English, Writing Tips

How I Write Characters

My first experience creating characters was when I started playing role playing games around 20 years ago. At the time, I had no idea how to approach the process. Thankfully, role playing games help you in this regard by providing you with frames of reference or archetypes you can choose from, such as “wizard”, “professor”, or “metal head vampire”.

Since then I’ve created countless characters—I’ve even been paid to do so! I’ve supplemented that experience by reading, watching, and listening to any piece of information by writers I love about how they write their characters. I’ve also collected many writing tools throughout the years. Most I’ve used for some time, but have finally discarded. One, however, as remained with longer than any other—and that’s the one I’m about to share with you.

In short: this is my MAP to write characters.

What’s do I mean by MAP?

MAP is an acronym made up of Motivation, Acting, and Past. These elements can be found in many writers’ techniques about creating characters, but I first encountered them in Orson Scott Card’s Characters & Viewpoint, so I give credit to him. The following explanations and examples are, however, all my own.

Motivation, or Why Characters Do What They Do

The motivation is the character’s raison d’être, their most fundamental necessity, and the reason that justifies their existence. It’s also at the center of their beliefs and, in some cases, it is something they discover when following a false motivation that ultimately doesn’t satisfy them. Because that’s the other thing: once a character obtains the object of their desire, they consider their motivation satisfied and become unusable as agents of dramatic action. (By the way: this is the main reason why, I think, it is so difficult to write a good sequel to a solid story).

Let’s see some examples of characters and their motivations (in my estimation, that is):

  • Samwise Gamgee. Motivation: To protect his master. A great character with a simple motivation, but one that makes him lovable from the start. Although he is charged with this by Gandalf, it is clear that Sam goes beyond any imposed task in his daring efforts to protect Frodo.
  • Little Red Riding Hood. Motivation: To bring some comfort to her ill and weak grandmother. A character that doesn’t even have a name and still the writers provided us with a clear motivation. In this case it comes from the outside—the mother asks Little Red to bring a piece of cake and a bottle of wine to the grandmother.
  • Íñigo Montoya. Motivation: To avenge his father’s murder by killing the six-fingered man. This is one of the best examples of a motivation being the guiding beacon of a character. The now famous line: “Hello, my name is Íñigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die,” is a great summation of the character’s motivation.
  • Fa Mulan: Motivation: To prevent her disabled, old father from going to war. Another character mainly interested in protecting those she loves, in this case Mulan prevents her father from getting involved in the story’s conflict.

I think that, if we take the motivation out of the character, they cease to exist. Sam without protecting Frodo is just a gardener, family man, and later on mayor. Little Red becomes a nameless girl; Íñigo, a great swordsman without a purpose; and Fa Mulan, the only child of a traditionalist family. We can take many details away from a character and they still remain themselves but, once you remove their motivation, there is effectively nothing left of them.

Acting, or How Characters Go About Obtaining Their Motivation

Regardless of how wonderfully written or powerful a character’s motivation is, it is nothing if a character doesn’t act on it. The character needs to do something—often many “things”—in order to obtain their deepest desire. In other words: to achieve the ultimate satisfaction of their motivation, a character has to have a clear and distinct way of acting.

This acting is, I think, what we refer to when we say that a character is coherent and/or consistent. It doesn’t matter if Han Solo changes motivations many times throughout the original Star Wars movies; the important thing is that he keeps on trying to achieve them in his mischievous, ingenious way. If Han started acting, I don’t know, like a wise, calm, Jedi master or like a political leader who cares about people, we would feel that the character has somehow “betray his essence” or is “no longer well-written”.

Now, let’s look at the previously analyzed characters and what their ways of acting are (according to my appreciation, of course):

  • Samwise Gamgee. Acting: A loyal servant, willing to sacrifice himself. There are many ways of going about protecting a superior, but Sam’s employs the most simple and straightforward: utter devotion and dedication to the cause. This differentiates him from the other Hobbits in the Fellowship who, although share the same motivation, try to achieve it in other ways.
  • Little Red Riding Hood. Acting: A playful, disobedient, too-curious-for-her-own-good girl. In spite of her mother’s warning at the beginning of the story, Little Red behaves in all the ways she told them not to—and in doing so provides us with the conflict/drama of the story.
  • Íñigo Montoya. Acting: An honorable but too-focused-on-revenge swordsman. Íñigo is a perfect example of writing a character that could be considered flat or simple at first glance. When one reads or watches The Princess Bride, however, one can quickly realize that the character has depth and many flaws that are source for conflict—the foundations of a good character.
  • Fa Mulan. Acting: A brave, determined, and resourceful woman. The coolest thing about Mulan’s acting is that, from the very beginning until the very end of the story, she employs the same out-of-the-box tactics. And, whereas in the beginning others condemned her for using them—and she doubted her own worth because of it—by the end she is praised and honored for the same way of acting.

Past, or the Basis from Which Everything Else Is Built

Finally, the last part off the MAP trifecta is the character’s past. The question here, of course, is: how much of that past do you develop? The answer is not a matter of quantity but quality. After all, we don’t want to spend too much time developing the past of a character. We want to spend as much time as possible writing the story that character is a part of, not preparing for it.

In this case, my recommendation is to flesh out the character’s past only in as far as it is related to the character’s motivation or way of acting. You can add other details as much as you want, but those related to the motivation or way of acting the only ones I think are absolutely necessary.

In the case of the previously analyzed characters, the results in this instance are, from my perspective:

  • Samwise Gamgee. Past: He was a loyal gardener, fond of Bilbo and his stories of distant places and peoples. This past is important for two reasons: it establishes that he has always been a loyal person, and that he is more open-minded that the average Hobbit when it comes to non-Hobbit people and places.
  • Little Red Riding Hood. Past: She was well-beloved by her grandmother and her mother admonished her at the beginning of the story. In this case we have little information, but the one we have establishes important parts of the character’s motivation and acting. Little Red had a close relationship with her grandmother and, we can infer, she has misbehaved before, thus her mother’s firm advice on how to travel to her grandmother’s house.
  • Íñigo Montoya. Past: His father was murdered unjustly by the six-fingered man, Íñigo challenged him to a duel and lost, receiving two face scars. Since then, he has trained for 20 years to become the best swordsman and kill him. Íñigo’s backstory is plain great. Short, simple, and to the point, everything on it is related to the character’s motivation and way of acting. He is honorable because of his father was and the six-fingered man wasn’t. He became a great swordsman to avenge his father.
  • Fa Mulan. Past: She has been a doting daughter, totally dedicated to serve her family—even denying her own desires. She wanted to do right by them, but in her own way. Mulan’s past justifies her way of acting in such a way that makes her impulsive (and quite dangerous) decision to disguise as a man totally believable.

Conclusions

I hope that this triad of aspects will help you write and develop your own characters. As I said at the beginning, this is the writing tool I’ve employed and perfected the longest. The main reason for that is that it is a simple yet powerful one–in my opinion, at least. Since I’m not one to answer long character questionnaires or to leave a character’s development to complete improvisation, this method hits the sweet spot for me.

In that sense, this method provides me with enough meat to start writing a character with what I perceive to be a solid foundation and, at the same time, it’s not restrictive to the point of limiting my creativity.

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This entry was published thanks to contributions by Paulette Rompeltien, Marley Clevenger, María Consuelo Gómez Martín, Alberto Peña, and all my other wonderful patrons.

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