Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Deepening Your Characters

There are a number of methods for deepening your characters, but today we'll look at just one: Identification of dominant needs.

Typically, genre fiction writers think in terms of goals and motivations. "Johnny wants to ace his finals because it will help him get into med school."
Goal = good grades.
Motivation = acceptance into med school

This is fine, and you can build a sturdy plot this way, but you might end up with slightly flat characters. We don't know anything about Johnny's core characteristics at this point. You might be thinking that we can extrapolate certain characteristics from the core facts, but can we? Johnny might want to ace his finals, but he might also want to watch the ball game. Is it safe to assume he has the self-discipline and focus necessary to study simply because he "wants" good grades? Or is it possible that is competing desires might be stronger? The truth is that although a person's goals do say something about that person, they might not say enough to be accurate predictors of behavior.

The way to get around this is by digging deeper into the motivation to find the dominant emotional needs. You're probably already doing this on some level. If you find yourself asking "Why?" frequently when examining your characters, you're trying to dig past the wants and into the needs. But this can also lead to flat and even circular reasoning. If you've spent much time in writers' brainstorming groups, you've probably run into conversations something like this:

Why does Johnny want to go to med school?
To become a doctor.

Why does Johnny want to be a doctor?
He wants a stable job with good pay and benefits.

Why does he want this kind of job?
Uh, doesn't everyone? Beats the hell out of living under a bridge.

We're getting nowhere because we're focusing on externals. It may be true that people want good pay in general, but that doesn't tell us much about Johnny in specific. As a character he may be an expression of universal human tendencies, but that doesn't mean he can be generic. So how do we get past this generic or universal external desire and into the gears of Johnny's unique mechanism?

Try taking the external goal away, and see where it gets you. Johnny wants to go to medical school so he can become a doctor and have a good job. What if somehow Johnny is precluded from attending medical school? Is he still the same character, or do the changed externals change his personality, too? Or, to put it another way,

Why does he choose medicine over some other stable profession, like law or big business?
When he was a kid, he heard someone say, "Don't be a plain Mister Jones when you can be a Doctor Jones." It stuck with him.

Aha! Now we're getting somewhere. The money might be a good rationale for this profession, but there's also a deeper emotional need at play. Johnny wants status. Money is an external symbol of that status, but other things are, too. How else would Johnny express his need for status? Clothing, housing, designer luggage, expensive haircuts -- all these status symbols might be deeply important to Johnny.

Johnny might be the kind of guy with an expensive car, too, but it's not because he's a risk-taker. He doesn't speed. He pauses at intersections and lets people get a good look at him in the driver's seat. And unlike the guy who buys the exact same car out of some need for attention, Johnny won't squeal his wheels when the light turns green.

I want to pause a moment and consider what we've just done. We started with an external fact or goal, worked inward to the core emotional need, and are now turning it around to work back out. We're examining that emotional need for other ways it might express itself in Johnny's life. Johnny buys that car because of what it says about his status. By identifying the core need expressed by his car, we can also figure out how he drives it.

By doing this inside-out analysis, we might also identify some self-contradictory behavior. Let's think about Johnny's lady for a moment. Notice that when Johnny first started explaining why he'd chosen medical school, he referenced stability as a goal. If his core emotional need was for stability, he might choose his spouse early in life and then make darn sure their marriage was a contented one.

But if his dominant need is for status rather than stability, and stability is merely the need he's willing to cop to in public, then will Johnny marry young? Maybe not. Not unless he manages to snag a supermodel or the sorority president. And even if he does land a girl like that, he might also go for some side action as an expression of status. Because that's the rumor: high-status males get more nookie.

So now what we have is a status-seeking male who claims to value stability (and who might, in fact, value it to some extent, especially in financial matters) who undermines the stability of his personal life by joining the girl-of-the-week club and/or cheating on his wife.

We can complicate this further. If his need for financial stability is greater than his tolerance for personal instability, Johnny might avoid cheating because he doesn't want to lose his house in a divorce. So instead taking his side nookie to a nightclub, he'll go to the same club on date night with his spouse and flirt with the waitresses, but he'll only dance with his wife. Now he's satisfying multiple emotional needs: He has the status-symbol wife on his arm, the status-enhancing flirtation, and the stability of a public display of loyalty to his wife. Plus, at the end of the night, there's little risk that his wife will take half of everything.

So, now we understand that mining a character's emotional needs can help us understand why they do the things they do. They might even help us predict how a character will behave in a given situation. Next time, we'll look at how a writer can use all this to exploit conflicts.

Any questions? If not, I have one for you. Does Johnny study for his finals or watch the game with his friends?



Wes said...

MARVELOUS!!! You just helped me deepen my MC. I've been toying with an emotional need of his, but resisted adding it. You're probably wondering why the hell I'd hesitate. I'm not really sure. The need becomes apparent at the end, but I should set the stage for it more explicitly early. Thanks.

Wes said...

Oh, yeah, regarding your question. Johnny watches the game with his friends for any of a variety of reasons, he craves validation from his friends, he is undisciplined, etc. He'll be more interesting if he steps on his crank, flunks the exam, and has more conflict in his life.

Julie Harrington said...

Would it be a lame answer to just point to the blog, nod and say, Yep?

I figure out my plots based on Goal, Motivation and Conflict, but I also know that the "whys" of everything have to tie together and that the people who occupy your plot have to be in that plot for a reason.

The external conflict the plot is offering (say, witness to crime is stalked by crazy psycho killer and gets bodyguard/protector to stay alive) has to be a mirror for the characters in it so that it reflects (pulls out, intensifies, brings to a head, whatever) that characters deepest fears, threatens their goal, and puts them in conflict so they are forced to confront it all in order to and evolve (and if it's a romance, also evolve into couple-dom).

I mean, look at our witness. If she (and I'll be "traditional" here and make the witness a woman) was some ass-kicking Tomb Raiderish Laura Croft character who fears no one and can get out of any situation by herself... would she even NEED the hero to protect her from said bad guy? Of course not. In fact, she'd have stopped the criminal herself during said crime and been sitting on his unconscious, lumpy, battered and broken body eating a frozen custard by the time the cops even showed up, arched a brow as they approached and said, "Took you long enough. Now I'm missed my manicure."

Jaws wouldn't be Jaws if the sheriff hunting the great white shark wasn't afraid of water.

But to go back to the doctor example. Nobody picks a career just because of the money. Lots of jobs pay well. But why THAT job. Why THAT life choice? We're all shaped -- deep down -- by the situations and events of our past. What if a doctor was the only kind person our hero ever knew because he came from an abusive family and grew up thinking of doctors as heros? What if he decides to become a lawyer because his father was wronged by the law in the past and vowed he'd never let that happen again? They both go a long way in shaping who he is now and why he picked that career and what he intends to do while IN that career... which then offers up a ton of plot ideas that directly confront and complicate that gaol by shoving a conflict in his face that threatens everything he wants to stand for and be.

I always laugh when I have conversations about this with my writing friends because I tell them to think like an actor with every scene and every story and demand, "What's my motivation?!" when it starts. :D Nobody does stuff "just because." There's a reason (motivation) deep deep down, even if we don't want to admit it to ourselves.

Okay. Rambling now.

So Johnny, Mr. All About Status? Watch the game or study. I think it depends -- who invited him to watch the game?

If it's his boss, a professor, a student's father who happens to own the team, or someone who could advance his career in some way/up his status, then he'll watch the game.

If it's normal friends and Johnny thinks the studying will get him more "status" points? He'll study.


Edittorrent said...

What if a doctor was the only kind person our hero ever knew because he came from an abusive family and grew up thinking of doctors as heros?

But this doesn't really say what Johnny's need is. It says that he was shaped by external forces. What is his inner force? When Johnny says that he wants to be the type of doctor who is kind to troubled children, what emotional need is that tapping?

Beware the tendency to ignore the internal and blame everything on the external. The simple truth is that there probably were other kind people in his childhood, even if only in stray moments. What makes the doctor different from those other kind people? Explore that, and you begin to circle around the inner need, I think.

What if he decides to become a lawyer because his father was wronged by the law in the past and vowed he'd never let that happen again?

But how is that a need for Johnny? It happened to someone else, and he was a mere bystander. Keep your analysis focused on your character, and go deep within him. Any time you feel the urge to reach for an external fact to explain his behavior, find a way to bring it back to his psyche. IOW, would Johnny still behave the same way if his father had been acquitted? What is Johnny's emotion? Protectiveness? (Of his own father?) If he feels protective, is he protective of everyone, or just of family, or just of men, or just of fathers, or ...? Does changing the answer change Johnny's core character?

Wes, I'm glad it helped. :)


Julie Harrington said...

Yeah, Theresa, I know. I just meant my comments in the realm of "why does Johnny want to be a doctor?" There's always a reason more than "I want to make good money." Astronauts make good money too, but Johnny did pick that. LOL.


Edittorrent said...

Doctors can be astronauts. Just sayin'. :)

But that might be TOO much of a goal!

John said...

Great post Theresa

Your boy Johnny cares too much about status. It would be intolerable to miss the finals. His mates wouldn't let him live that down, it would be bad for his status. His desire for instability also pushes him to not study. I think a part of him is actualy arrogant about it and will assume that he can do it.

Natalie said...

Johnny studies for the classes that have something to do with med school. He plants himself every night in the library, in front of the big windows that face the common lawn of the campus. That way, everyone will see his dedication and admire him for it -- except for his rivals, who'll feel threatened by it. He may, however, just be trolling the internet for papers for his non-medical classes.

Edittorrent said...

Natalie, I can see him in those windows. :)

John, I think you make a very interesting point when you say that watching the finals would give Johnny peer status. This elicits another question: How does Johnny define status?

We've established that he's a status-seeking pre-med student. But we haven't defined "status" beyond the obvious (and perhaps trite) status symbols of flashy car and flashy women.

Status doesn't mean the same things to all people, though. Perhaps the highest status symbol is freedom from the need to work. (In Johnny's mind, that is.) So he's gearing toward early retirement. Or perhaps for Johnny the pinnacle of status is being the chief of surgery at the Mayo Clinic or some other high-profile med center. He'll bust his bottom getting into that job, and then he'll hold onto it with both fists. No early retirement. (See how the emotional need creates the goal?)

There's a larger point when we start looking at this comment thread in the aggregate: the same emotional need can have multiple expressions. This is what makes people interesting, and this is what can make a character complex.


Gwen said...

Fantastic post! I have actually been going through this process of development since I started writing seriously, but could never figure out HOW I did it. This really helped me see the process. Thanks!

Also, I would think Johnny would study, because if status is what he's really interested in, he would get to bemoan missing the game to his friends because he was 'so busy studying.' That not only helps him meet his ambitions, but makes him look very studious and 'different' from his buddies.

PatriciaW said...

Great post.

Does Johnny study? Are the classes important for his med school application? How far away from applying to med school is Johnny? Is his desire for status immediate (acceptance by his friends) or longer-term (becoming a doctor, friends who are or come from influential families)?

Johnny is focused, part of why he doesn't hook up in a relationship at a young age. Johnny studies.

Craven said...

Johnny does both. He wants what he wants. He arranges to watch the game with his buddies at a sports bar, brings his books along, and studies during breaks in the action. That way he gets a little closer to his goal of status, spends time with his friends, while flaunting that he's on his way to bigger and better things.

I'd love to be in the booth when Johnny leaves to use the restroom.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Excellent post! I just posted about motivations over on The Literary Lab today, but I kept it at the basic principles you started with in your post - the main motivations.

I agree that if we don't dig deeper the characters will definitely remain flat. But many writers, I've noticed, don't even know what the main motivation is for their characters. Probably because they're trying to dig deeper all at once. First we have to pin down the main motivation, which is what I posted about.

I couldn't believe that when I sat down to map out my character motivations, how much I DIDN'T know what they wanted. It opened my eyes quite a bit.

Your thoughts here are excellent. Thank you!

Catherine Bybee said...

I call this giving your characters LAYERS. Fantastic blog, once again!

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Johnny puts his books on the coffee table, where they are covered up by beer bottles and pizza boxes. The next morning, when he excavates the texts and discovers what exactly got on them (and a few things he can't ID easily or comfortably), he gets upset that he's lost the resale value and vows that next time, he'll be ON that field.

The decision's been made: Sports medicine.

Leona said...

I'm playing catch-up here and I'm doing it in order... sigh. It's hard not to read the latest.

I think if Johnny was that determined to be in med-school and had made it through to this point, he'd be good at time management and would find a way to see the game and study.

He's probably already boned up on the informaiton and the last minute cramming wouldn't appeal to him. It would make him look weak and needy. He'd do enough study to make sure he had it down pat, then saunter off to the game and brag about how he was gonna ace that test. Not like those poor bastards who are cramming, trying to make up for their lack of planning the rest of the semester.

This puts him on an elevated plane (in his mind) of being able to hang out and further relationships that will help foster his career in the long run.

I could really get into this character :) I'd have him meet THE girl at the bar, only she thinks he's a braggart and that translates to ass in her mind. He'd then be distracted by her rejection of him, to the point that he barely passes (or even fails?) the exam and focuses some of that anger at her.

Just an idea. *shrug*