I don’t care what you think this says about me: I am a complete sucker for personal development. You know, like “self-help,” or “motivational speaking.” Think looking in the mirror and saying “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me!” Yes to all of that. I’m always looking for ways to see myself as I am today in a raw, honest light and make some adjustments so I can live the healthiest and happiest version of my life.
One of the wonderful benefits of diving deep into one’s own past and how it affects the present is that you have a clearer view of how to do it with the characters you’re imagining. It’s actually very hard to get to know the person you’ve become objectively; once you can do that, doing it with people who aren’t real is not hard at all.
If you’ve ever received feedback from a beta reader or industry pro that your character felt “flat” or they “had trouble pinning him/her/them down,” this exercise should help. And if you really want to blow your own mind, you can do it to yourself, too! I call this exercise Hide and Seek.
There are levels of difficulty to this (I think it’s probably easiest to see with people in your life, and then with celebrities or fictional characters already in existence, and then characters you create, and then yourself) but for our purposes here, let’s do two. We’ll do an example together, and then you can recreate it with your own characters.
So here’s the truth: all people have value systems based on feelings they they seek out and feelings they avoid, or hide from. Some examples of states we might seek are:
And examples of states we try to avoid:
Write out these two lists (seek and avoid) and fill out as many states of being as you can think of for both. Most human beings are attracted or adverse to all of these things, but there is one that we gravitate toward more than anything, and one that we avoid at almost all costs.
Cue the conflict! Once you have an idea of the #1 feeling your character seeks and avoids, you’ve got a basis for how they make 100% of the decisions in their life. Start here first, and the book flows not from what YOU would do or not do, (and often don’t realize that’s the way you’re writing this character) you have a clearly-defined set of character values from which to build the ways they respond to the external events.
So let’s take my 4-year-old’s sons favorite character at the moment: Elsa.
If you haven’t seen the movie Frozen, you need to spend 5 minutes with my son so he can convince you it’s the best movie ever made and you must drop everything in your life immediately to watch it. And then come back to this post.
If you have seen it, let’s proceed: Elsa is a princess who has ice powers that she struggles to control, but that struggle is not her main source of conflict. At the beginning, we’re shown a little prologue of a flashback scene: Elsa and her sister, Anna, playing happily in an abandoned ballroom. This scene is a “before” snapshot; it serves to show us a time when everything in Elsa’s life was just hunky-dory–she has a great relationship with her sister and she’s open with her magical abilities. This is the feeling she loses when she and Anna have an accident that nearly kills Anna. This is feeling of connection and truth is the feeling she longs for.
Now, in order to protect Anna’s physical safety, she has to isolate herself and hide her magic. In doing so, she gets to create the illusion that she is strong and doesn’t need anyone, and so runs from the feeling she most seeks to avoid: vulnerability.
So she wants connection and truth and wants to avoid vulnerability. Can one exist without the other? Nope! That’s where the conflict comes in. And her decisions about how to respond to her external circumstances are all based on her grappling between these two desires.
Value systems can be different–in Elsa’s case, her desire to avoid vulnerability overrides her desire for connection and truth. But she still wants connection and truth, to be open with the people she loves, and that’s why the movie doesn’t end with the sultry, eyebrow-up line, “the cold never bothered me anyway,” or with her doing twirls by herself in her new sparkly dress on the floor of her ice castle. Showing herself the truth about her abilities is an important step, but it doesn’t resolve her internal conflict. She has to “let go” of her desire to avoid vulnerability at all costs in order to finally get what she really wants: a relationship with Anna built on a foundation of truth.
Remember that often, characters don’t consciously know what they seek and what they avoid, but as the author, you must know in order to make readers connect with them. It may be something you need to leave and return to several times, but it’s worth it to know you’ve created multi-dimensional characters. And for extra credit, do this exercise on yourself–it can be eye-opening, especially as a writer, to know what choices you’ve been making that unintentionally sabotage what you say you want.
Have you tried this? Did anything surprise you? Is it easier to do for your mom than on yourself or your character? Let me know!