Characters are at the heart of every good story, and the best ones grab ahold of your heart.
What makes a character that breathes life into a story, makes readers feel connected to them, and drives everything forward? Motivation. What do they want? What do they need? And what is getting in the way of them getting it?
On the surface, you may think you know the answers to these questions but if your story feels like it is falling flat or something just isn’t clicking, there’s a good chance it’s because there is something weak or unclear about your characters’ motivations. You may need to go deeper. They are at the core of everything. Without solid motivation and obstacles, the whole story suffers.
Getting to the root of your characters is all about asking the right questions. No, not about their favorite song or funniest childhood memory (though those things can be fun to fill in later if a scene calls for it), but what makes them tick. In this post, I’m sharing my favorite thought-provoking questions that will help you develop characters that feel real and get you wrapped up in their story.
Creating Compelling Characters
Don’t Sweat the Small Things
I agree with Aaron Sorkin’s philosophy on character development, that the most important questions are what a character wants and what obstacles are standing in their way of getting it. He believes knowing things like their favorite color or least favorite food are details that are ultimately insignificant to the storytelling process:
“I don’t think that any of that is going to come in handy. I don’t think that there is a use for any of that. I think you’re doing it because you feel like you’re supposed to do it. I think you’re doing it because you feel like the more human character traits you write down on this legal pad, the more human the character is going to be. What’s going to happen is, you’re going to have a scene where a guy or a girl needs to convince their parents to loan them money for something, and you’ve got this yellow legal pad next to you and you’re trying to figure out how to work in creamy peanut butter into the scene because these are the things that are going to make your character more human. Forget that, ok? Forget that stuff.” ─ Aaron Sorkin
In my experience, trying to fill out long character questionnaires about miscellaneous details only ever made me feel like I was spinning my wheels. I never felt like I knew my character any better by the end of it; I only had a list of random facts. It’s like when you’re getting to know someone in real life. Knowing their favorite movie barely skims the surface of who a person is at their core; it’s not until you go deeper and observe how they handle situations that you really gain an understanding of who they truly are.
It’s the core questions about a character’s desires, needs, values, influences, and obstacles that have always given me the “a-ha” revelations I am looking for and offer a richer understanding of my characters and the story as a whole. And once I have that, the small details like music tastes, clothing style, and unusual habits naturally fall into place through the writing process when needed to give it more spice and flavor and fill out the world in beautiful detail. They blossom naturally.
Don’t get complexity confused with over-complication.
Wants, Needs, and What’s Getting in the Way
As I mentioned, character motivations are what drive the story. Every character on the board should have goals, some of which will overlap and others that will intersect to cause conflict. They are the heartbeat of your story, pumping life into each thread. Whenever you start to get lost, ask yourself, “What do they want, what do they need, and what are the worst things that could get in their way?”
This is your guiding light. Your whole story should orbit around it and serve it to keep it focused, grounded, and always ripe with conflict (i.e. not boring).
Keep in mind that there are layers to a character’s motivation just as there are for real human beings. We create goals to attain something we want, but why we want it is what fuels the quest to get it and gives it meaning. And, just like with real humans, the reason we think we want it isn’t always the same as why we actually (subconsciously) want it.
There is also another layer: what we need. The lessons we don’t necessarily want but need in order to become the best versions of ourselves. Incorporating this into your characters’ journeys will make them that much richer and bring more purpose to the story as a whole.
Of course, you don’t have a story if all of these things just flow easily right to them. What’s getting in the way? Who is getting in the way and why? What is their driving force?
What Shapes Their Reality
We all see the world through our own perspective, which is shaped by various experiences and influences in our lives. How we interact with others, the choices we make, the things we expect, what we value, and how we react to what happens to us are all driven by subconscious beliefs and expectations.
The most compelling characters are the ones that are clear to have rich inner lives, full of real human emotion and contradictions, just like us.
The things they fear and value will shape their choices. Sometimes, the two will create a push-and-pull between each other, creating inner conflict. They come from basic human needs and instincts, as well as beliefs (limiting and otherwise) that have been formed by personal experiences. Take some time to explore what these are to bring depth to a character’s choices.
Think about the characters from their past and present and how they’ve influenced them, too. They say we are a combination of the five people we spend the most time with. How is that true for your character?
How we feel about and identify ourselves informs a lot of our decisions, especially where our relationships with others are concerned. It also has an impact on what we believe we are capable of, what we believe we deserve (and don’t deserve), and the means about which we will go to attain what it is that we want.
Think about how your character perceives themselves and how that differs from how others see them. The external perception will vary from character to character ─ how does each one affect them?
It’s also helpful to think about when they feel most vulnerable, what they consider their greatest failures, and what they consider their greatest achievements. All of this comes together to form their self-image and inform their actions.
Download the Character Worksheet
I’ve created a free printable worksheet that includes a place to keep track of the most important details about a character, as well as an in-depth questionnaire that will help you get to the meat of a character’s inner world, motivations, and journey so you can fully flesh them out. Grab yours now in the free resource library.