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  • Paula Altenburg

Tell Me Why ~ Tips for Writing Characters

Motivation in Character Development

One of my classes in university was engaged in a philosophical debate regarding religious beliefs. We were discussing a particular religion, and as students, we were without a doubt the outsiders looking in. The question I asked (repeatedly) was, “Why?”

Why do they believe this? Why do they represent their beliefs using these symbols? Why do they feel the need to come together to express what amounts to a deeply personal experience?

At which point the professor turned to me and said, “You are such a social scientist.”

Yes. Yes, I am. And while he was somewhat fed up with me at that point, years later, I have no remorse. But I do still have questions.

What makes people different? Why are they different?

What makes us the same?

One of the traits human beings universally share is that we are social beings. (I’m looking at you, fellow introverts. We totally are, too.)

As social beings, we’re drawn to groups. We want—we need—to belong. (I’m not making this up. It’s backed by research. SO. MUCH. RESEARCH.) And it’s a huge topic, studied by various branches of science—not just the social sciences, either.

I write about relationships. Relationships are defined as “… The way two or more people are connected, or the way they behave toward each other.”  For example, I have a relationship with my husband. We form a couple. We have relationships with our children. Together, we form a family unit, or group. Our family group grows when new members partner in, or children are born, and shrinks if there’s a separation/divorce/parting of ways.

That’s a simple example of a group. We can belong to multiple groups, too. Broader groups. Groups within groups. Inclusive groups. Exclusive groups. We gravitate toward groups of people who share our values and beliefs, and that fulfill a need in our lives. Our needs can change.

The needs within a group are common, even if the individuals themselves are distinctly unique. Early Homo sapiens formed groups for survival. Cooperation was essential. To be ostracized from the group was a death sentence. So obviously, there’s a reward for behaving in a manner that benefits the group as a whole.

When we identify with a group, we tend to be loyal to it and what it stands for, even if we don’t always agree with the actions and/or words of its individual members. Political groups are excellent examples of this. People will do and say things in support of a group that they might not agree with personally. Mob mentality is real, and none of us are exempt from it, no matter how much we’d like to believe we always control our own thoughts and actions.

While I might not always be in control my own thoughts and actions, writing about relationships means I get to control everything about those of my characters. To do that I need to understand them as individuals. Also, who they are when they’re in their social groups.

Writers often talk about the GMCs of writing—character Goals, Motivations, and Conflicts. The W5s and the How also apply:

·         Who is my character?

·         Where are they (i.e. in story time and place, and/or their life)?

·         What do they want?

·         Why do they want it?

·         When will they get it?

·         How will they get it?

These are the questions I think about when I’m planning a book. Some writers start with their story plot, or maybe their story world. My ideas usually start with the characters, and then the types of situations they might find themselves in.

But not always. Each story is different.

A story is very complex no matter how simple it might seem to a reader. To circle back to why my professor was annoyed with me… In real life, there are no easy answers for “why”. There are too many moving pieces, and too many variables, to come up with a simple explanation for what motivates people.


Why are they greedy? Were they raised in poverty? Were they once wealthy and lost it all in a war? At the casino? Maybe they’re greedy because they’re a horrible person deep down. Maybe they’re greedy because they’re insecure and believe if they don’t grab something first, someone else will take it away—someone who doesn’t deserve it. Maybe they don’t think of it as being greedy. Maybe they see themselves as ambitious, and to them, that’s a good thing. See where I’m going with this?

That’s why I write—because I love asking questions, then finding the possible answers. After that, I have to sift through the answers to find the ones that will work for my characters and my story.

Sounds simple.


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