Beyond Cardboard: Creating Characters that Come Alive

Every Character Should Have a Story

How am I going to keep this trashcan on my head?
I blew out a breath around the hairpins sticking out from my mouth as I began to re-braid three feet of hair. If I plaited the hair too high, the plastic trashcan crashed to the floor; too low and I couldn’t fit the thing on my head. And it had to go onto my head. The black elastic bands that rode up my hula skirt weren’t cutting it to define my character.
“Are you a whisk?” “You’re a bottle cork!” “My husband and I were trying to figure it out. He thinks…”
The audience had come up with several ideas but I answered, “No. I’m a broom.”
A broom with the hardest costume I’ve ever worked with in my life. The spray-painted office trashcan wobbled from side to side, and the black elastic bands constraining my knees and hip, rode up with every dance step, forcing me to modify the choreography a little just to keep my costume from tumbling off and leaving me in a body suit and heels.
My character’s name was Cassandra. And she wasn’t actually a broom. She was a servant at the Beast’s castle, who’d been cursed for something she didn’t do. Every day she struggled, trapped in the form of a broom and watching her boyfriend transition slowly into a fireplace. By the time Beauty stumbled onto the scene, Cassandra had her own backstory, her own motivations for convincing the girl to fall in love with the master, and her own reasons for fighting off the men coming to kill them.

_MG_9648Of course, the audience saw none of this. The audience saw a broom – or a whisk. She stayed in the chorus, telling Belle’s story, but gaining all of her emotions and reactions from the one I created for her. Of course, I could have been a chorus member, sang the songs, danced the dances, and expressed the correct general emotion in reaction to what was going on stage. But I took it a step further and the character took on a life of her own. Ten years later, Cassandra was the first character to show up in “Finding Beauty” – my own retelling of Beauty and the Beast.

From Cardboard to Creative

I create my characters for my novels the same way that I create them on stage. What brings a story to life? Characters. What brings a character to life? Motivation. The drive to win is the single most important element that you can give your character to create compelling responses, emotions, and realistic decisions, whether you are creating a character for your novel or trying to convey realistic acting on stage. No matter if your character is naturally outgoing or quiet, brave or timid, your reader wants to see them long for something, go after it, and win – or die trying. So how do you find that compelling motive that will spark life into your character and set the direction and momentum of your story? It’s not enough to throw problems at your character and let them figure out how to solve them. You need to get down to their subconscious level, find out what motivates them – and then watch them take your story and run with it.

Find the Main Goal

The first thing an actor looks for in a new script is their character’s goal. This goal often manifests itself in a physical or emotional need they want from another character or situation. Much of it is spelled out in the storyline – others are implied or open to interpretation. As a writer, the main goal will direct the majority of your storyline. It represents the first layer of your character. But we want characters who are multidimensional. So the first thing we’re going to do is look at all of the character’s goals and consolidate it into one Main Goal. This Main Goal acts as a compass for your storyline: every scene should include something to advance or delay the accomplishment of the Main Goal.

Create Core Needs

If goals were all it took to bring out proper reactions and choices, we’d all be rich, good-looking, and healthy. The truth is, we are driven by emotions and emotions are created by core needs. These needs are ingrained in us and responsible for both rational and irrational choices that we make. Core needs are found when we boil down actions and motivations into a single essence. Fighting for a cause – we want to feel useful. Demanding justice – we want to be acknowledged. Manipulating or pleasing – we want to be loved. Running from danger – we want to be alive. When you create your character, consider what they do, why they do it and what those things have in common. You should be able to narrow everything down to one Core Need the character is trying to obtain. Though this may never be spelled out in the book or even occur to him, we can see this thread weaving throughout the storyline. This is what you’re looking for in your own character. Play around with ideas, then consider if there is a deeper motivation for that motivation. When you find the Core Need, it will click and feel right.

Act Like a Writer.jpgYou will more clearly understand what steps your character will take to get from where they are now to the Main Goal of the story. When you add the Core Needs of the supporting characters to the storyline as well, you can create a realistic world of counterbalance, adding instructs and quirks to even the smallest role that will create a more dynamic world and character-driven novels. By approaching your writing with the mentality of an actor, you can begin to tap into a depth of writing that you may have never before experienced.