Wants, Risk, Drive, and Fears – Character Motivators

So while I’m laying here recuperating today, and in anticipation of my birthday tomorrow, I wanted to talk a little about character development.

When you’re writing a character, whether that’s a protagonist, an antagonist, a character you’re about to portray in a game, or some side character with a few lines, it’s helpful to frame them in your mind so you can deliver what you think the best performance is, situationally speaking.

To find that character, here are five questions:

  • What does this character want?
  • What is this character willing to risk to get what they want?
  • What drives this character forward to whatever comes next?
  • What is this character afraid to lose?
  • What does this character do to protect themselves from that loss?

And here’s the breakdown:

What does this character want? What are the character’s goals, both the short and long terms? Do they just want to rob this one bank, or are they going to spend their whole life getting rich? Do they just want to stop this badguy, or does the whole city need protecting?

Goals are tricky to identify. Yes, they can change, and one goal can masquerade as an other, but there’s no denying that everyone has goals. And those goals are getting pursued in nearly every action they take. Yes, a character can have more than one goal, but when lots of little goals tie together into a larger goal, those little goals are just steps towards the bigger achievement. Stealing the chemicals + kidnapping the scientist + testing chemicals on civilian hostages  are all individual goals sure, but they all combine as steps in the antagonist’s plan to hold the city hostage and threaten chemical warfare.

What is this character willing to risk to get what they want? Risk is a “conflict motivator” because there’s danger present in whether or not loss will happen. And since you can’t lose what you’ve never had, whatever’s being risked is something the character already has at the time they make the decision to be risky. Yes, there are circumstances where some risks are dependent on other risks – robbing the bank risks capture or death in a shoot-out, and gambling with that stolen money won’t be possible unless you rob the bank successfully – but on an individual basis, risk is put into the story to change the status quo.

A character willing to risk something means they want to change that status quo. It also means that the thing being risked is either of sufficient value that you’re willing to use it as collateral to change the status quo or it’s of such little value that any risk is negligible. The valuable stuff getting risked must mean the challenge seems sufficient to warrant it, right? Why would you risk your life over something tiny? There are side questions here to explore as well, about how the character will change with either the success from the risk or the loss because of it.

What drives this character forward to whatever comes next? Usually this is concept or a core part of the character’s moral code. (Shameless plug – I wrote a great article on character development that talks about moral codes, it’s on Smashwords). Superheroes are driven by a need for justice or redemption or vengeance or something broad but universal. (The more universal the concept, the more the audience can project onto the character and escape into their adventures.). More grounded stories often personify this driving force – a child, a wife – to show a broad category of “reasons to do the right thing.” This can too easily become obvious, dull, and expected though if every hero is driven by the exact same thing(s) as the hero on their right. But there does need to be a reason for the hero to move forward, and it should be bigger than the plot.

Yes, the plot will give them a reason to go forward – the hero has to defuse the bomb after defeating the villain, the lady has to lead her people into battle after accepting the mantle of authority – but consider what the character would do if there wasn’t a plot. Is your character sufficiently realized and developed that you could think of them as something more than a plot-solver?

What is this character afraid to lose? What does this character do to protect themselves from that loss? Loss and risk aren’t the same thing. Risk requires a choice to be made, loss can happen outside of a person’s control. You risk money when you gamble, you lose something when the house burns down. It’s entirely normal to be afraid to lose things. And those “things” don’t even need to be objects. Yes, I’m afraid of losing my glasses or my pills or my dog, but I’m also afraid of losing control over my anxiety. I’m afraid of dying. I’m afraid of discovering that no one cares about me or my work, and that I don’t matter.

Because we can quantify and qualify our fears, we can act in ways to prevent them from coming true. We can earn income so we don’t have to fear poverty. We can make friends or learn to like ourselves so we don’t have to fear being alone. The same is true for characters. We don’t need to reduce them down to some infantile idea of them just afraid and lashing out, but understanding the reaction between being afraid and taking steps to avoid that loss can give a character a dimension that can help explain everything from anger they feel to decision making.

Don’t think though that a character has to exist only in the space between fear and acting to avoid that fear. You can stack the protections and the actions into an interesting chain. For instance:

A character is afraid of getting sick -> So they avoid sick people -> But they keep finding sick people -> So they discover a chemical to boost their immune system -> But it’s expensive and only in one place -> So they decide to steal it

You could have easily clipped this chain of ideas off at “avoiding sick people”, but by giving more context, by adding in more story elements, you’re creating opportunities, risk, and a plot.

These five questions can give flat characters some extra nuance and facets. I hope they serve you well.

Happy writing.

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