This post covers Guiding Beliefs, Character Arcs, Backstory, Passions, Flaws, External Wants, and Internal Wants.
Writing Dynamic Characters
What makes a good character into an unforgettable one? Characters are not just physical attributes. A believable character takes action based on their beliefs, their history, their relationships, and their desires.
When Chris Tebbetts and I were writing M or F?, we received a fascinating piece of feedback from our editor. She loved the first draft, found the plot compelling, the dialog funny, and the characters well described. The only trouble was with the relationship between the two main characters, who were supposed to be best friends.
“I don’t really believe that these two are best friends,” she said. “Best friends have in-jokes and references to things that happened in the past. I don’t see any of that here.” She was right, of course. We hadn’t explored the past, and what had formed the relationship between our two protagonists.
So Chris and I spent a few weeks having fun imagining embarrassing moments, silly celebrations, and the kind of memories that knit friends together. Then we went through the manuscript and sprinkled references to them throughout.
These memories were never recalled in vivid detail in the book. In fact, most of the references sounded like, “Remember that guy—” and “Don’t bring that up again!” These parts of the characters’ history were enough to motivate them to take action and clarify their motivations. It didn’t take up much manuscript space, but this writing was an essential part of the process.
Here are a few of the most important facets of crafting a relatable, believable character:
What Is A Guiding Belief?
Every major character has a guiding belief—a core understanding of the world that determines her actions.
Guiding Belief Definition
Guiding Beliefs are simply beliefs that people have that guide their actions.
Many writers get intimidated by the term “guiding belief,” but the fact is, you’ve probably made up a hundred of these over the course of your lifetime to explain the actions of your algebra teacher, ex-boyfriend, weird neighbor, mother-in-law, or whoever. This is the same. For every character, you must answer the question, “Why is this person the way he or she is? Why do they do what they do?” Once you know that, understanding a character’s motivation is much easier.
Guiding Belief Example
Humans make up guiding belief stories to explain motivations all the time. “Oh, his mother always gave him everything he ever wanted, that’s why he acts like he’s the king of the world.” “Her father abandoned the family when she was five, that’s why she never trusts men.” “His mother was an alcoholic, that’s why he never touches the stuff and doesn’t trust anyone who drinks.” And so on and so on. In real life, these explanations are usually partial or sometimes even flat-out wrong. But in fiction, guiding beliefs help the reader understand a character’s motivation, and explain why they make the choices they do.
What Is A Character Arc?
Character Arc Definition
A character arc is a term we use to describe how a character changes over the course of a novel. It usually applies to a main character, but minor characters can have character arcs, too.
Character Arc Example
Okay, let’s take an example that we all know well. Cinderella. She spends most of her story being bossed around by her stepmother and stepsisters. But they finally push her over the edge. The stepmother made a promise. She promised that Cinderella could go to the ball. And Cinderella believes in doing the things you say that you’re going to do. That’s one of her guiding beliefs. So when she gets a chance to go to the ball, she takes it. Not only that, but when the prince sends someone to find her, she steps forward—even though her stepmother and sisters try to stop her. She stands up for herself and gets out of there. Events have changed her.
Do All Characters Have Arcs?
No. Think about James Bond. That guy is not growing and learning. He may look different, but he always orders his martinis the same way. Dr. No is not growing and learning.
What Is Backstory?
Backstory is basically a character’s memories—the things that have happened in their life before the story gets started. Backstories are important because they help form a character’s Guiding Belief. I gave the example of this guiding belief: Her father abandoned the family when she was five, that’s why she never trusts men. Okay, so if you’re creating the character’s backstory, you would explore that scene—the scene in which she confronts the abandonment. How did she discover that he left? When did she realize he was never coming home? You might not include these scenes in your story, but your character might reference them. Other people know about them. They’re important.
An interested person is an interesting person. Characters often have passions and interests, like painting or dogs or learning to turn themselves into a teacup. These passions can help drive their external wants, but they also make the character interesting to the reader.
Character Flaws Defined
A character flaw is a part of their personality that’s imperfect or holding them back.
Character Flaw Example
Aristotle said that character flaws were too little or too much of a good thing. In other words, too little courage or too much courage is a flaw. In a story, your character’s main flaw is what is holding them back from getting what they want. In order to get what they want, they’ll have to overcome their flaw. Interestingly, sometimes overcoming their flaw means realizing that they don’t really need the thing they wanted, after all.
What Is An External Want?
A character’s external desire is basically The Thing that She Wants. It’s the goal that the character is going to pursue throughout the story, the one that will send her careening toward her fate. For Cinderella, the goal is simple—she wants to go to the ball. That desire sets off the plot.
What Is An Internal Want?
A character’s internal desire is the thing the character actually needs. This need is almost always emotional, and the character is usually not even aware he or she needs it. In fact, most characters spend a whole novel's worth of actions trying to do, find, earn, or steal something, only to discover that what they really needed all along was love (or some other valuable emotional insight). Cinderella just wanted to go to a ball. What she got was what she really needed—someone who loved her and an escape from her abusive step-family.
One important thing to remember is that all of the major characters in your story or novel will need to be fleshed out and imagined in this way—with features, flaws, desires, and guiding beliefs. This may seem like a lot to capture, and it is. Bookflow makes it easy to capture this information in a useful way.
For each character, I simply write a brief description that I can easily reference using the outline view.
When I want to explore the character more deeply, I use the scene body to imagine bits of scenes, memories, or scenarios. I used to capture all of this information in various notebooks and hard-to-search Word documents. With Bookflow, everything I need is organized and easy to update.
When I was teaching, many of my students resisted doing this kind of writing. They felt writing didn’t “count” unless it was making progress in their manuscript. But sometimes the most important discoveries are things that you never spell out in a novel. These are character motivations, the things that undergird the concept of showing instead of telling. This writing is essential, so make sure that you capture your characters’ motivations in a way that you can revisit and revise as discoveries reveal themselves throughout the novel.