by Angela Ackerman
Have you been in a situation where someone acts erratically, and not in a good way? It takes you by surprise, doesn’t it? Imagine this scenario: you’re sitting around the lunch table with coworkers and pop out a joke. Instead of a wave of laughter, one of your tablemates begins to sob. Or they jump up, shove the table, and walk out.
Your emotional response? Befuddlement (What just happened?) Guilt (What did I say?) Judgement (Wow, she’s unstable.)
It’s always a bit uncomfortable when we can’t follow the logic of cause and effect. A joke should prompt laughter, head shaking and a grin, or maybe if poorly delivered, an awkward beat of silence. These are reactions we expect.
Cause-and-effect is very important in the real world.
This sequence helps us navigate life. When we know what to expect, we know what to do.
Study for a test to pass it.
Pay the mortgage to have a safe place to live.
It also helps us know what not to do.
Drinking too much causes a hangover.
People who leave a paper trail get caught.
If I tell the boss what I really think, I’ll be fired.
Cause-and-effect helps us plan and gives us a sense of control over our lives.
Guess who else is hardwired to notice cause-and-effect? Readers.
What helps us navigate life also helps readers navigate the story. In fiction, this means paying attention to your character’s behavior. How they react to situations in the story is EVERYTHING. Their decisions, actions, and choices will tell readers what’s really important, what the character wants and needs, who to root for, and what outcome is ideal.
As authors, we want to make it easy for our audience to “read” our character’s behavior. If a reader is confused about why a character does or says something it might pull them out of the story, or they could grow frustrated or even lose interest.
So how can we always “know” how our characters will behave? By understanding them down to their bones: what they care about, who they are. What they want and fear. What they believe in. By exploring a character’s deeper layers, we learn everything we need to know to determine what they will logically do in any situation. (And knowing this? WRITER’S GOLD. Your story will practically write itself!)
So, whether you like to plan up front or prefer discovery drafts where characters start out as more mystery than flesh, here are important factors that greatly influence how your character will behave.
Every person has a baseline when it comes to emotions: reserved or expressive, share feelings openly or keep them to themselves, things like that. Characters are the same. Understanding what this looks like helps us know the difference between “typical reactions” and “escalations.” After all, conflict and friction will push the needle, causing your character to be more emotionally reactive. It’s great for the story too; emotional extremes push them out of their comfort zone, lead to missteps and mistakes, and create MORE tension and conflict.
To figure out your character’s baseline, imagine everyday situations. How do they express emotion when they feel safe and when they do not? What do everyday emotions (contentment, nervousness, joy, worry, and fear) look like for them?
Once you get a feel for how they show typical emotional responses, this serves as a baseline, and when you add a nice dose of pressure or raise the stakes, you will know what more extreme behaviors and reactions should look like. (More on Determining Emotional Range.)
Traits that make up your character’s personality steer their behavior. Take Paul Graham, a character I build using the Character Builder at One Stop for Writers. After choosing his personality traits I went through the lists of behaviors and attitudes associated with each to choose ones that fit my vision of him.
Personality traits reveal a character’s moral code, impact how they interact with other characters, how they view the world, and how they go about achieving goals. Here’s a partial screenshot of some of behaviors associated with Paul’s personality traits (via the Character Builder):
Traits that make up your character’s personality steer their behavior. Take Paul Graham, a character I build using the Character Builder at One Stop for Writers. After choosing his personality traits I went through the lists of behaviors and attitudes associated with each to choose ones that fit my vision of him. Personality traits reveal a character’s moral code, impact how they interact with other characters, how they view the world, and how they go about achieving goals. Here’s a partial screenshot of some of behaviors associated with Paul’s personality traits (via the Character Builder):
Planning Paul’s positive traits helps me see what behaviors will help him solve problems in the story, and his negative traits (especially his primary flaw) shows what behaviors and attitudes hold him back and keep him from his goal. I can also see what he must change about himself (character arc) if he is to achieve his goal. (More on Planning Personality Traits)
We are all products of our past, and characters are too, meaning a character’s history is a huge factor when it comes to their behavior. The people in their lives before the story began acted as either positive influencers (people who taught the character to be self-sufficient, imparted knowledge, and boosted their self-esteem) or negative influencers (people who made your character doubt themselves and their worth, manipulated them, or hurt them in some way).
Both groups have taught your character how to solve problems, in good ways and bad, which will carry forward to your story.
Another huge aspect of backstory are the character’s past experiences. Good ones give them a positive outlook and worldview, and negative ones create emotional wounds. These painful negative events are transformative: who the character is before a wounding event and who they are afterward are very different. Paul’s wound was finding out his wife was not who she thought she was, and this was the fallout:
Because an emotional wound makes a person afraid that they could be hurt the same way again, they protect themselves by changing their behavior, often in negative ways that we call Emotional Shielding. These dysfunctional behaviors and attitudes are meant to keep people and situations at a distance so they cannot hurt the character. Unfortunately, emotional shielding also keeps a character chained to fear and ultimately gets in the way of what they want most. Here’s a partial list of Paul’s dysfunctional behaviors and attitudes:
Reading through these, you can see how they are dysfunctional and will cause problems for Paul. Past hurts always reveal emotional sensitivities and fears, which influence a character’s actions.
While a character enters the story with a lot of baggage and “set” behaviors, one factor can change everything: their motivation. What they want most in the story is powerful. Their goal, if achieved, can fill the hollowness inside them and erase the unmet need that keeps them from feeling happy and complete.
No matter how many hurts your character has endured, what they fear most, or how jaded they are at the world, they can and will change if it means getting what they want most. Here is a sampling of common character motivations:
A strong story goal should not be easy to obtain, and will require the character to transform their mindset and behavior to achieve it. So knowing the goal will also help you know how they will behave, especially as they grow and evolve.
Bottom line, readers want books written by authors who show authority. This authority comes from knowing a character so intimately that every action, choice, and decision rings true. Readers should have no trouble following cause-and-effect.
If you need help with seeing how all the character pieces fit together, try the Character Builder. It contains the largest character-centric database of information available anywhere and prompts you to go deeper step by step, making character building much easier.
As a reader, does it bother you when characters behave in a way that isn’t explained? Let me know in the comments!
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Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, (now an expanded second edition) and its many sequels. Her books are available in eight languages, are sourced by universities, recommended by agents and editors, and used by novelists, screenwriters, and psychologists around the world.
Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, an innovative creativity portal for one-of-a-kind tools that give writers exactly what they need to craft unbelievably rich stories and characters. Stop by and give their free trial a spin...writing can be easier! Find Angela on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
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This was such a helpful and timely post for me as I tackle building stronger and more believable character motivation (and backstory) into my editing. This has given me more tools and things to ask myself as I go forward. I'm debating giving the Character Builder a go.
I am so glad this post came along just as you needed it. Time and again in interviews and on podcasts I am asked what is my top advice for writers when it comes to characters and it is always to take the time to really dig deep and understand who they are. Our characters should feel like real people to readers, and for that to happen, they have to behave like real people, who have complex feelings, specific motivations, and their path to the future is tied to their past. Just as you or I are who we are because of the people and experiences in our past, so are characters. So taking the time to explore their personality and backstory is really necessary to understand their actions, choices, and decisions in the story.
Wishing you all the best with your story! And yes by all means, put your protagonist (or any other character) through the tool (there's a free trial) & hopefully it will lead to some epiphanies that you can work into the story. 🙂
In one of my early critique group session, I had some one ask why my character did something. My reply was, "Well, he has to in order for the story to work." I was told to go home and think about his motivation.
I learned a great lesson that day. People don't change or step out of their comfort zones without a compelling reason, and neither should my characters. They need to be pushed, whether it be an external force or an internal one. Since then, I've made sure to sit down with my characters and find out what really makes them tick before sending them out into the world. That way I will know what buttons must be pushed (or hammered on in some cases) to get them to act.
You've nailed the importance of motivation! The beautiful thing is that provided the reader identifies with and cares about the character, the character can want anything at all, even something readers would never want or be interested in and as long as you show WHY, readers will want to see the character achieve it! 🙂
I really like the road map of motivation listed here. This is a great resource as I am building a new set of characters for my WIP. The key I'm taking away here is that the character shouldn't be able to resolve their issue easily. Figuring out how to do that in creative and satisfying ways is how a story becomes more engaging. Thanks, Angela, for a great post.
That's exactly it. If what they wanted was easy to get, they would already have it. But it isn't, and not only will there be opposition they will have to face, there will also be struggles within, obstacles to overcome and ways they will need to grow and change if they are to succeed. It makes the story so much more compelling to read because to get what they want, the reader has to do what is hard, not what is easy. 😉
This is a really rich and important post. Thanks, Angela. I will be posting the link on my blog.
Glad you liked it Rosi! Thanks for stopping in to read and comment 🙂
Love your post, Angela, and love the Character Builder. My characters are deeper and better motivated since I fleshed them out in Builder. But, I think I just had my protagonist do something in my WIP that I hadn't built enough credibility for. Going back and adding the needed info to make her actions believable.
I am so glad you are enjoying the Character Builder! A lot of love went into that tool, but now it's so easy to dig deep into our characters so we can put it all on the page. Glad you'll go back to your profile--our characters do like to follow their own heartbeat, and updating the profile sometimes helps us to see even more ways things are connected than before!
Wonderful to hear, Barb!
I try to make sure the reader understands the backstory of the character through reflection, inner thoughts, and other characters
Yes there is definitely room for those internalizations--they can really help give the backstory more shape. But remember to have plenty of doing (action) as this will always draw the readers in the most as it also pushes the story forward. 🙂 Happy writing, Denise!
Thank you, Angela!
This is such an enlightening and detailed information on how to create reader grabbing content, i really want to use these tips in my write-ups. Thanks alot for these guidelines!
So glad they help, Sana!