Getting to know you—Reaching the Soul of your Character
When Morgan Hawke was giving her workshop on writing the erotic romance novella which led to her fantastic book, The Cheater’s Guide to Writing Erotic Romance, she took the traditional formula of GMC- “I want Goal, but I can’t have it because Conflict, but to get it, I’ll do Motivation” and broke it down further to help get to the core of the character. Since that class, I’ve found that I refer back to that section often because it really helps to get a grip on the characters. I’ve adapted some of the phrases to reflect how I think when I’m getting to know my characters.
Pull that character sheet out again as you’re going to be writing some more information about the character. About three spaces down from the last line dealing with the character’s occupation, write “How do I see myself?” Describe how the character views him/her in their words. This allows you to see how they think the world views them and how they accept or don’t accept themselves. Further, this will allow you to know if there are any physical responses when their view of themselves is challenged on any level. Note these as it’ll come in handy as you write the story.
Once you’ve done that, skip a line and write, “Who do others think I am?” This allows you to write on how others—friends, enemies, strangers view the character. This gives you a chance to showcase quirks, initial impressions, and whether or not the character is likable from an outsider point of view. If they’re not, you can go back and figure out what aspect makes them unlikable overall. (If the character is the villain, this is a good thing!) The idea here is to give you biased views good and bad along with an unbiased look at the character through other eyes. This reference will come in handy if you’re writing a story that has more than one POV in it. It’s also a nice way to show how certain actions and verbiage can be misinterpreted by those who don’t know the character.
Now we’re going to start delving more into the GMC aspect of our characters. If you use the Debra Dixon chart system, feel free to draw it in this area. Remember that GMC reflect both internal and external factors that affect the character’s core being. I’ll be including Angela Knight’s grid for romantic conflict as well in this lesson for those who write romance or who have romantic elements in their stories.
Skip another line on your sheet of paper and write the following: “I want (desire)”. This is where you’ll list what the character wants. I make sure that the goals have both physical and emotional aspects to them. This balance helps create a deeper story. Normally, I use this area to voice the things that the character wishes and desires, but aren’t always the best things for the character. I’ll often note how long they’ve wanted it, what they’ve done to get it and how it failed. This is all about things that aren’t necessarily attainable, but the character thinks that if they get it, then all their problems will go away.
Skip another line and write, “I need (Necessity).” In this area, list the goals that maybe reflected in the desires, but are truly what the character needs to be content and fulfilled. For example, perhaps in the “I want” section, they said they wanted a lot of money so they wouldn’t have to worry about finances anymore. In the “I need” section, you’d put—financial security. It’s a real desire and a goal. It’s something that would benefit the character—but one way is not as achievable as the other. This is the section where you break down to the lowest level of what the character truly needs to grow.
Refining the desires into practical, reachable goals allows you to see where the character might make a misstep because their wants aren’t reduced to the core of what is needed for them to be happy with themselves and with others.
Since I write romance oriented stories, this is where I’ll put things such as “I need to have someone in my life to love me for me—no matter what bad things come our way,” or “I need to find out who framed me for murder.” “I want to feel more in control of my temper when things go bad around me.” I normally try for at least 1-2 internal goals for every external goal. The length of the story will help guide you for how many you’ll need for your character. If you’re writing a romance, remember that the goals of both the hero and the heroine should coincide in some areas, and clash in others. This helps create a strong characterization so you can see conflict as they begin to fall in love, even if they don’t like each other at first.
I often find this the hardest part to complete. If you get stuck, fill out the rest of the sheet, then come back to it after. Or work on something else in regards to the story, then see what you need from the characters within the plot.
Skip another line, then write- “Why I can’t have it (Conflicts)”. This is where you take those desires and goals, explaining why they can’t come true. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t worth striving for, but what seems to block their paths from achieving them. I normally do the desires first, because they’re the ones that might be unrealistically oriented or are perhaps too lofty to achieve without long term effort and dedication and a lot of luck. Then I start in on the goals. I list why they can’t easily achieve them. I list who, what, where, and why these obstacles stand in the way. By having this list, you can easily see how each goal and conflict can work in concert to not only support the story idea, but move the plot forward. Take as much space as necessary to explore the detail of what prevents them from attaining these things. Include their emotional, physical, and mental processes that hold them back, because those are conflicts that prevent them from achieving their goals.
The next section is labeled, “I don’t like (Preferences).” This is where you list whatever the character doesn’t like. From hated foods, to assholes who hurt kids, this is where you put what turns the character away from another person without giving them a chance, what limits them because of preconceived notions and more. I often find this section helps me to see how the conflicts are enhanced by the personal preferences of the characters, thus giving me a way to toss the conflicts to cause the most impact. Make sure you list what they think their faults and if others see those faults or not.
This is where you note the limits of their compassion, what trips their anger, and what frightens them, and what makes them walk away from everything.
For the next section, label it “What I don’t know about myself.” Characters often hide something about themselves from themselves. We humans fear ourselves and fear our own reactions to things because we don’t know how we’d react in an intense moment- good or bad. This is also where I list things they consider their weakness that might also be a strength in the right context. Perhaps there’s something they’ve hid from everyone they know, that gets listed here and why they’ve not told anyone. The character might even have a hidden depth that they’ve not even known about himself because he hadn’t ever faced anything like this before. Say that someone who is normally very quiet and reserved discovers that when a dear friend is threatened or her town might lose the big company that’s kept them going financially is leaving, that they can step up and be a vocal part of solving what’s happening. It’s not something that they ever thought they could do, but when pushed, it shines through. They might be hiding the truth about their past or an event because they feel like they didn’t do what they thought they should’ve done or that if it’s forgotten it won’t come back to haunt them.
The next two segments are flipsides of the same coin, so I’ll deal with them together, though I write them separately. One sentence reads, “What could destroy me” and the other reads, “What could save me or help me survive.” These deal with the core issue that makes or breaks a character. For the character, Taja, in my book, Treaty of Desire, the make or break point is that she must trust Adrastai to protect her when she does something stupid-- putting her life and those in the land she’s visiting, at risk. It doesn’t matter that she can protect herself, because now it’s not just her life at issue. She has to decide if she is going to be stubborn and insist on taking on this ancient evil of the Fey head on, risking everything that matters or if she love and trust Adrastai, no matter what he asks or does to her, believing that he will protect her and his people.
So in this section, you decide what the absolute worst scenario for your character is and what he’s trying to accomplish. Follow that up with the minimum amount that could be done to survive, though the character would still have failed on some major level. Then you show what would have to be done to accomplish the goals, negate the conflicts, and achieve the true resolution of the story for both character and plot. Take your time to sort this through as you’ll discover that your plot arc and your character arc will overlap here. You’ll notice that some of the weaknesses and strengths overlap, and it’s how it should be. I’m self-sufficient and capable of taking care of others. Yet, the flip side is that sometimes, I don’t ask for help when I need it because I think I should be able to deal with anything that comes my way. So, learning when to ask for help and seeing that it isn’t a weakness and it doesn’t mean I’m self-sufficient is what could help me survive what’s ahead.
Once you’ve answered those last two areas, skip down a couple of lines. I note this area as “Miscellaneous”. This is where I put together the family tree, miscellaneous details about vehicles, collections, names of friends and whatever else I might need to refer to if it’s necessary. Not everything you note in here will be used in the story, but all the details will allow you to layer in the heart and soul of the character as you write. This is also where I put down anything that I come up with while writing the story but hadn’t covered in the worksheet itself. Continuity is important when you’re writing a story so that you don’t have loose ends or unexplained items that appear and disappear throughout the story.
If you’re writing romance or a story that has romantic elements, then you might want to fill out the Romantic Conflict Grid that Angela Knight introduced me to. It’ll help simplify how the characters react and interact with each other and how it changes them as they fall in love. This will also help you layer in the romance to make it an integral part of the plot, not just a separate component.
Romantic Conflict Grid (graciously given to me by Angela Knight)
His initial impression of her: Her initial impression of him:
What changes that impression: What changes that impression:
What first attracts him to her: What first attracts her to him:
What he admires about her character: What she admires about his character
What most annoys him about her: What most annoys her about him:
How she completes him: How he completes her:
Why he thinks it will never work: Why she thinks it will never work:
What he learns so that it does work:What she learns so that it does work:
One of the main things I use this romantic conflict grid is to make sure that a good portion of both of my main characters' GMCs are interrelated to each other and the plot line here. That's right. By having their GMC both work for and against the other, you have a natural tension building up that needs them both to be resolved.
The next lesson-- Building on the Story Idea