For more on writing motivated characters, check out this post on the difference between internal and external motivations.
All my favorite stories are character-driven.
Oh, sure, you can write an action-packed tale of car chases and dragon slaying and all the rest, but the way to make things really, truly exciting is through character. Character is the way a reader gets invested. Character is why a reader keeps going. As my creative writing professor always said, “Plot is action driven by character.”
It’s human instinct to want to understand other people. There’s something engrained in our brains about making sense of complicated patterns, and there’s nothing more complicated than the way people work. Its a writer’s job to explore this.
Your protagonist—and all your characters, really—needs a goal. A lot of goals. Major, sweeping motivations but also scene-by-scene desires. And the better the reader understands and empathizes with these goals, the more connected she will feel to your character.
But when you think about fleshing out your character, it’s important to flesh out the most important details. I never really loved those fill in the blank character worksheets. I don’t care what my character’s favorite color is, unless it’s somehow relevant to the story and the way the character is going to change. Basically, unless it matters to the protagonist’s motivation—why they are the way they are and why they want the thing they want—it’s not all that necessary.
So let’s do a little brainstorming on what might help us build a character.
Okay, so I have this character. Her name is Rosalind.
Neat! Good name. So, what does Rosalind want?
To slay a dragon.
Oh, how noble. Why does she want to slay a dragon?
Because it’s terrorizing the town, of course!
And why does she want to save the town?
This is an important place. This is the place where you need to dig for a character’s internal motivation. The action-packed stuff on the surface, that’s external motivation. But once you figure out why a character does the things she does—that’s when things get good.
Okay, got it! Rosalind’s younger brother was kidnapped by the dragon. She wants to save him.
Great. Still a little external, though. Why does she want to save him?
I don’t know, because they’re siblings?
Not good enough. Make me sad.
Fine. She wants to save him because their mother died and their father has been distant ever since. Her brother was the only one Rosalind could talk to—and the only one who could make their father snap out of his dazes.
Oh, family conflict, nice. Can you push it even more?
Maybe Rosalind and her brother had a huge fight right before he was taken. She resented him for being the better child and she said some mean things.
Great! Nothing like guilt to get a story going. What are the stakes?
Her brother might get eaten. And then she’d lose him.
And what might cause a shift in her worldview?
She’d be surprised if her brother befriended the dragon. Or if she did slay the dragon, but then her brother was mad. And he’d still be alive, but she’d lose him anyway.
Wow, plot twist! Great work! Let’s start with an opening scene. What does Rosalind want in this very first scene?
Um. She’s at the baker. She wants a loaf of her father’s favorite bread because she’s desperate for his approval.
What does the baker want?
To get back to his ovens. Rosalind interrupted him and he thinks she’s being rude.
Great. That will inform how the two characters interact, even if we don’t hear the baker’s inner-dialogue outright.
…And you can keep going from here. Or just start writing.
This is the way I walk through my stories in the early stages. I come up with a character and a general premise. I ask myself why this character—of all the main characters I could have chosen—has the most at stake. Maybe after writing all of this, I’d decide Rosalind’s brother is really the character with more on the line.
This is also a fun, easy writing prompt to get yourself thinking about character. Brainstorm a character, any character. Give them something to want. Make their reasons for wanting this thing as intense as you possibly can.