Monday, July 30, 2012

Your Character's Values

It is election time and these past few months have seen both parties’ candidates carve out their positions and create stories about themselves. Seems to me that both candidates get into trouble when their positions are hazy. So whether Democrat or Republican, each candidate has gone to great extents to give himself certain characteristics –whether it be the economy man, the change candidate or the anti-establishment candidate – and more importantly, values –Christian values, middle-class values or be it family values.

As a writer, you know you have to give your characters traits and values. The reader has to get your characters and remember them. But how? For some, all characters sound the same on the page. For others, such as me, it’s difficult to make the characters three dimensional. I try to make everyone perfect. A perfect MC. A perfect best friend. A perfect villain. Then, instead of picking a value or two I ply them all kinds of values. This results in readers not being able to distinguish or remember characters. Whether it is your heroine, your villain, your sidekick –all of them need one or two memorable traits even if it’s their name or that they could potentially have secret bank accounts in the Cayman Islands.

So during rewrites I tried ways to flesh out my characters in the following ways:

1.       Show AND tell: I’m a big fan of show and tell. Recently, in How to Write in the New York Times Colson Whitehead talks about showing and telling. Not just showing. I tried to work that into my story to make my characters sharper. I started to push my MC, Priscilla Mayfair, into situations and show how she was able to navigate them. At the end of scene, I’d add a thought or two from Priscilla’s POV to give the reader a little extra. The reader now knows that Priscilla is capable and can problem solve. With a little bit of telling, my readers also understood that Priscilla was scared but brave and had got lucky with her problem solving. My MC would have to prepare and learn more if she had to successfully reach the end and solve the mystery.

2.      Don’t make her perfect: Make your characters humans. Yes, just like I have, you’ve heard it a thousand times. But it so difficult! It takes me so much time to add a flaw, to get my characters make mistakes, to purposely lead them into a tight corner or have them lie. The bottom line is you have to stay true to your character. So if your character is truly 3D she is going to mistakes. She won’t be able to be all things to all people. You cannot re-draw her like on an Etch-A-Sketch. After all, the human element has the final say in an election.

3.      Your character’s motivations: Always ask why your MC is doing what she is doing. What are her motivations? Fears? Dreams? This one is tough for me. For a while, Priscilla was a too perfect sleuth. Her story arc wasn’t compelling enough for the reader to flip the page. So I stopped writing and instead journal-ed from her point of view for a few weeks. For fun, I also used the Myer-Briggs test to see whether she was introverted or not, how she would behave with other people and whether she would be methodical while solving problems. Finally, I asked debate like questions: What if… what if a nuclear power plant had a meltdown, how would my MC react? If Priscilla lost the race and wasn’t able to solve the mystery, how would she react? If Priscilla was President for a day, what would be the first things she’d work on?

In what other ways do you bring out your character’s values?


  1. I think a great way to show values in YA and MG writing is using things like cheating and stealing. Would my MC cheat on a test, or steal a pack of gum? Or would she refuse even if pressured? It makes for good conflict as well as showing character. Great post!