You want your characters to jump out of the pages of your book, to feel like real people, to make readers believe in them and their story.
Forget then physical appearance, background, beliefs, and all other small items on your typical characterization checklist. Start by focusing on what matters to your characters and the story: their desires (what they long for, the same way you desire to be a full-time author), goals (something more immediate, like publishing a book), and motivation (the never-ending search of why?).
Wants, needs, and desires are a great place to start because they are what drives people in real life. Needs more often than wants, because you need to pay off that mortgage somehow, before going after your dreams, but that’s one more source of realism for your stories.
Now, I want you to do some writing. On a piece of paper if you may. I promise this exercise will take you to some new exciting places. Pick a character. Either your protagonist or someone central to your story. And answer me this:
What does your character need to do as your story begins?
Something immediate, with simple, tangible stakes. Notice how Peter Parker always has bills to pay, a school paper to turn in, or something to do at the Daily Bugle?
In sci-fi a pilot may need to deliver some cargo, a farmhand find a runaway droid before his uncle finds out it’s missing, a scientist find a way to send a plea for help into space.
You want to make things up for a living, make something up.
What do they desire the most?
The more human and fallible, the better. Think a senior priest who wants to believe in God again, or a sworn samurai warrior who wants nothing more than to cut down his Shogun, or a soldier with a family who wants to return home, because he realized war is his home.
Why do they want the things they want?
Dig deep. I won’t get into 5 Whys again, but ask yourself this question over and over again until you feel you’ve struck at a character’s core.
Why does the priest want to believe in God again? Because without God, his life is empty. Why? The voice of God in his head gave his life meaning. Why? Because his life was meaningless before, he came from poverty and violence, before he found God, he was lost. Why? Because he committed more than one mortal sin to survive a long time ago.
What do they really need?
Everyone thinks they want one thing, but what they really need is something else. That’s what the hero’s journey is all about.
The priest needs to come to term with his past by finding a way to atone for his sins.
A What, a How, and a Why
This technique isn’t an exact science, nor is it an algorithm you can follow to arrive at a perfectly designed character. But with a little back and forth, and maybe more whys than you’re comfortable with you should be able to discover what makes your characters human.
I’ve been using it to help writers until they’ve gone “Holy crap, my story makes so much sense now, thank you!” so I know it works.
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