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Character 101: Establishing Values & Desires

When you imagine your character, what do you see? When I create mine, I usually have a vague sense of who they are and what they want. From there I work from the outside-in. The basics of their physical characteristics and traits are their outer shell. The next layer, their values and desires, are the skeleton that supports their backbone and protects the essence of who they are. These are the determining traits that provide true insight into who your character is and who they will become throughout the duration of your book. To figure this out, we need to define what their values are, what they desire for themselves, what societal/cultural pressures they face, and what motivates them.

Let's take a moment to break-down what values are. By definition, they are the fundamental beliefs that guide or motivate attitudes or actions. They help us determine what is most important to us, what personal qualities we choose to embody, what sort of person we want to be, the manner in which we treat ourselves and others, and they define our interactions with the world around us. They act as a general code of conduct within our society, and influence the relationships we build throughout our lives (Mintz, Ethics Sage Blog, 2018).

How does this translate into building up our characters? Well, think of it like a battery. Without values, you have no "juice" to make them go.

To begin, ask yourself the questions below:

  1. What makes them happy? What were they doing? Who were they with? What other details contributed to it?

  2. What makes them feel proud of themselves? Describe the scenario. Who do they share their triumphs with?

  3. When do they feel the most fulfilled and satisfied? What need or desire was fulfilled? How and why did this experience give their life meaning?

  4. What makes these experiences memorable and important?

  5. How would your character define themselves? What qualities would they use? For example, are they kind? Smart? Jealous? Punctual?

Once you have the answers to these questions, check out this chart and find the qualities that most closely correlate to what you have written down. Five or six would be sufficient, but you can choose as many as you'd like! I've divided them into four categories for convenience: control, culture, social, and self. Remember, these values should reflect what is MOST important to your character. Make sure to prioritize them so you know where on the importance scale they range to your character. This will become important later on while you're writing.

Over time, your character is going to change and evolve just like real people do. They're going to learn, grow, and face challenges that will force them to adapt or perish. It's your job as a writer to make sure that they're up for the task.

The next step is to identify what your character desires. As people are multi-faceted, your characters should have more than one thing they are striving for. Try coming up with five different wants, again prioritizing them in order of how badly they want them. These wants should be realistic, and stem from the values that you just defined. For example: If your character's values are ambition, fame/fortune, and leadership then they would probably strive to be a member of their world's government or another prominent role within their society. If you chose altruism, helping society, and intelligence, then perhaps they would better serve as a healer or a guide for your protagonist. This is also the perfect time to jot down a few notes about who or what might stand in your character's way when it comes to getting what they want. You don't have to go into detail right now. This will be covered later on during Plotline Month, but it's good to have these ideas on hand for future exercises.

Another great way to further outline your character's desires is to give them a code of honor. This should center around their number one value. It is your character's "golden rule" for themselves. The one that they will never, EVER break. The one they will defend no matter how many times it's challenged. This technique works especially well when you're developing your villain or an anti-hero because it puts them in the moral "gray" zone.

While your villain may be a horrendously horrible person, you can still give your audience a reason to want to follow their journey. Say you're writing a serial killer who likes to disembowel their victims and keep their liver as a trophy. Sounds abhorrent right? Absolutely repulsive. But, this particular killer also has a dog who they adore above all else, even themselves. They make sure that tiny little dog is treated like a queen. The real reason the killer keeps the livers is to feed their dog because he is homeless and can't afford real dog food. Kind of hard to hate him now, huh? You see this throughout literature and films. For example, John Wick and his need to avenge his slain dog, or Loki and his longing for love and acceptance. It makes us love them and want to root for them even though we know they are the "bad" guys.

Okay, so we now have a solid set of values and a "golden rule" for our characters. Now we need to consider the forces beyond our character's control. By mapping out what societal and cultural pressures they face, we can understand what they're up against. These will only be broadly stated here, because you won't know specifics until you start world-building and establishing your settings. But for the purpose of this exercise, we'll just pick and choose like we did for our values. Choose any from the list below that you feel might apply to your character and briefly write about how this affects them, especially if they go against the values we defined earlier.

The last piece that falls under today's topic is motivations. What motivates your character to stand up for their values? If you guessed another person, you'd be right! It's time to establish your second character. Using the templates from my last post, begin brainstorming for your antagonist or supporting character. You choose which one you want to start with! If you choose to create your antagonist, this is the character who will directly challenge and create obstacles between your main character and their desires (think Game of Thrones, the Starks vs. the Lannisters, or Harry Potter vs. Voldemort). If you choose to create a supporting character, this is the person who is the reason that they are undertaking their quest, following their heart, or defending their values, like Primrose is the motivation that drives Katniss Everdeen to not only volunteer for The Hunger Games, but to also survive the entire rebellion).

When you add the values and desires you've created today to the traits from the last exercise, you should be looking at something resembling a person. This is the equivalent to sitting across from a blind date at a coffee shop. You know what they look like, and a little bit about what they stand for. In my next segment you'll find out how to make your character unique, how to make them stand out from other similar characters within your genre, and (the best part) even more about them!

#writing #CharacterMonth #Establishingvaluesanddesires #writingitwells

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