Michael Cain in his book, Acting in Film, said something to the effect that if you can imagine yourself doing something other than acting with your life, you should do it. I don’t think he meant becoming a writer, but when I left teaching theater, that’s exactly what I did. Consequently, I suffer from an overabundance of personal confidence and a coinciding lack of cash from time to time.
Spending two decades crawling around inside some of the best stories in American literature as a theatrical director, however, has given me some unique perspectives on how it all works and one of the things I think I learned a bit about is characters and how to make them tick. My approach is a bit simpler and comes from an almost reverse angle to most of what gets taught.
When you download a “character generation” sheet online, doubtless it starts with the pertinent details, like name, height, hair color, eyes, build, habits… the list goes on and almost all of it is 100% useless when it comes to really imagining what a character will do and say. So, where should a writer begin? As with almost everything in writing, there is no one right answer to that.
As with almost everything in writing, there is no one right answer to that.
In fact, there are often as many different answers as there are tradespeople plying our craft, but I discovered one way in my acting coaching that seemed to work almost universally for getting inside the head of a character and making them believable. It works on a very basic principle of human behavior. In our daily lives we almost never think about why we are doing what we do. Motivation almost never enters our conscious thought, except in a symbolic way from time to time to remind us.
What does preoccupy us to a large extent, however, is what we hope to achieve by what we are doing. This is true from eating breakfast (I want to be full) to robbing a bank (I want to take the money) and it dictates a huge amount of behavior and informs the majority of our decisions and choices in almost every circumstance. Think about it, when you think through the unpleasant things you need to do today, how often do you think of why?
So, what do we think about?
Instead, you think that it will be worth it, you focus, not on your motivation (what drives you from behind) but on your objective (that target that is pulling you on) and on the multiple mini-objectives it takes to get there. This is why goals are so powerful for so many of us.
So, how does this work in building characters? I can only tell you how I do it. I start with figuring out what my character wants out of life. In most stories, this gets completely interrupted by the inciting incident and morphs into something else, but as it changes, your character still needs a clear idea of what they want in each scene. It can be anything, but a character who wants nothing has no impetus to continue the story and probably leaves your audience wondering whether they want to continue reading.
Once I have an overarching objective, I put my character into a world with other characters who also have objectives they have to work with, around and through, to achieve their goal. Almost never do my characters pause to think about why they are following their objective. They focus on what they want.