I’m back to set fire to a few ideas and tip over a van or two. I want to break apart the things we as writers do to create characters, because we have been fed a line, told by teachers and mentors certain ways to make a character that are not working. Many of our characters are empty; our readers can see right through them. Our readers can poke holes in them. I read all the time about characters that are one-dimensional and weak. I do not think that is bad writing, but bad training.
So take it to the streets! Jump on your desk, pull your old habits out of your process and let’s set them on fire, because when it comes to character creation, we can look to the things Sir Ken Robinson said about education. In character design and writing, as in education, we don’t need reform. We need revolution.
The world we know as writers is one of guesswork and seeking. I find myself enthralled when another writer starts to talk about their “process.” By this what we mean is, how do you write? How do you make your characters, and how do you plan out a work session? The details on how others do the job become an addiction for most writers when they set out to write a book, and that passion rarely dims as we move further into our careers.
There are as many different ways to do the job as there are people doing it, but a few things remain consistent, and I have found, in the world of character creation, many things that mystify me. Things my contemporaries do when they are creating characters are starting to look wrong to me.
In an earlier post I talked about character archetypes and the result of trying to define a character by one of the descriptions that most writers look to. But today I am here to take a hammer and set a torch to the idea of a character’s motivations.
We have all seen the overly dramatic movie about the stage or screen, where a director is telling an actor to do their job, and the actor will stop everything and ask, “What is my character’s motivation in this scene?” Every time I hear this, I cringe. Every time I hear one of my writer friends talking about their character’s motivation, I find myself ready to shake them. For I truly believe this is the wrong way to think about a character. When I look to my characters in a scene I am writing, I never find myself asking that question. Instead I ask, “What are my character’s hang ups?”
When I was in college, I was a wreck. No idea what I wanted to do with my life. No idea who I was or where I wanted to be. When I was asked my major, I told them without a blink that I was a history major with a literature minor, but in my mind, I would let out a scream because I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t have a future in mind. I had no vision of myself, no understanding of what I wanted from life.
I was lost.
That is the guy we want to read about. The most intriguing characters have that sort of set up. The best characters are the broken people, the ones who are lost or in some way transitioning in their plans, station, or development. If asked what their motivation is, most would shrug. My motivations back in college were food, sex, and naps. None of those things create a decent story. So why look to my motivations, when we could be looking at my hang ups?
The things that drove me in those dark days were not my needs, they were my fears and my flaws. I would get in a fight not because I hated a man or wanted to do him harm, but because of a distant way he made me feel about myself, a thing buried deep in my past he had triggered.
I hated nurturing women, not because I thought they were boring or in any way hated them in particular, but because they reminded me of my mother and the dismal control she had me in the grip of my entire life. This is not a motivation for me. This is not me saying I want to see all good and nurturing women fall, but a gut reaction to a stimuli I could not put into words.
Our characters, our most interesting, most broken characters, do not have it together enough to even have a motivation. If we allow ourselves to write them in that fashion, or allow ourselves to try to guide them by that notion, then we will find ourselves writing shallow characters.
Writing me back then led by my motivation would have been writing a character lounging around, eating and drinking and hanging out with friends. It would have been me living an empty life. It wouldn’t have been very much of a read at all.
We have to stop asking ourselves “what is my character’s motivation” and begin to look deeper into the things our characters are bound up in, and what slaves they are to their hate and their issues.
Because our most powerful characters are lost, and they have no idea what they want. We must ask ourselves what they don’t want. And what things they cannot stand for.