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Analyse the symbolic references registered in Chapter 1 of the novel.
Create a Variety of Voices
How do writers make characters sound different from one another? How can you do it?
You know you’re supposed to. Characters shouldn’t sound like their creator but they also shouldn’t sound like each other. Not in speech and not in thought.
Do you ever wonder how God does it, makes each of us so completely different? Well, writers get to tackle the same job. And sometimes it’s tough. But there are tips for creating unique character voices.
Use different words
Characters can have their own slang, business lingo, favorite expressions, and favorite curse words.
One character may not curse at all and another may curse like a long-time prisoner and still another may tip-toe around curses with a country mother’s sensibilities—infrequent cussing that’s nonetheless powerfully effective when it is released.
An engineer will use words a painter wouldn’t. A barber won’t sound like a corporate CEO. Neither the barber nor the CEO will sound like a drill sergeant. None of the three will sound like a kindergarten teacher.
One character may use short words, another the 50-cent version. All will have pet expressions and phrases that they love to show off.
Some characters may avoid certain words or phrases altogether, not wanting to give power or voice to what those phrases mean.
Use different sentence patterns
Let one character use short sentences, another long or convoluted ones. Let some characters use repetition in words or phrases. Vary sentence construction and word order—nouns don’t always have to come first.
Let one character use participial or absolute phrases while another goes for noun followed by verb followed by object.
Add humor to one character
If you can write humor, let one character be the jokester. Maybe create puns for a character. Maybe give him really bad puns.
Cut off speech or thought
Allow one character to use clipped speech or incomplete thoughts. Since this kind of speech can be strong and noticeable, make sure you don’t write the same style for all characters. It’s very easy to slip into a pattern or rhythm; think rappers or Damon Runyon characters. One with a highly unusual speech pattern is usually enough.
Let a character ramble
Some people can’t get to the point. Create characters who ramble or beat around the bush or just take forever to say what they need to say. Rambling speech or thought can bore the reader, so be judicious with this technique. But do use it if it fits a character. Or if a character wants to drive others crazy.
Try a few of these techniques—
Have characters pay attention to different things—some will note their surroundings, some will not. Some will note furnishings or temperature or changes to a room. Some will notice other characters, especially the changes in them, but some characters are oblivious. Use what they notice to differentiate characters.
Give each a personal response style to questions. Some will answer others directly; others will hesitate or answer with a question or not answer at all.
Have one character dominate the conversations.
Have one character always interrupt and one character never interrupt. And then, when one of them acts out of character, others, including readers, will notice.
Consider character education and experience and purpose—is the character trying to schmooze someone? Is he striving to come across as honest when he isn’t? Let one character (almost) always tell the truth and let another almost always lie.
Consider the pressure the character is under—sentences will get short and choppy if a character is worried or is thinking of something else or has too many concerns to think about.
Consider the age of the character, the sex of the character, the culture or national background of a character.
Consider the snob factor—just who does your character think he is? Who does he want to be? Pretend to be? Fear to be?
Consider regional differences. Does your character say highway, expressway, thru-way, or something different?
Do you have a character who uses nicknames, one who speaks in lovey-dovey coos, another who preaches at his friends? Maintain their speech styles and patterns without overburdening readers with too much of a good thing.
Make sure that not all characters say oh or well or oh, please, or dagnabbit. Make them sound different because they are different. Let what’s inside the character reveal him. Let the events happening around him—and their effect on him—influence his word choices. Create different reactions for every character.
Do not use odd spellings and dialect as your main method of pointing out different speech patterns. Words may sound different in dialect, but the words are the same. So they’re actually spelled the same. Use other methods for indicating accents and dialect.
Don’t worry too much about character voice on your first draft, especially if you’re not quite sure who the characters are yet. If you do know, try to use words and speech patterns they’d use. If you don’t know who they are when you begin, wait until they reveal themselves and then begin writing specifically for them.
Or, if you want to try on a character voice, as you might a costume, write a scene or two with different styles of speech and thought, and see if that doesn’t help you figure out just who these characters are.
Give variety to your characters. Let them speak from their hearts and their guts with all the honesty that’s in them. Let them reveal themselves through word and thought.
Write different character voices.
Create a variety of characters.
Write engaging fiction.
(c) Beth Hill
Six Distinctions in Motivating Characters
1. Distinguish between AUTHOR MOTIVATION and CHARACTER MOTIVATION.
Ask “Why does this character commit this action?” and write down all your answers. Are they author reasons (because it’ll help the book) or character reasons (because it’ll help the character)?
EXAMPLE: Why does this character go to Nevada?
Because she needs to learn that she can trust the hero.
Translates to: Because -I- need her to learn that…
Because she needs to be in Nevada at Christmastime so she can run into Emily. Translates to: Because -I- need her to be in Nevada…
Because she needs to do something dramatic.
Translates to: Because -I- need an action scene right here before the reader nods off entirely.
Because she is curious about the hero’s past, and he mentioned once he had friends in Reno.
Because she wants a quickie divorce, and Nevada is the place to get it.
Because she wants to escape from the sheriff, and Nevada is outside his jurisdiction.
While it’s good to know your motivation for including the action, that’s not sufficient. The reader has to believe that this character has her own reason for taking this action.
2. Distinguish between PRO-ACTIVE and REACTIVE:
Pro-active: Motivating movement TOWARDS something. Success is a pro-active motivation because it draws the character forward towards itself.
Reactive: Motivating movement AWAY from something. Guilt is a reactive motivation because it propels the person away from itself.
This affects the trajectory of the plot.With a pro-active motivation, you will probably want to divert the protagonist with a new motivation or intense conflict– you don’t want a straight line between wanting and getting!
With a reactive motivation, you might have a boomerang trajectory– whatever she’s running from, you force her to face near the end of the book (perhaps in the crisis).
Most motivations have both a negative and a positive aspect. For example, the obverse of revenge is justice– related, but likely to cause much different actions.
Guilt can motivate positive behavior, such as apologizing and making amends; the obverse, suppression or denial of guilt, will motivate negative behavior such as self-deception and victim-blaming. (And an excess of guilt can cause a sense of failure and inadequacy.)
A protagonist might move during the course of the book from the negative aspect to the positive one, demonstrating growth and maturity– or, conversely, from a positive (justice) to a negative aspect, to show the corrosive effect of rage, for example.
3. Distinguish between EXTERNAL and INTERNAL:
External motivations tend to be more or less universal. Internal motivations are what will individualize your character. Most of us want success; the question is why? Your internal motivation for wanting success (to win the love of your father) might be different from mine (to get revenge against those who scorned me). Look to gradually revealing the internal motivation through the events of the plot… the character, by the way, is seldom fully conscious of an internal motivation.
Some Categories of Motivation
Bold-face is obverse aspect (stuff in parens = goals, effects, or other association)
- Survival/safety; Fear of the world (food, water, escape from danger)
- Physical comfort; gluttony (shelter, warmth, good food, health)
- Pleasure; hedonism (sex, great food, culture, games)
- Dominance; tyranny (power, social standing, competition, respect)
- Acquisitiveness; greed (wealth, materialism, collecting, excellence)
- Curiosity; voyeurism (learning, searching, investigating)
- Mastery; perfectionism (excellence, conquest, discipline, achievement)
- Reproduction; profligacy (children, creativity, family-building)
- Autonomy; isolation (self-sufficiency, freedom, non-confinement)
- Affiliation; conformity (security, cooperation, loyalty, clan)
- Love; lust/ownership (connection, passion, sex, mirroring, approval, giving)
- Revenge; justice (righting wrongs, recognition of grievance, vengeance)
- Guilt; denial of guilt (responsibility, shame, punishment, redemption, forgiveness)
- Identity; self-centeredness (self-esteem, self-knowledge, self-protection)
- Surcease; conflict avoidance (peace, escape from anxiety, death)
- Spirituality; fetishism (religion, transcendence, transformation)
- Growth; decay, aging (learning, maturation, wisdom)
- Ambition; insecurity/anxiety (fear of failure, inferiority, stress)
- Vindication; rationalization (success, proving self, apology)
The primary external motivation: Self-preservation
The primary internal motivation: Self-protection
4. Distinguish between BACKSTORY and STORY:
Backstory is everything that happened before the story begins.
Story is the actual action of the book.
Motivation (especially internal motivation) often comes out of backstory… but the story itself plays out the intermixing of motivation and conflict.
So: Be wary of motivation confined mostly to the internal or to backstory. Give the character something immediate to inspire action today. There should be a present-day event to inspire the manifestation of the internal or past motivation– for example, Heroine inherits the house where her mother committed suicide and decides to start a new life by renovating it. The external motivation is that “starting a new life”; the internal motivation might be to exorcise her mother’s ghost or to deal with the trauma of the suicide. The internal motivation comes out of the backstory, but the external motivation is in the here-and-now of the story.
And motivation, especially that created in the past, doesn’t have to remain static. It can change (and should change) because of the events of the plot.
Consider the protagonist’s journey through the book. What will she learn or experience or become not by intention, but because of the story events? If she must learn, “No man is an island,” then she might be moving at least part of the way from autonomy to affiliation. This will involve a shift from the original motivation. Make sure there’s sufficient provocation for this shift, and thus for her development.
Look here also for the book’s theme– what message does the journey create?
The journey takes place not in the backstory… but in the story.
5. Distinguish between GOAL and MOTIVATION.
The goal is like the flower… the motivation is the roots.
The goal is the outward manifestation of the motivation.
It is concrete, measurable, and specific.
You don’t know when you’ve fulfilled the motivation: “I want success” isn’t measurable– what’s success?
But you know when you’ve achieved a goal:
“I want to be on the New York Times bestseller list–” That’s measurable. You’ll know when you reach it.
Just keep in mind that while the goal is the external manifestation of the motivation, the connection is not always a straight or clear one. You can have a goal that is destructive and against your true motivation– “looking for love in all the wrong places” is an example.
Or you can have a laudatory goal for a selfish or twisted motivation– “I want to be first in my class to show my father up!”
Motivation is the past.
Goal is the future.
Conflict is the present.
6. Distinguish between MOTIVATION and ACTION:
Remember that motivation exists to inspire the character to make choices and take actions. If you’ve been told your protagonist is “too passive”, it’s likely what’s lacking is motivation that leads to action. Evaluate whether most of the events “just happen” to her, or whether she causes them (intentionally or not) because of the external or internal motivation.
Every action, however small, should be motivated. If the motivation is obvious, then you might not have to show it (we assume that she’s running from that tiger for survival).
But if the motivation isn’t clear, go back and make sure you’ve put one in there. You can always invent some new event that will increase the pressure on the character if you need her to act in an uncharacteristic or dangerous way.
For example, if this is a very very honest woman, and you need her to break into a man’s office and steal his files, then you have to consider what on earth would be important enough to cause her to violate her own morality… and give her that motivation. Maybe the man is blackmailing her beloved grandmother, or has threatened to destroy documents proving that she is innocent of murder. Just make sure it all fits– reinventing motivation means, very often, reinventing the plot.
Compare the external (obvious) motivation to the goal and/or actions. If they don’t match, an internal motivation is probably in force. What hidden desire or fear or value is influencing actions?
An alternative reason for motivation/action mismatch: You’re trying to make an original character act in stereotypical ways.
And keep this in mind:
Heroism and villainy are in the ACTION, not the MOTIVATION. Heroes DO heroic things, they don’t just intend to do them. And villains do bad things even if they have the best of intentions.
List all the actions of your character, stripped of motivation. Do they add up to mostly positive? Is there at least one true act of heroism (extraordinary courage, discipline, effort, sacrifice, compassion)? If not, you just don’t have a hero (or heroine), even if the motivation was to save the world and all the whales too.
Sacrifice of the original motivation is the greatest heroic act. Give the character a good reason, though, such as a more worthy motivation.
What if the motivation and action and character don’t all fit?
Change the action to fit the motivation.
Change the motivation to fit the action.
Change the character to make the motivation or action more fitting.
Add a deeper motivation… and remember to reveal it at some point!
Copyright 2000 by Alicia Rasley
We all have friends who’ve acted out of character, who’ve done or said something that wasn’t like them at all.
When we recognize that someone isn’t acting like himself, we’re saying we know him and how he should behave, how he typically behaves.
The same should be true of our fictional characters. We should know them, how they do and should and typically behave. We should know what floats our lead character’s boat, what makes him do what he does, what gets him moving each day.
We should know the same things about the antagonist and, to a lesser degree, other characters who play major roles in the story or who get a lot of time with the reader.
By the way, I’m talking about something beyond plot motivation here. Yes, your character needs a goal and a motivation specifically tied to the story and to the situation you’ve dumped him into. But beyond that, he needs motivation for his daily life. He needs to be someone who does what he does for a purpose, even if that purpose is only implied and never stated.
Behavior theorists and psychologists and those plain curious about human nature have studied motivational and personality theory. They’ve looked into the causes, the drivers, of human behavior. They’ve looked for explanations for that behavior.
A good writer needs to know both cause and effect, needs to understand that there is impetus behind the actions of his characters. When the writer knows a character’s motivations, she can write actions that make sense for that character in a specific situation.
Knowing the psychological makeup of your lead characters and then using that knowledge to steer your characters’ actions can add depth to your stories.
Again, I’m not talking about what motivates the character in the plot sense, that compulsion that makes him go on the quest or search for the bad guy or fall in love with a particular woman. The motivation I’m speaking of here is specifically what makes your character drive one car rather than another, work at a particular profession, pursue certain hobbies, or avoid his mother except for one day a year.
Knowledge of character motivation—knowledge of who the character is and why he is that way—helps the writer add layers and depth, veracity and cohesion, to story. It gives truth to fiction.
If Marlon values keeping his word, he will strive to keep it no matter what impediments stand against him. He may break societal rules, even laws, if they get in the way of him doing what he promised he’d do. Marlon acts a certain way because of who he is. And it’s the writer’s task to know Marlon, to see that his motivations and actions fit his character. If one of the three is off, the reader is distracted from the story, taken out of the fiction.
He realizes something isn’t right.
Writers have any number of ways to show who a character is and what motivates him. Every time a character makes a choice, he’s revealing who he is. Each time he acts, he’s doing it based on some motivating factor or factors.
And not only can he have an array of motivations that drive him, but those motivations can come from a variety of sources.
~ Motivation can be based on what the character learned as a child, what he heard from or saw in his parents. What he learned then affects what he does now:
Men take care of women; stealing is never right; taking from others is okay if they’re rich; quitting is not an option; flaunt your wealth; hide your wealth; take shortcuts; do it right or don’t do it at all; keep your nose to the grindstone; work to live, don’t live to work; defer to others; might makes right.
~ Who a character is may come from his inner makeup:
He’s a nurturer; he’s a helper—helping someone else makes him feel good; he’s a leader, able to get others to follow with little effort; he’s a teacher, always giving lessons even as he’s doing other tasks; he prefers people and social situations; he prefers things to people and shies away from crowds; he’s a perfectionist; he’s scatterbrained; he’s generous; he cares about justice; he has something to prove; he has nothing to prove.
~ A character can have any mix of personality traits:
He’s a talker; he’s contemplative; he thinks before he acts; he acts before he thinks; he’s intuitive; he’s affectionate; he’s fearful; he’s bold; he’s an innovator; he’s willing to let others go first; he’s unwilling to share the glory; he prefers being behind the scenes; he’d rather be in the spotlight; he’s independent; he’s needy.
~ The way a character learns and what he notices will affect his behavior:
Some learn by watching, some by reading instructions, some by hands-on experience, some by listening to oral instructions; some characters are visually oriented, others want to put something in their hands, still others want to taste; some notice everything, others notice nothing; some anticipate problems, having solutions ready, while others never consider possible problems.
~ Characters have different reactions to situation and stimuli:
Chronic pain may keep one character on pain pills but another, one who’s seen what pills did to his father, far from relief; politics, religion or social concerns might drive one character and mean nothing at all to another; someone else’s pain may hurt one character and never be noticed by a different type of character; one character may crave physical contact while another shuns it.
Anything that can move, influence, touch, or drive a real person can do the same for a character. And can do it to greater degree.
You can imagine how a character who’s curious and a visual learner will always be watching, studying things and people. His trait of curiosity and his practice of watching might clue him in to a crime just before it happens. Or, it might get him arrested on suspicion of being a peeping Tom. Or, it might garner him opportunity to work for a crime boss who’s looking for someone with his skills.
Motivations lead to action. And action leads to more action. And problems. And conflict. And thus to story.
Having a character behave in character makes him real. Does Joe love gadgets, like to figure out how they work? Give him a scene where he’s putting together something he took apart—even if the main purpose of the scene is the dialogue he’s having with the antagonist.
Giving him something to do, something that’s part of his makeup, brings veracity to the story. It reveals his character. It makes sense in the course of his day. (And then what doesn’t make sense, what’s odd or disquieting, stands out even more.)
And then, of course, you don’t leave Joe’s motivating factors there, with only one example.
Perhaps he’s been waiting for a new turbo XG-5 and when it arrives, he discovers it’s been broken open by his nemesis (his brother, his ex-wife, his boss) looking for company secrets hidden within it. This destruction of something the character values (Joe loves gadgets, remember) can set him off after his nemesis (brother, ex-wife, boss) in a mood even more foul than if only his office had been broken into.
This, the use of what we know of motivation and personality, is a layering, a weaving of threads, that makes for rich stories.
You can also take Joe’s interest in knowing how things work and turn it toward people. He might study his enemies, trying to figure out what they’ll do and how he can manipulate them into doing what he wants and on his schedule.
What motivates Joe motivates him all the time; it’s essential to his character.
And so this interest in figuring out things and people might logically extend to an interest in puzzles or to a specific career.
Thus, character motivation can be laced throughout the story in a number of ways, all done for cohesion and depth and to give realism to the fiction.
You can use what you know of your character—and what you’ve revealed to the readers—to push him beyond his limits. What is he like when his life is out of whack?
Who pushes his buttons, his mother? Put him in a situation where she needles him and then show us what he does. How much does it take to create an explosion? Or, will he explode? Maybe he’s the type to get even, to needle back. Or to suffer in silence.
How much can you pile on before the character breaks? How does he break? Is he quietly violent? Does his rage last only for the moment or does he have to work to restore equanimity afterwards? Maybe that’s why he never lets himself go, because he can’t get back to peace for days or months. Maybe he’s violent but doesn’t want to be. Does he forgive and forget? Does he hold grudges?
Put your character into situations where his buttons are pushed. This definitely reveals who he is. See if he still acts in character. Or, if he’s pushed beyond what he can handle, what happens? Does he feel great about stepping out of character or is he remorseful? Does he discover in himself something he can be proud of? Maybe he discovers he’s not the man he thought he was but instead the man he feared he was. What does this do to him? Talk about increasing conflict.
A man who discovers he isn’t who he thought he was is a man with nothing to lose [or a man with everything to lose]. And the way he acts when he’s pushed beyond his limits may be his true character, something he fears or something he can be proud of.
Characters can have complementary as well as competing motivations.
And a man at war with himself, with his very nature, makes for intense and powerful fiction. Will his internal war destroy him or make him stronger? Will he do what is right, only to ultimately lose what he wants, or will he grab for what he wants, only to lose his self-respect?
Knowing the mind, the heart, and the essence of a character allows the writer to create great fiction, stories that engage the reader in his own mind and heart.
I do have a warning, however, regarding the use of character motivation and behavioral psychology. Too much stress on any one cause or reason for a character’s actions will annoy the reader. Add depth and layers, but don’t smother. Provide reasons, but don’t be so blatant that the reader feels you’re beating him over the head with the explanations.
Allow the reader to discover character motivation, don’t simply state and restate it. Readers enjoy discovery, they like connecting the dots. They don’t necessarily enjoy tracing the lines you’ve so clearly drawn for them.
Don’t go overboard with your use of motivation. Everything doesn’t have to be about what moves the character. Establish reasons for behavior and allow the character to act as he should, given who he is, while at the same time keeping the story moving forward and focused on plot.
Balance the elements in their proper proportions.
Write good story.
Beth Hill ,February 18, 2011