Tuesday, June 07, 2011

You Are Not Your Character

No matter what genre you write, one of the biggest things you have to be sure comes through clearly to readers is the motivations for your characters—why they are doing the things that they do. And I think one of the hardest parts about that is the separation between what YOU, the writer, would do and what your character would do because they are not, or at least should not, be the same.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked about a book or even one of my manuscripts with someone, and their response is “Well, that’s not what I would do.” And my response is always, maybe with a little frustration, “Okay, but that IS what the character would do.” This difference might seem obvious, but it comes up very often. Because while you do have to stay true to the characters, you also have to pitch it in a way that readers can step outside of who they are, and get into who your character is. You have to give them the reasons to believe that yes, that really is what the character would do. The flip side to this is, of course, not letting a reaction stay in your book just because it’s what you would do, or even what you want, be it your character’s decision to have sex to the way they finally come to terms with something major. But for the sake of this post, we’ll ignore both that and focus just on putting the motivations in.

It’s not just a motivation to do something that I’m talking about either. This also includes a reaction to something, the speed of things, and all those other aspects that hinge on the realism of the book, even in the paranormal/fantasy. Just because you would blow up at the person who insults you doesn’t mean the character would. Just because you wouldn’t let someone use your head as a punching bag day after day doesn’t mean the character would. Just because it took you a year to truly love the person who is now your spouse doesn’t mean a character is incapable of falling, and knowing it, faster.

One example of the latter that comes to mind is Leah Clifford’s A Touch Mortal. Yes, Az and Eden seem to fall fast for each other, but at the very opening of the book, right on page one, Eden is contemplating suicide. Think of just how far under and how dark a place you have to be in to be seriously contemplating it, to not see reason to keep going. Yes, understanding that mindset is something that a lot of people struggle with, but it’s also something that is heartbreakingly real. And then comes along Az, someone who cares for her, talks to her, makes her laugh. Put those good emotions on the backdrop of the harder ones, and is it really that hard to believe that she would fall fast, and fall hard, and love him in just a few months time?

Or what about Like Mandarin by Kirsten Hubbard, about Grace, who wants so bad to be like Mandarin, a girl a few years older than her? That seems okay in just that statement, except from an outsider’s perspective, Mandarin is anything but a role model. Maybe your first response is “of course Grace wants to be like Mandarin, she has that bad note to her.”And maybe you were exactly the same way you were fourteen, striving to be this enigmatic outcast that you looked up to. But truthfully? In this book, it is so much more than that, more than looking up to Mandarin because she’s older, more than just thinking an action or two of hers is cool, and more than Grace simply being a manifestation of Kirsten. If you ever want an example of how to do motivations in all the right ways, even when maybe the outcome of what the character wants isn’t ideal, this is where to turn.

From the emotional part to their personal history to the parts of their personality that lead them to their reactions or desires, every bit of that, however subtly, has to be put into your book. As a reader, I want to understand, without being blatantly told “and this is why I let him hit me again,” why the character is behaving that way. And not just for the protagonist, but for the side characters and every other person in that story who has a role and impact. Because the important thing when writing any kind of situation is that the readers can understand why your character reacts the way they do.

This doesn’t even only apply to the bad stuff, but the good as well. From when the character makes that realization that they have to put themselves first in something, even if it hurts someone else, to telling everyone they can that the person they love loves them back… I want to get why they do it, and I want to know without a doubt that it really is their character. And when you get that in there, as a reader, I won’t say well this is how it should have been because it’s what I would do. I’ll believe it, because I’ll believe your character.

That's it until next time, and if you have any tips of your own how you make sure those motivations are in there, let me know!


Kari is a querying YA writer and book blogger who currently works a day job with a radiologist group and lives in Dallas. She enjoys badgering her dog Toby, meandering around the internet, and reading lots and lots of books. Currently juggling three manuscripts, she’s dreaming for the day she can stay at home and write full time, preferably with a charming boy to cook and clean. You can find her at http://agoodaddiction.blogspot.com/.


  1. Another great post and something to think about while creating believable characters. You know you're writing it from what your character would do if it's uncomfortable for you because you wouldn't do it. Excellent! :D

  2. I loved this post, and Brenda also makes a good point. I think sometimes MC's motivation have to go against what seems "practical" because they keep the story moving. For as much trouble as we writers put our characters through, they have to have some pretty solid motivations to keep them from just saying "Enough already! I'm out."

  3. Always a good thing to remember ;o) Characters' circumstances change what they would do in a situation as well. Each person is different. So the character needs to be too ;o)

    Great post!!

  4. Nice post. Motivation is always the hardest thing to fake... not that anything should be "faked" with writing but there are certain things you can write around so to speak. If a characters actions don't make sense with what that character has been established to be, then that's a real turn off. I've put down decent books - turned off decent movies - because the one thing I won't abide really in fiction is a lack of believable motivation.