Building a person is a long and complicated process.
In the real world, it takes twelve to twenty years to really solidify someone’s personality, and we never really stop building on that. In fiction, it can take anywhere from a single line to an entire novel’s worth of notes to get an idea of who the hell you’re actually writing about. In other words: not easy. Fun, depending on the type of writer you are, but not easy.
I’ll admit it, though, I’m not the type of writer to keep copious notes on character-building. I have a ridiculously hard time sitting down and creating a framework to draw my story from (linguistics stuff aside). For me, at least, it’s a lot easier to let the characters figure it out for themselves.
Which means, rather than trying to build the character’s personality up bit by bit to the finest detail, you focus on what they want. And to learn what they want, you only need to ask a couple questions.
What is their motivation?
This is a fairly easy question to answer, most of the time. What does your character want? It doesn’t matter what they’re doing– wandering the city, fighting a samurai poultry overlord, stalking their second-grade math teacher, whatever– they’re doing it for a reason.
On a broad level this is fairly intuitive. You know your character’s motivation for how they move through the plot: there’s always a reason they want revenge on their old mentor or embark on a desperate quest for the world’s last Twinkie. But on the level of line-to-line dialogue and description, motivation can get tricky.
On one hand, you can go to an extreme and describe every influence in your character’s life, right down to choice of shampoo and deodorant. On the other, your prose winds up a lot more readable if you sit down and try to find every line in your work that’s lacking motivation: where do you have writing for the sake of writing? Where do you have your character acting solely for the sake of taking action? Cutting out unmotivated prose is a fantastic first step when it comes to editing; adding motivation for the parts you can’t cut out is a fantastic second one.
In any case, it’s good to form the habit of knowing whose motivations lie where when you’re writing, because…
What are the stakes?
…Motivations determine the stakes of a plot point.
“Knowing your stakes” is actually a concept I stole from acting: when you know what your character has at stake it becomes much easier to place yourself in their shoes. The same goes for writing, only you’re trying to get someone else to place themselves in the character’s shoes, which adds this whole new layer of complexity.
Again, on a broad level this is intuitive: you know what’s at stake when you’re saving the world. You may not have as good an idea when two characters are awkwardly making small talk after a bar brawl. Just like with motivation, it can be helpful to sit down with your work and map out what each character has at stake in each part of the book, an exercise which can be as broad as a plot map or as detailed as a line-by-line analysis.
It can be a revealing process. When a character is in a low-stakes situation, they tend to be in control of the scene: a character with a lot to lose is going to lose a lot of agency very quickly, but may be willing to act more drastically. Knowing the stakes means you can figure out the balance of power in a scene. Bonus: it also gives you an idea of a character’s limitations, self-awareness, and morality.
Once you know the stakes, you know the character’s natural reaction to whatever’s going on in the plot. Which is important, because…
Where is there conflict?
…the stakes are the basis of any conflict in any book, ever. Low-stakes conflicts make for excellent subplots; high-stakes, of course, make for the climax of the story. And, as I mentioned before, being aware of what’s at stake for each character means you know the balance of power. Which means barring a stroke of luck, most conflict can be resolved before you even get to the scene.
Let’s take Star Wars, which is a pretty clear-cut example. No spoilers: the earliest major Big Bad Guy scene to have ever been revealed. Princess Leia has been taken captive by the Empire, and they’re trying to get the location of the rebel base.
Motivation: The Empire wants to destroy the rebels, and Leia wants to defend her friends.
Stakes: The Empire needs to get rid of a thorn in its side (low) and Leia’s friends may die if she fails (high).
Conflict: The Empire needs to find something that motivates Leia more than the death of her friends in order to get the information.
The balance of power, is on the Empire’s side right from the beginning. Leia cares a great deal about something that isn’t immediately vital to the Empire– they have all the time in the world to torture her, and it only takes a moment of weakness for Leia to give in. However, Leia is also unlikely to give up such important information, so the Empire further shifts the balance of power by turning the Death Star (a planet-destroyer) on her home world of Alderaan…
Motivation: The Empire hasn’t changed, but Leia’s motivation is now to save the planet.
Stakes: The Empire stands to lose nothing but a potential location (low) and Leia may lose the place she grew up, not to mention 90% of everyone she’s ever known and loved (super high).
Conflict: Leia now has a choice between betraying her friends and saving the planet. The Empire is no longer part of the immediate conflict.
Leia, in order to shift the balance of power back her way, offers up false information. Now the Empire’s motivation has shifted to taking out the rebels, as opposed to getting the information out of her, and she’s done what she can do to save Alderaan (even if they blow it up anyway).
See where this is going? It’s an excellent way of organically building and understanding your plot, and a great way of getting to know your characters as people. Imagine Han Solo in that same situation. Or (getting out of that universe) Captain Kirk. Or Hermione Granger. Or Peter Pettigrew. How would their motivations shift? The stakes of the situation?
Ending with a challenge…
Take a moment to map out the motivations and stakes of a character of yours in a scene. Any scene. What do you learn from it? How does it change how you see them? Is it useful at all?