Saturday, April 30, 2011

The floggings will continue until morale improves

The floggings will continue until morale improves - a time-worn witticism adorning many a workplace, but sometimes it comes a bit too close to reality to be funny.

And when it does, how well do you think that works? How does it feel when people's actions and stated feelings are completely at odds with all the available evidence?

So...*drum roll*...
Why would you try to do that to your characters?

As writers, we are in charge of our worlds. Puppetmasters of our characters. But that doesn't mean we can simply pull their strings and make them act how we like. Not if we want them to be credible. So here's a few tools I've come across to help with...

Outcome - credible motivation

How you act and react in any given situation depends on a complex interplay of motivations. Amongst other things, your motivation for a particular behaviour is grounded in who you are, what you know, what you believe, and what you feel.

Your characters are no different. So if you're to portray them in a credible way, you need to understand their motivation.

This is not a post about actually creating compelling characters. There was a whole blogfest devoted to this a few months ago here, with tons of excellent advice. This post is about organising that information to get inside their heads so you can make them act in a way that won't have your readers going "Huh?"

Who you are

The most obvious tool to nail down your character is the trusty character sheet. This can be as simple or as detailed as you want. Many people use forms or templates to capture things like name, age, appearance etc.

All well and good, but if you want to understand your character you need to think about some deeper aspects of who they are. Things like background, upbringing, religion. I don't mean you need to lay out their life history. For this particular purpose, you are trying to get to events that formed the character, that would influence how she behaves. Did she have a troubled childhood? A domineering parent? A fear of dogs? And how does that show up in present-day attitudes and behaviour?

And what about skills and preferences? Someone with a passion for archaeology is going to have a rather different view of evading pursuers in that labyrinthine Egyptian tomb than someone who believes in the supernatural and is afraid of the dark.

The character sheet can prompt you to think about some standard aspects of your characters, as well as being a handy place to record the facts for later reference, but there are other tools that can help you really get inside their heads.

One that I like to use is the character interview. Here, you pretend to be a journalist, or a TV host, and ask your character questions. You let them respond how they see fit. See here for some examples.

Similar tools involve writing a letter from your character, or an entry in their personal diary. They all work the same way - to dissociate your mind from your author's voice, and let your character's voice shine through. It can be quite revealing hearing things that you never suspected.

Of course, having this information is all very well, but you must remember to use it, too.

Who do you hang out with?

An important part of who you are, is who your friends - and enemies - are.

You may have already noted things like religion in your character sheets, but what about belonging to things like clubs, political parties, secret societies? As with other things on the character sheet, the groups you are interested from a motivational point of view are those that involve sharing in a strong set of beliefs which will guide your character's attitudes and responses to certain situations.

To work out the effects of these influences, I suggest treating these groups as characters in their own right. Develop something like a character sheet for them, to document their history, core beliefs and values, and maybe alliances and enmities. Then, when you label a character as "belonging to the Ancient Order of Compulsive Leg-Waxers", you will have a good idea of all the emotional baggage that label brings with it.

Furthermore, when you look into which groups your various characters are affiliated with, you may uncover new reasons for one character to like or hate another.

If groups of allied characters are important to your story, you might find it helpful to add membership lists to your group descriptions, to keep track of characters who may be expected to act in concert. After all, some groups have efficient communications networks, so what one character learns along the way might find its way to another person's ears in a way that would otherwise be hard to explain.

Of course, individuals form friendships and enmities too, without the need for any group affiliation. These can be tracked on character sheets, but sometimes the dynamics might be better revealed by a stakeholder map.

This is a diagram that shows characters (the "stakeholders") on the page, with lines between them to denote positive or negative relations. Seeing relationships mapped out in this way can suggest alliances or conflicts that you may not have otherwise considered. You can use the same idea to illustrate group dynamics where you have groups that interact with each other rather than just forming passive backdrops for individuals' motivations.

Here is an example I drew when I started on The Ashes of Home. Here, "smiley" marks on lines show friendship, while "frowns" show enmity. Drawing this map brought home to me just how isolated Shayla was, having pissed off a lot of people in Ghosts of Innocence, and this realisation changed the whole tone of the sequel.

What you know

So much for background, how a character acts will also be influenced by what they know at a given point in the story. Here, I'm really concerned about what new knowledge they gain during the story, as opposed to what you've already established in their background.

In an earlier post, I suggested keeping a knowledge map - simply a swimlane diagram that charts knowledge acquired at different points in the story.

What you believe

This is similar to what you know, but add the layer of interpretation (which might also be influenced by what you knew or believed previously).

For example, Lady Dolores enters the library to see Lord Pantyhose lying dead on the floor. She catches a glimpse of Hugh Gormless-Twitterer leaving hastily through the door at the far end of the room. Only an hour earlier, she had glimpsed Hugh taking His Lordship's pistol from a drawer in his desk. So what does she conclude?

What she knows, is that His Lordship is dead, and that Hugh was recently in the same room. What she believes is that Hugh shot Lord Pantyhose. It is the latter that will colour her subsequent actions.

These subtleties can be captured on your knowledge map by simple annotations to distinguish facts from interpretation.


  1. Great post! I love to chart out character relationships before I start writing. I think it helps me remember who's who and how they should be interacting. I also like to sprinkle things with relationships, when I can. Some characters are out of their milieu and so don't have any to begin with, but I also like to chart out the relationships that will occur in the book in order to better portray them as I write.

  2. Hey Marion, yeah, it's an important aspect, and getting a handle on relationships can help on so many levels, from simply adding depth to the story all the way up to being primary drivers for the plot.

  3. I am not a writer but I often hear writers say that their characters begin to "write themselves" and takeover all the decisions with an autonomy that the author never granted!
    By the way, I love the title of this post; I had never heard the expression before but it says so much. Anyone with a psychology degree (me!) will tell you that, as a motivator, reward works but punishment doesn't.
    Click here for Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

  4. Hi Bazza, it's true what writers say. At first I found a few scenes in the story developing in ways I hadn't expected, but the interview technique was the real eye-opener. It brought out aspects that I never suspected lurked beneath the surface. Odd to think that it's all coming out of my mind, but it really feels like the characters have minds of their own, and I truly don't know what's going to emerge.


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