What is deep inside your character—his heart and soul—in other words, his moral compass—can be found in a character’s core values. The choices and decisions a character makes throughout the story defines him at the deepest level and developing and utilizing his core character values give your story an underlying depth and tension.
The deepest true character—the person behind the mask the character shows the world—gives the reader a look into the character’s core. When building a character, I start with the surface of the character, or the mask/facade he shows the world. Seemingly on the surface, the mask is an important part of the character and actually reveals character depth (see The First Layer of Character for more on this). Next, the backstory or the character’s past shows what is behind character actions and solidifies motivation (Character Skeleton: Let it Out of the Closet).
Developing the third layer of character—the moral compass (in other words, core values)—runs so deep, the character himself might not be aware of the truths of this layer until he is challenged. And that’s what we do when writing fiction: create conflict and challenge. How a character reacts to the events of the story defines how he grows and changes and becomes the final version of himself—the very person who can resolve the story (or not, depending on the direction of the character arc).
A character who protects others at her own peril (Katniss in The Hunger Games) or drives to find the truth no matter the consequences (Julia Jarmond in Sarah’s Key) or stands by a friend despite enormous personal risk (Jessica Bergman in Jessica) are all examples of using a character and core values to create unforgettable fiction.
Core Character Values: Show Don’t Tell
So how do we define the character’s core value—the value that drives a character throughout the story? The first step you’ve heard before. Show, don’t tell. Challenge the character’s core values. When the reader sees the character in a scene, acting from her core values, they will see who your true character is beneath her skin. A great example is Jessica in Jessica by Bryce Courtney. When Billy Simple (a young man who suffered a horse-kick to the head when he was defending Jessica) murders three women in the town (after years of emotional torment from them), Jessica decides to stand for him and tell his side of the story. Despite the fact that she will be ostracized and banished from society, she does what she believes is right. Throw in the fact that the three murdered women are the mother and sisters of a man Jessica loves, and the reader knows, without being told, what her decision will cost her. Her core values are shown through the action in the story.
Core Character Values: Build Internal Dilemma
To build internal dilemma, make a core value clash with something the character wants. Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay uses this technique in the character of Julia Jarmond, a journalist writing about an incident in France’s history when Jewish families were rounded up by the French police during World War II. As Julia becomes single-minded and determined to find out what happened and how her husband’s family was involved, she discovers that the truth will tear her husband’s family—and most likely her own—apart.
In The Faithful Place by Tana French, the protagonist—undercover detective Frank Mackey—wants to keep as distant as possible from his past, including his dysfunctional family and the neighborhood where he grew up as the son of a no-good, abusive drunk. He is driven by truth (many detective and journalist characters are) and when the body of his teenage girlfriend is discovered, he is forced to jump right into the middle of his family and uncover dark secrets and motivations from his own past to solve the murder.
When Core Character Values Clash
Another technique to use is for the story to force two core values within in a character clash, or have two sides of the same value collide. In T.C. Boyle’s Tortilla Curtain, Delaney is a suburbanite who has adopted liberal values. As the story unfolds, Delaney’s community decides to erect a large fence to keep out coyotes and illegal immigrants. As story events unfold, Delaney’s liberal beliefs come into direct conflict with his views on keeping his wife and son, their home, and his tidy life safe.
In Beach Music by Pat Conroy, the hero, Jack McCall, has moved to Italy with his daughter (after the suicide of his wife and subsequent lawsuit by his in-laws for custody of his daughter) to get her away from both sides of the family and keep her safe. When his mother is diagnosed with leukemia, he returns home and discovers he must heal old wounds to become whole and that he is doing his daughter a disservice by keeping her away from family. Two values collide. He realizes keeping his daughter safe by sheltering her from her remaining family is also harming her emotionally. There are many threads to this book, but the clash of two sides of his core value runs taut beneath the surface of the story.
When you force the character to do something in the story that is in direct conflict with a core value or have two core values (or two sides of the same core value) clash, you ramp up your story’s suspense and give your writing an underlying, subtle, but strong tension beneath the surface.
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.