Character motivation is, in my opinion, the most vital part of storytelling. Everyone acts for a reason, because of the way they feel, because of something they want. I connect with a story because I can relate to those feelings, because a character’s actions are authentic with those feelings; because I can see myself acting the same way in their position.
In order to write a character, I have to understand those feelings and desires. I have to know how those desires will make them act. I have to understand their past, and how it caused those desires to come to be. To do all of that, I have to get down deep inside my character’s head, not unlike the way a psychiatrist would. “Tell me about your mother…and how did that make you feel?” Somewhere along the way, I realized that I wasn’t just learning about my characters—I was learning about myself.
All of my characters have something of myself in them. They don’t all look, or talk, or act the way I do, but there’s always some little part that I identify with. There are a lot of facets to my past and personality (as with all of us), and it’s those common threads that I delve into in order to understand my characters, and to write them convincingly.
The awkward high school freshman who doesn’t fit in? I’ve since grown out of that (thankfully), but I can channel that part of my past to write his story. The girl who pretends to like the “right” things because she doesn’t want people to know she’s different? Been there. When I’m writing those scenes, I find that part of me and bring it out into the light. I reawaken and amplify all of those feelings that I’ve gone through, and I pour those onto the page. The result is a character who’s real, who reacts the way a real person would—because a real person did react that way.
There are, of course, character emotions that I haven’t felt. But I’ve observed people who have, and I can empathize with them and imagine myself in their place. Often, these are the people I wish I could be. The class clown who everybody likes, who doesn’t care what the teacher thinks; the confident, no-nonsense friend who never doubts herself. I may never be those people, but I can live vicariously through them on the page.
Then there are the characters I hope I’m nothing like. The corrupt, deluded, the hate-filled. The antagonists. But even with them, there is something I can empathize with, because antagonists—when written properly—are never merely evil for evil’s sake. They have a past which hurt them, and caused them to be the way they are. They took the wrong path, and they’ve lost their way. I shudder to admit that if confronted with the same set of circumstances, I could make the same mistakes. To give those characters life, I explore the darker parts of me and discover what I would do if I was angry or jealous or desperate enough.
Through all of this, I learn about myself. All of my different faces, all those different moments in my past—some that I’m proud of, others that I wish I could strip away. I gain a deeper understanding of what I really felt, and why those feelings made me act the way I did; and how I wish I would have acted. At times, it’s brought me to some vulnerable places. But ultimately, it’s cathartic, and eye-opening. And those realizations go back into my character, making them more believable, more genuine. Making them into someone that will tug at readers’ hearts.
It’s been a journey, not that I’ll be finished with it anytime soon. I’m stronger for having gone through it, and my characters are stronger for having gone with me. And besides, if you’re going to learn about feelings, this way is a lot cheaper than therapy.