The most riveting part of a character is their past, what a reader doesn’t see but knows is there. This under-layer assigns meaning to the character’s actions and defines character motivation. The part the reader sees when the mask is pulled away. Last month we looked at the first layer of character: the mask they show to the world. (If you missed it, click here to read The First Layer of Character.) Now it’s time to dig a little deeper and see how the character’s foundation is constructed. What holds him up, and what he hides deep inside.
Crack the Character Mask
What’s in his past made him who he is when he enters your story. His resulting insecurities and doubts from the past can make for riveting action and motivation in the present. Allow your reader to see the beginnings of a crack or two in the character mask (from what you discover beneath) and they will be hooked. Then, as they say, really crack your character up:)
The underneath is where a reader connects and empathizes with your character. Although a reader may not be privy to this skeleton from the start of the story, she can sense when it’s there and will look forward to peeling back layers of the character until she gets to the truth.
How do you build a character skeleton? Backstory…a necessary evil. Necessary, because without a history or background, the character seems to have been created on page one. Readers can sense this lack of depth, so character backstory is an important aspect for a writer to develop. Evil because loading the front of a story with the past can be death for the story. (For more on when and how to use backstory effectively, click here to read To Backstory or Not to Backstory.)
Character Motivation Begins with the Past
Start with the character’s childhood and past. No need to write pages and pages of history, but thinking through these aspects of character childhood (and beyond!) will make your lead feel real, whether any of this makes it into your story or not.
- Where was your character raised?
- What sort of influence did this have on him?
- What about parents?
- What were his parents’ occupations and value systems?
- What sort of people where his parents? (Are they still around? Still a factor?)
- Are there any siblings? Where are they now?
- Are they close to him? A part of his life? Do they have any influence on him?
- What kind of education does your character have? How much?
- What sort of student was he?
- How did he get along with other kids in school?
- What role did he play in the social structure at school?
- Was his childhood happy or unhappy? Why (specifically)?
- Did he experience a childhood trauma?
- What painful event is locked inside?
- Does he want to get away from his past? Repeat it? Get over it?
- Prove something because of it?
- Does he have any misguided beliefs due to his past?
- Does he have any secrets he’s holding inside?
- Is he in denial over something?
- Hiding something from himself?
- What is he most proud of? What is he ashamed of?
To Find Character Motivation Embrace Character Fear
Next, do some brainstorming to dig deep and find your character’s core fear. Maybe it’s surfaced as you made notes about some part of his past. Perhaps his fear develops a little later. Maybe his fear has taken his entire life, up until the start of the book, to manifest from his past. The core fear, or the resulting belief drives your protagonist and therefore, the story.
- What core fear does your character have about himself?
- What is he most afraid of?
- What happened for the character to learn this fear?
- How does this outwardly affect him?
- What other fears stem from this core fear?
- Is the fear actual or emotional?
- Is this fear public or private?
- To what lengths will the character go to avoid being in a situation regarding this fear?
Make the core fear not only psychological, but moral. Make it emotional. Don’t sell your reader out with a fear used for humor. That has its place, but the core fear is real, personal, deep and painful. Even the lead of a humorous book can have, at his core, a deep fear.
In The Darkest Evening of the Year by Dean Koontz, protagonist Amy Redwing rescues dogs because years ago (spoiler alert) she failed to save her own daughter. In The Ghost Duster Mysteries series by Wendy Roberts (a light, funny series) Sadie Novak cleans up crime scenes and helps spirits cross over because she’s trying to reconcile with her brother’s untimely, suicidal death.
Connect Internal to External to Show Character Motivation
What actions does the character employ to battle, bury or hide his fear? This is where the mask comes in…connect the inside of your character to the outside he shows to the world. Your character’s core fear and past will build a solid foundation for the action and his character motivation in your story. Take a little time to explore this aspect of your lead character.
Award-winning novelist Kathy Steffen teaches fiction writing and speaks at writing programs across the country. Additionally, Kathy is also published in short fiction and pens a monthly writing column, Between the Lines. Her books, FIRST THERE IS A RIVER, JASPER MOUNTAIN and THEATER OF ILLUSION are available online and at bookstores everywhere.