castle.”
Hope got us again! *shaking fist*
Hope is what drives most characters. Even when we they are disappointed time and time again. Hope scares the shit out of all of us because we all know disappointment. We’ve all been passed over for a promotion. been told we weren’t good enough, got turned down for a date, lost a game, did poorly on a test we studied really hard for, or been told that our favorite pastry is completely sold out at our favorite bakery. But, as humans, we all keep working, we all try to do better, we keep asking romantic interests out, we keep playing the games we love, we study harder, and we go back to the bakery the next day a little earlier.
Hope is universal. It knows no gender. No race. No ethnicity. No religion. No sexual orientation. Hope is perpetually in the back of our minds, overriding those evil voices that tell us to give up or “this is good enough.”
So…maybe consider what your characters hope for most. What are they afraid to wish for the hardest? I promise you’ll learn more about your character than you ever thought you would. Maybe you will also learn a little about yourself…and how strong you can be.
Tremendous Love & Thanks,