The elements of believable characters

I’m back to Writerly Wednesdays now that my latest book has been turned in. Today I want to talk about all the elements that go into creating 3-dimensional characters – at least the way I do it. Last time I wrote about character arcs and frankly I probably should have done this one first because it leads nicely into it. But well, here you go.

Have you ever read (or even worse, written) a book that still left you feeling unsatisfied? Ever wondered why some romances have an excellent ‘sigh’ factor, but others have you betting the couple won’t make it past a year? The key to a satisfying romance is vivid characters.

Many writers—both new and seasoned—struggle to create character-driven books that deliver the powerful romance that readers crave. After all, it’s easy to get caught up in Mary Jane’s struggle to raise the money to save the ranch and Detective Jones’ quest to identify the serial killer. We forget that while the twists and turns of an external plot may keep the reader turning the pages, they might fail to deliver the satisfying emotional punch readers expect.

So often writers mistakenly believe that an interesting or complex background and childhood equals a three-dimensional character. We’re led to believe that unless we know every tiny detail of our characters’ tortured childhoods, then the reader will think them cardboard. When in fact what makes interesting and memorable characters is the way they act on the page, not who they were before the story began.

There are plenty of ways to go about creating those characters – I mean who here hasn’t heard of a character interview or questionnaire. The ones I’ve seen and tried to use have like 180 questions ranging from what is your character’s sexual history to what is their favorite ice cream. When I was first learning my writing process I worked on these things for hours and presumably they work for some people, but I just found them to be really frustrating and frankly not very applicable. I write historicals, my characters don’t eat ice cream. And knowing about my hero’s 3rd grade teaching isn’t going to help me make readers fall in love with him unless that 3rd grade experience was substantial in making him who he is in the book.

I can’t really say there is one key to creating great characters because I think there are several, but one of which is is that all really matters is who your character is within the pages of your book. Let’s be real, unless you’re writing a biography these people aren’t real. Yes, they might feel real, but they aren’t they’re just bits and pieces that we make up. So with that thought in mind I implore you to work on your characters with an open mind. Don’t get so settled on your heroine’s backstory because that’s what really happened, cause it didn’t, she’s not real. What matters is who she is on the page and in so much as it affects the story, how she became that person, that’s where your backstory comes in. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Okay so let’s get into some of the tools. Now I should give you a caveat, this is how I go about creating characters and while I can stand up here all day and tell you it’s the right way to do it, there are probably half of you in here that this won’t work at all. And that’s okay, chances are you’ll learn something and if not just smile and nod and I’ll never be the wiser. Alright so onto those tools. When I start work on a new book idea, I start with the characters and because I’m a heroine-driven writer, I start with her.

The first thing I do is pick a name. There’s nothing magical about this process for me, sometimes the name pops into my head and sometimes I sit and look at a baby naming book until something strikes me. Once I’m satisfied with a name something interesting starts to happen, she begins to start to form into a person, or at least a shape that sort of resembles a person. So next up I jump to the archetype book. Now there are plenty of character and pop psychology books out there that you can use. This just happens to be one that I think is brilliant. I was in the workshop in Chicago many moons ago when they first presented this material and I couldn’t take notes fast enough. It just really resonates with me. Now one thing I’ve learned from using this book again and again in my own writing is that I tend to gravitate towards the same archetypes over and over. So I start with those, read through them until something grabs me.

Once I’ve got my archetype down the feel of the character, her personality begins to take shape so it’s time to start digging in to see what issues she might have to be dealing with, emotionally speaking. That’s when I pull out the Myers Brigg book that I use. What I like about this book in particular is that it’s not very complicated, much of it is done in bulleted lists. And there’s a great chart at the beginning of the book that gives a quick & dirty summary of each type so you can read through them and know which ones to read more of. Another thing I like about this book is that there’s a section of things that type might need to work on, this is a great jumping off place for internal conflict issues. All of this work helps me bring my characters big emotional issue into focus for me. Cause remember they’re not real so we’re just making this stuff up, if you want a heroine who has trust issues, give her trust issues, make up a background that fits with that.

But for starting off points you can also use the Enneagram, which I have a book I use on occasion if the Myers Brigg isn’t working for me, it’s actually by the same author so it’s in the same easy to read format. And these are just the tools that I use, I know there are plenty of others out there. What you want is to just use these to brainstorm directions you can take your character. Because the thing to remember about characters in a book is that everything has to be properly motivated and their behavior needs to be consistent. We know that there are people all around us that don’t behave consistently, they have medications for this. Well, and clearly it’s not always a medical issue, people do crazy things because we have knee-jerk reactions to emotional stimuli. Characters can’t really do that or they come across as being false or melodramatic. So you have to be careful. That’s one of the reasons I use these pop psychology tools b/c they were designed for real people, but they have a way of outlining the usual behaviors which is where the consistency comes into play.

I know other writers use all kinds of other tools. There are books on birth order that are very interesting, you can use books on the astrological signs or use tarot cards. There are tons of other resources out there that might work for you, just the ones I listed are the ones that I think work particularly well.

Okay so let’s move onto to the nitty gritty stuff. Now I’m sure that most of you have heard of Deb Dixon’s GMC. That’s kind a biblical text in RWA. And if you haven’t read it, you’ve heard a workshop or your critique partner has explained it to you. And well, Deb didn’t actually make that stuff up, she just put it in easy to understand terms. Dwight Swaine has a lot of the same material in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer – now I don’t know how many of you have tried to read that book, I can say it’s worth the time and effort, but it is very dry.

But I think the thing about GMC is is that we all get it, we understand it. If writing a book involved taking a multiple choice text or even fill in the blank on the components of GMC, we’d probably all get A’s. The thing is though, the concept is easy to grasp, but applying it into your book is a whole ‘nothing ball of wax. So here’s the way I like to explain it.

Goal – what do they want?
Motivation – why do they want it?
Conflict – why can’t they have it?

You could sum up GMC in the following sentence: Character wants (blank) because (blank) but (blank). The blanks are the three elements – the G, the M, and the C.

GMC is essential to good fiction, and I always like to start with the M, which I realize is a bit unorthodox, but bear with me. The M, the motivation is what makes your fiction readable. It’s like the secret decoder ring that comes in cereal boxes. This is the element you use in order to effectively communicate with the reader – what they’ll use in order to understand why our characters do and say the crazy things they do. If a character is properly motivated, a reader will follow them anywhere no matter how improbable their actions may be. In the GMC equation, the motivation is why the character wants their specific goal – why they want to open that bookstore or why they need to trust others and why they act the way they do throughout the story.

Take a familiar scenario of the clichéd woman in a horror movie who runs out into the darkness in her pajamas, or equally silly, goes into the basement, all because she hears a noise. And let’s not forget that she knows very well that there is a madman on the loose and he’s got an ax with her name on it. It’s a funny situation and it makes us roll our eyes or yell at the screen.

But why is the above scenario humorous? Character motivation. Or rather the lack of character motivation. Most of these movies are shot with one thing in mind, to scare the movie-goer, so they get their characters in scary situations no matter how poorly motivated said character is simply because it suits the plot. But in romance, we don’t have that luxury. We simply can’t stick our characters in Idaho because we need them to be there for chapter seven. We have to give them legitimate, believable reasons for going to Idaho in the first place or for going into the basement.

Haven’t you ever read a book that wasn’t that exciting or perhaps wasn’t that well written, yet the characters were so compelling you couldn’t put it down? More than likely motivation played a big role in why you loved those characters. Likewise the lack of proper motivation can ruin even the most well-written prose.

Let’s go back to our woman from the horror movie; investigating a noise is not enough motivation for most people to go out into the night when a crazy murderer is on the loose. What if the noise she hears is her dog that’s outside tied to the swing set? Is that believable? To serious dog lovers it probably is. Let’s try something else, suppose she hears someone cry for help, is that believable? Well, for those of us seasoned horror movie watchers, this is an old trick – scary mad-man generally CAN talk so they can be the ones crying for help. So this might not be believable either. (you know where I’m going with this and it’s a trite example, but it works.) Okay let’s say the voice she hears is not one of the crazy mad man or any other stranger, but the voice of her own 10-year old daughter. This gives her plenty of motivation to swing open those doors and run out into the night in nothing more than a robe and her bra. A mother’s urge to protect her children is a strong and universal motivation.

Here’s another example, and one not dealing with horror movies or crazy mad-men. Let’s say your heroine needs a job – that’s her goal. But why does she need the job? That’s our motivation. Well, she needs this job because there are some pink shoes in a store window downtown that she simply must own. So is wanting the pink shoes enough motivation to sustain your story? Probably not, unless this is a very short story and they are some very special shoes.

Let’s beef up the motivation. How about she wants those shoes because her grandmother owned a pair just like them and her memories of her grandmother are the only ones she has of being loved and cared for. Now we have a reason to care. Now we can cheer for our heroine to get that job so she can buy those shoes. (This example shows us something clear about goals as well, but we’ll get to that in a moment.)

The bottom line is motivation gives the reader a reason to care for the characters. It is one of the greatest tools we have as writers to make our imperfect characters that we love, loveable to other people. Developing strong motivation forces you to think, to dig deep into your characters, and in the end it can be the difference between someone finishing your book, or putting it back on the shelves.

Now onto goals. Every character needs them. And in romance they generally need both internal and external goals. But asking the question, “what does your character want?” can be like asking a six year old what they want to be when they grow up – a fireman, a veterinarian, a dancer, a teacher, etc. The options are limitless especially when you’re thinking of the large scope of your entire story. There will always be exceptions to the “rules” but let’s, for argument’s sake, say that both your hero and heroine need one main external goal each. Keep in mind that external goals need to be three things: concrete, specific and they must require action in order to be obtained. Subsequently internal goals tend to be more subconscious and less concrete since they are emotional in nature. However, they too require action to obtain them, but action of a different sort. But we’ll get to more detailed explanation of the internal elements later.

One thing I’ve seen over and over again in teaching classes or judging contests is having a character’s goal be to maintain the status quo – I won’t say that this is wrong because there will always be a successful book out there to prove me wrong, but this sort of random goal isn’t concrete and doesn’t require any action. In addition, won’t it be a futile goal when our heroine learns in chapter one that the status quo is gone? This is a popular goal for heroines in historicals where she is expected to marry yet she wants to remain the rebellious girl she’s always been. Riding her horses with her hair whipping in the wind and tending her garden or writing her novels or whatever it is she wants to maintain. But wanting the status quo or to remain independent doesn’t really work, neither are tactile and for our external goal we should strive for something more concrete.

What about that garden she loves? What if she’s been working on cross-breeding roses since she was a young girl and if she marries she’ll have to leave her precious garden and resign herself to a life of parties and needlepoint? This will never do. So our heroine doesn’t just want to remain unmarried as a means to maintain the status quo, more specifically, she wants to complete her cross-breeding of her roses. This is a concrete and worthy goal.

What about our heroine from the previous example who wanted to buy those pink shoes? More than likely this heroine doesn’t consciously think, “I want those shoes because Grandma had some just like them and she loved me and if I own them then I’ll feel that love again.” That would be awkward and clunky and let’s face it, if your heroine is that in touch with her emotional needs, then she probably has no internal conflict at all. So instead she thinks she wants those shoes simply because they remind her of her grandmother and she remembers always liking them. But as readers we know that while this is a tactile goal, what our heroine really wants is for someone to love her and give her security. That’s her internal goal and she’s going about satisfying it in the wrong way – thinking that by owning the shoes, it will “fix” everything, fill that hole inside. This is a common mistake for our characters and one that usually takes an entire book to figure out, which is good news for you, the writer.

The trick for creating strong and believable goals is to make them specific to your character and their situation. If you can plug any goal in, just so your character has a goal (cause that’s what you’ve heard is required) then you haven’t done your job.

If you’ve been in the writing business long, then you’ve probably heard things like “fiction is conflict” or “the strength of your conflict is the strength of your book” or some such statements and frankly I can’t argue with them as they’re completely true. Because when you’re writing popular fiction, without conflict you have no book. At least not one worth reading.

This is the easiest of the three elements to understand, but it seems to be the most difficult to get right. Conflict, in its simplest form, is opposition. That’s it. According to Webster it is “a clash between opposing elements or ideas”. Simple enough. But we really struggle with this and maybe it’s because most of us are women and we tend to be the peacemakers in our families – I’m not really certain why, but conflict can be a real struggle. But it doesn’t have to be. Conflict, in the GMC equation is why your character can’t have the goal they’re seeking. External conflicts can be acts of God, other characters, or the character gets in their own way. (Think of that thing your high school English teacher used to say about conflict, “there are three kinds of conflict: man vs. man; man vs. God; or man vs. himself.) This is the hero’s meddling mother, the evil other woman, the villain, the fire that destroys their house, whatever, just remember it is external. Use this test to figure out if which kind of conflict you’re dealing with…Imagine taking your characters out of the world they live in and plucking them down alone on a deserted island. If it’s just the two of them, all alone, then all the external conflict should disappear, provided they have no hurricanes and they have plenty of food and necessities to survive.

Now that we’re on the same page in terms of external GMC I should point out that oftentimes you have sort of two layers of external GMC. It’s what I call the Big GMC and the Story GMC – and here’s the way it breaks down. When I started working with GCM charts I found myself drawing a line to divide those little boxes because my characters often had a GMC that drove them before the story opened, like your heroine could want to be a world class ballerina or your hero could really want to make lead detective, that stuff still matters and has a place in your book. While I said that the only thing matters is who they are once the book opens, that’s true, but the reader should still feel like this character was living life before they turned to page 1. So you have the Big GMC and then Story GMC is the stuff that changes once the action of the plot begins. If you’re a believer in the Hero’s Journey then Story GMC starts after the call to adventure has been accepted. So we have our hero who wants to be lead detective and the story gmc starts when he gets suspicious about a new serial killer and maybe the rest of the force thinks he’s nuts b/c the MO is too different to be the same guy. But our hero knows something is going on so he does some investigating on his own, that’s the story GMC, and this GMC affects the Big GMC b/c if he’s right, he can score lead detective, but if he’s wrong, then he’ll probably lose his job all together. See how that works?

A deeper look: explaining internal GMC

Now that we’ve worked our fingers to the bone on external GMC it’s time to switch gears and look at the more difficult and frankly more important (at least for romance novels) side of GMC. The internal. On the surface they can seem quite similar, but differentiating between the two can be trickier than we think.

Internal GMC is made of the same elements as external GMC, but don’t be fooled, it is different. This is the stuff that’s subconscious, meaning your character, more than likely, isn’t aware of it. If you have your heroine so aware of the fact that she doesn’t trust men and that without doing so she’ll never have a complete life, then she really has no growth and she should probably be a secondary character, not to mention a therapist. So keep the internal stuff where it belongs, inside.

The most important thing to note about internal GMC is that it exists with or without the hero/heroine or the events of the book. Let me rephrase that for clarification. Your heroine’s internal GMC exists before she meets the hero and unless you’re writing a reunion story, doesn’t have anything to do with him. He might exacerbate the issue, but he certainly didn’t cause it.

I see this all the time in classes and when I’m judging contests. The heroine’s internal GMC, all of her internal conflict is solved simply by meeting the hero cause he’s a nice guy and he’ll love and accept her just as she is. Nope, you can’t do it. That’s cheating. It’s the easy way. Let’s use a trite example for this, let’s say you have a formally abused woman (we’ll make her verbally abused) and we’ll say she comes from a father who did the same thing. Well, if all she needs to break the cycle is to meet a man who won’t verbally abuse her, then that should be easy enough, but what does she learn? How does she change?

Learning a lesson and growing and changing is what it’s all about. That’s the whole point about internal GMC, it’s about the character arc (which we’ll get to in a moment) and growth and change are CRUCIAL to character-driven fiction. So with that abused woman, she must work out that issue before she can have her happy ending, even if the hero will never abuse her, she still needs to work on that issue and clear it up or at least begin to heal. Remember that test from yesterday on how to tell if your conflict is internal or external? This is where it really works well. Pick up that heroine out of your book and drop her on that deserted island, does she still have that distrust of men?

While the hero is not the cause of your heroine’s internal GMC he, more than likely, is the reason she’ll finally deal with it. In meeting him, she’s finally met someone that might be worth sacrificing some things for, might be worth changing for. It’s the hero and her interaction with him that challenges the heroine to deal with her “issues” and eventually grow and change to resolve her internal GMC. Again, the ONLY time this might not be the case is in reunion stories where the characters have a romantic past that might have led to said “issues.”

Let’s look at an example with the movie Twister. Now, I don’t know about y’all, but when I went to see this movie, I expected it to be about tornadoes. And it is, but it’s also a romance. Jo, our heroine, is a tough and witty scientist out to change the warning systems for tornadoes. Obviously her external GMC is wrapped up in the tornadoes themselves, but we also have conflict with the rival team led by Jonah and then we have conflict between her and her soon-to-be ex-husband, Bill.

Now we’re given a hint about her internal GMC (which is often unseen in movie format – why is that? I can hear you all answer. Because it’s INSIDE the character) from the beginning of the movie where we see a family run to the storm cellar only for the father to be ripped into the center of the twister. But it’s truly revealed to us in a scene where she and Bill have missed getting their tracking device up into the tornado. They start arguing and she blurts out that he doesn’t know what it’s like to have a tornado skip this house and that house and come after yours. She took her father’s death personally (obviously) and it has shaped her entire life and motivates all her external actions. Basically she’s afraid of losing the people she loves, exactly why she pushed Bill away to begin with. This conflict existed before Bill, it exists without him, yet it exacerbates her relationship with him. It’s not until Bill tells her to look at what’s right in front of her, meaning himself, that she’s willing to take the risks necessary to overcome this internal conflict. You see how that works?

So you do an internal GMC for your characters just the way that you do external, only I sometimes find it’s easier to work backwards and start with the conflict. There are a couple of ways you can identify your character’s conflict. You need to stop and look at your character, and ask yourself some key questions: What is she afraid of? What is her biggest fear? I’m not talking spiders or heights here, what you’re looking for is emotional fears. Chances are she might not even be aware of this fear. Remember, this is the internal stuff, her proverbial bag of junk she hauls around with her that makes her who she is and prevents her from achieving personal happiness. The hero is NOT the answer to her achieving personal happiness, she instead has to deal with her bag of junk, face her fear head on and grow and change. (sorry I keep harping on that point, but it’s an important one. :-) ) So maybe she’s afraid of ever being accepted for who she truly is, or maybe she is afraid of never belonging or finding a true home, or having the family she’s always wanted or always being abandoned. Whatever it is, jot that down.

Now take that fear and look back at the GMC you did for your heroine. And try to figure out if she’s scared she’ll never be accepted for who she truly is, then what might her internal goal be (I often call this the internal need rather than goal since goal sort of implies awareness on the character’s part), then identify the motivation and then the conflict.

Developing a satisfying romance is contingent on having a strong internal GMC for both your hero and your heroine.