Think of your favorite book.  What the first thing that comes to mind?  I’m willing to bet, it’s the characters.  Most people relate to people, not things.

Characters bring emotion to story, and emotion is what attaches readers to books.  It took me a while to truly appreciate this fundamental truth of fiction.

Here are some of the key lessons I’ve learned about character development over the years.

1.     “Know the enemy and know yourself.  In a hundred battles, you will never be defeated.”  Sun Tzu.  As I teach in Write It Forward for writers and Who Dares Wins in the business world, before we can understand other people, even fictional ones, we must understand ourselves.  So, yes, if you’re a writer, you’ll need some therapy.  It is not normal to sit alone in a dark room and write 100,000 words; seriously, it’s not.  You need to understand your point of view on people and things because that’s going to come out when you develop your characters.  One of the biggest breakthroughs I had on character was when I realized I was writing a character who was doing things I would never in a million years do, but I was able to have him believe he was doing the right thing.

lonesome dove2.     Everyone one has a primary motivator.  You must know the primary motivator for every character.  Be able to say it in one word.  Because when characters are pushed to the limit, that primary motivator is going to determine their course of action, not your decision as author.  In Lonesome Dove, when Blueduck kidnaps Lori, Larry McMurtry did not have a choice as to what each of this characters were going to do.  Because they were fully developed, they all acted ‘in character’.  Gus went after Lori.  Call kept the cattle moving north.  Jake Spoon went to San Antonio and gambled.  In one of my books, my protagonist’s primary motivator is ‘loyalty’.  My antagonist primary motivator is ‘honor.’  Do you see how those two motivators can truly clash and bring the fuel of a novel:  conflict? Would you rather have a loyal friend or an honorable friend? Some people believe you can have both, but there are also times when the two can conflict.

3.     You need at least three layers of motivation to your main characters.  These layers are all present at the beginning of the book, but the character isn’t conscious of the deeper ones.  They can be layered thus

  • What do you want?
  • What do you really want?
  • What do you absolutely need?

4.     Those layers are peeled away until we get down to that need.  In the book Jenny Crusie and I wrote, each peeling away occurred at a turning point in the novel.  JT Wilder in Don’t Look Down:

  • What do you want?  Get paid and get laid.  (He’s a guy)
  • What do you really want?  A relationship. (He’s a guy who needs someone)
  • What do you need?  A relationship and community. (He’s a guy who needs someone and others)

5.     You don’t have to invent characters from scratch.  If you’re not going to use real people (modified hopefully and also not in malice which is called libel), then use what experts have developed for you.  Consider using variations of three templates.

  • Archetypes.  This is very useful for gender differences.  Is there any male equivalent of slut?  That always provokes good debate.
  • Profiling.  I’m big on profiling because it gives you character types that will act in certain ways.  And no, it isn’t just for serial killers.  You can profile anyone.  Indeed, in Write It Forward, one exercise participants do is profile themselves. If you don’t think you have time to write, profile yourself by simply writing down how you spend your time for a week. I guarantee you’ll find time where you could have been writing.
  • The Myers-Briggs.  Many of you have taken it, but it gives you 16 distinct character types you can mine.  By the way, one type, INFJ, is labeled author.  The exact opposite, ESTP, is promoter.  I often tell writers to focus not on what they are; but what they aren’t. That’s the area that needs improvement.

6.     Know your characters’ blind spot.  We use a trait-need-flaw diagram to find that.  It’s the flaw your character isn’t aware of that makes for compelling fiction and is the groundwork of tragedy. Push any character trait to an extreme and it brings the potential for disaster.

7.     Make your antagonist a real person, not a cardboard cut out.  We must understand WHY the antagonist is doing a bad thing.  By the way, evil is not a motivator.  It’s an end result. Don’t confused motivation and goal.

IMG_0972These are just a few of the lessons I’ve learned about character over the years.  I can honestly say I’ve learned more about the craft of writing in the past year then in the past 25.  I think the key to success as a writer is always wanting to learn more and become more skilled at the craft in order to become an artist.

If you’re interested in an intense workshop on this, along with idea, conflict box, the current publishing industry and more, we have some openings for our Write on the River Workshop. More details here, but space for each is limited to four. We’ve worked with writers ranging from #1 NYT bestsellers, to those working on their first novel.

Plus you get to meet Cool Gus. And Sassy Becca. And, for now, Xander, the wonder dog.