“Therefore I say: Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be defeated.” Sun Tzu.
The Supremacy of Character
Which is more important? People or things?
Think of your favorite novel. What’s the first thing that comes to mind? A plot device or a character?
In a showdown between Captain Kirk and Mister Spock, does emotion or logic win out?
In the army we used to get asked which came first: the mission or the men? The approved solution at West Point and in the Infantry was the mission (read plot). My answer was always the men (read characters), because without the men you couldn’t accomplish the mission. When I went into the elite Special Forces, the emphasis was always on people.
Emotion is more important than logic, especially in the entertainment (emotion) business (logic).
One of my non-fiction books, Who Dares Wins: The Green Beret Way To Conquer Fear And Succeed, focuses on the fact that what makes the Special Forces elite is the emphasis on the men, not the mission, because without the men, the mission could not even be attempted. I think the same is true of writing—what makes a story rise above the ordinary is the emphasis on the people inhabiting it.
I was slow to appreciate the importance– indeed the pre-eminence– of characters in a novel. It was a three-stage process. First, I had to accept that characters were the most important aspect of the story. For many that’s a given, but coming from a background where plot ruled, this meant I had to make a 180 degree turn in perspective. I’ve found the opposite is true also. I’ve read manuscripts that were so character oriented there was little to no plot. There are writers who need to understand the importance of having a story in which the characters exist. Things have to happen other than a Frenchman riding a bike in circles with a baguette in his basket.
The second step was to spend as much time developing my characters before starting the novel as I spent outlining my plot. Some people might be able to invent plot or characters on the fly as they write, but I find the time spent before starting, is time well invested. The characters must be real to me before I write word one.
The third, and most difficult step, is to figure out how to show who the characters are, instead of simply telling. What actions, dialogue, decisions, etc. will show the reader the nature of the character while the character is usually unaware themselves of these aspects of their personality.
The first question is: who are my characters? Do I have a good feel for whom each person is? If you don’t, you will find that your characters are two dimensional and not consistent. Your characters must be as true to you as people you know in the real world.
Here are two keys to keep in mind with characters:
Motivation and Goals
1. Goals are what characters are striving for.
2. Motivation is why they are striving for their goals.
When I run workshops, I always take a poll. I ask how many people in the room are a sidekick? Then how many are a minion? Sometimes, someone snarky will raise their hand, but in reality, no one considers themselves a sidekick or minion. Thus, in your book, every character thinks the story is about them.
Every character has a core motivation. Viktor Frankl in his logotherapy called it the ‘One Thing’. When all else is peeled away, the core motivation is what will dictate a character’s decisions and actions. The core motivation can be anything, but it must be believable to the reader.
In real life, sad to say, many people’s primary motivator is fear. We can couch it in different terms, like a desire for security, but ultimately it’s fear. Fear is: “a feeling of alarm or disquiet caused by the expectation of danger, pain, or the like.” Note the key word there is expectation. Heroism is taking action in the face of fear. Fear is an emotion and often stems from uncertainty. It’s often the primary motivator because we need base needs to be fulfilled first. If you look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, you have to know where each of your characters fall:
1. Physiological needs: water, air, food.
2. Safety needs: a cave to hide in.
3. Belongingness and love: Other people.
4. Esteem: Something outside of ourselves to believe in.
5. Self-actualization: Very few people reach this.
Remember, your characters are not all self-actualized. What is very difficult to write is a character who is not consciously aware of who he is.
The reader must believe that your characters believe all will be lost if they don’t achieve their goal.
Motivations, like goals, come in layers that are peeled away as the story escalates in conflict and the character is under more and more pressure.
The motivational layers are all present in the beginning of the story, but the character is often not conscious of the layers. They have a surface motivation that is driving them initially.
Thus the motivation and goals shift as the story goes on and we peel away layers. In Don’t Look Down, my hero, JT Wilder arrives on a movie set as a consultant. Here are his layers of motivation.
What do you want? (Wilder: Laid and paid.)
What do you really want? (Wilder: Relationship)
No, what do you REALLY need? (Wilder: Relationship with community)
One thing I like to do with motivation is be able to sum up my character’s primary motivator with one word: Loyalty. Dependable.
Some motivations stem from key events in a character’s life. You must know this key moment, but the reader doesn’t, especially not right away. In LA Confidential, we can see from the start that Russell Crowe’s character protects women in peril. We don’t learn why until he reveals it to Kim Basinger far into the movie and he talks about a key event earlier in his life.
Motivation is the most important factor to consider when having your character make choices or do actions. Once you have a feel for your characters’ motivation and they come alive for you, then to a certain extent you lose control over your story. For your characters to be realistic, they have to act and react like the people you have developed them to be, not like you need them to in order to move your story ahead. Every time a character acts or reacts, I ask myself if that is consistent with whom I projected the character to be.
For example, in my first Atlantis book, I wrote a scene where some people were trying to talk my main character into traveling back to Cambodia where he had last been over thirty years ago. Where his Special Forces team had been wiped out horribly and my character had had nightmares about for years. And I needed my character to agree to go (or else the book would have been rather short). But I had to come up with a legitimate reason for my character to go. I had to figure out what would motivate him to agree to do something that he normally would not do and the reader would not believe him to do if he had any common sense. It had to be believable to the reader, which means it had to be believable to my character. That motivation comes about because you give the character a concrete goal they want. In this case they played a radio message they’d just intercepted from one of his former team-mates, who apparently was still alive in that place in Cambodia. So now his goal is to rescue his old teammate based on a core motivation (loyalty), which is completely understandable.
Often your protagonist is initially reluctant to get involved and circumstances force him or her to do so. Your protagonist also usually begins by reacting, but eventually must make choices and take actions or else they will lose reader empathy. A classic example of the reluctant protagonist is the Bruce Willis character in Die Hard.
Goals are tangible objects. Something external to the character so that we very clearly can see whether they have achieved their goal or not. Too often people confused motivation with goal. In the conflict box, you must put this tangible goal for both the protagonist and the antagonist. The easiest conflict is when both want the same thing.