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What Really Drives Your Characters?

There’s a lot of writing advice that tells you to find your characters’ goals [1]. If you can work out what drives them in their lives, you can use those goals to drive the story.

Most of this advice will tell that your character should have two goals: internal and external. The alcoholic detective’s external need is to find the killer while his internal need is to get over the loss of his wife, which is what drives him to drink. The young student at the school for magic needs to combat evil (external goal) while also trying to win the approval of her peers (internal goal).

Having both an internal and an external goal adds depth to your character. This is what makes them seem more real, more three-dimensional (as the textbooks say).

But characters’ goals change throughout the story. And they usually have many smaller goal to achieve on their way to the final battle. In Star Wars, for example, Luke Skywalker first wants to leave Tattooine, then he has to find Leia, then get off the Death Star, become a Jedi, and only then can he destroy the Death Star.

There is, however, one thing driving the character to meet all those goals, whether they’re internal or external. What really drives characters to achieve their goals are their values, their idea of what is most important in their life. The things that really matter to them. These never change throughout the story, regardless of the goals the characters pursue. Identifying your characters values will help you make sure your character is motivated throughout the story and acts consistently every time.

To find your characters’ goals, begin by asking a few important questions:

From your answers, you should already get a sense of what is most important to your character. It could be that family, career, justice, or friendship is what matters most. Other values could be anything from adventure and assertiveness to sexuality and spirituality.

To dig a little deeper for your characters’ values, try these three simple exercises:

  1. The job ad

This exercise can help early in the writing process to identify the characters you want in your story. It works equally well for already established characters too.

The idea is to make your characters work for their position in your novel. Do they really deserve to be there? You need to find exactly the right characters, like any team manager needs to find people with the right mix of skills.

Have your characters apply for their position in your novel. You can set out some criteria and ask them how they would fit into this role, and have them include specific examples of when they displayed these qualities in their past.

You could have the character respond to the following:

  1. The speech

Think of an important moment in your character’s life, even beyond the scope of the novel: a 25th wedding anniversary or an eightieth birthday party. Try to make it appropriate to the values you already identified from the questions above.

Imagine the detective’s retirement party, for example, and the captain is making an impassioned speech. What would the captain say about the detective’s role on the force, what did he bring to the job, what made him stick it out for so long?

What would a partner say about your character after 25 years of marriage? Or what would a child say at the eightieth birthday party?

Another example is to write your character’s obituary. Imagine your character could read it. What would they like you to say about their life after it was over? What did they stand for? How did they make a difference?

  1. Childhood ambitions

Think of your character as a young child. What did your character imagine their future would be like? Did they want a happy life with a family? Was there a specific person they admired and wanted to be like? If so, what qualities did that person have that the child character admired?

Write a few lines about your character’s ambitions as a child.

Examples of typical values not already mentioned are: fairness, responsibility, kindness, safety, romance, conformity, gratitude, and humor.

Try these exercises and questions for as many of your main characters as possible, not just your protagonist. And definitely try it for your antagonist. It might turn out the two are not so different and are actually striving for the same things in life. They just have very different approaches.

If you can pinpoint your characters’ values, you’ll be able to identify their goals and have a clearer idea of how the character will react in any situation.

And it can even be useful to try some of these exercises and questions on yourself, to find out what’s important to you in life and what drives you. Are you so very different from your characters?

How do you discover what’s important to your characters? Do you find that you have similar values to them? Or do you deliberately choose characters who are different from you to explore other points of view?

About Jim Dempsey [2]

Jim Dempsey (he/him) is a book editor who specializes in detailed analysis and editing of novel manuscripts through his company, Novel Gazing [3]. He has worked as an editor for more than 20 years. He has a master’s degree in creative writing and is a professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading [4] and is a trustee of the Arkbound Foundation [5]. Jim is fascinated by the similarities between fiction and psychotherapy, since both investigate the human condition, the things that make us uniquely human. He explores this at The Fiction Therapist [6] website. If you have a specific concern with your novel, send an email to jim [at] thefictiontherapist.com, or visit the website to ask for a free sample edit. You can follow Jim on Instagram @the_fiction_therapist [7].