Everybody has a story
Every person you meet — on the street, at school, at work — has a story. And it’s a story you’ll probably never hear in its entirety.
You might catch some of it, if you get to know them. Maybe you grab drink together. Maybe they overshare. Or maybe you hear pieces of their story from a mutual friend.
Regardless, everyone has a story — a past, a present, and plans for the future. And after hearing someone’s story, you start to see them in a new light. Because suddenly you understand why they act the way they do: why they get so defensive when people criticize their ideas; why they cling so closely to their friends; why the idea of ending an unhealthy relationship terrifies them.
You start to understand and care for this person, and get invested in their lives like you never were before. And the reason is because by listening to them, you’ve come to know their heart — the emotional drive that dominates their story.
And in terms of how to write a good character, a great one, you need to do the same.
You need to find your character’s heart.
So let’s go over how, with the help of bread, Disney, and some writing process tips.
It’s never about the bread: Emotional motives
One of my old fiction professors had a saying: “It’s never about the bread.”
The first time he said it in workshop, we sat there confused, because the story we were critiquing didn’t revolve around carbohydrates of any kind.
He then went on to tell us about a fight he once had with his partner. It was a silly, pointless fight; he’d come home from the grocery store with the wrong kind of bread, and his partner got angry.
The fight, he told us, seemed to be about him getting the wrong bread; it was, after all, all they talked about. But what he realized was that the fight had nothing to do with the bread at all. Instead, they were fighting about something else entirely — an unresolved disagreement they’d had the previous night. (A disagreement they did eventually resolve.)
So the moral of his story? It’s never about the bread.
The same is true for our characters. Having a clear understanding of their heart, its emotional motivations, and how those motivations affect their actions is a key part of writing a believable, relatable character. To help make sense of your character’s emotional motives, you’ll want to consider three things.
Mood: The immediate (and temporary) emotions of your character. A feeling of joy after kissing the boy they like; frustration after a busy day at work; despair after somebody eats the last Oreo.
Situation: The plot and relationship contexts of your character. The apprehension they feel with a friend in the weeks following a big fight; the nervous excitement they feel in the days leading up to the championship game; or the frustration and boredom of being grounded all summer after wrecking the family car.
Struggle: The core, deepfelt pain of your character that usually arises from their background — the fear of abandonment from a troubled childhood; a lack of self-worth from years being bullied; a desperate need to prove themselves because nobody ever believed in them.
Your character’s mood and situation will, of course, shift throughout the story and affect their choices. But your character’s struggle is the most important piece, because that’s their one constant: their true north.
Once you understand your character’s core struggle, you’ll have a finger on the pulse of every action they take — because every significant action they do take should be informed by this struggle.
To show you what I mean, I’ll pull some examples from a pop culture behemoth we all know and love.
Characters (via Disney) with actions driven by their hearts
Anybody here a Disney fan? Because if you want some straightforward examples of characters with clearly-communicated hearts (which in turn drive actions) look no further than the Disney Renaissance (1989 – 1999).
Ariel is suffocating under the watch of an overprotective father and wants nothing more than to break free and see the world of humans. So she makes a reckless deal with a sea witch to get her land legs.
Quasimodo has lived a life confined to a bell tower due to his appearance, but wants desperately to live normally in the world below — driving him to venture out during the Festival of Fools, where he meets Esmeralda.
Hercules has always felt like an outcast due to his unwieldy strength, but upon discovering his godly heritage, he sets out to prove himself and finally find his home.
Want to know how the filmmakers made the desires of these characters so clear? They used something called “I want” songs (included above), which are songs in the first Act of a musical that communicate the main character’s dissatisfaction with their life and what they want to change. It’s somewhat heavy-handed, but hey, it does the trick.
Whether you convey your character’s emotional drive to your readers through an “I want” moment or by subtler means, the most important thing, again, is that YOU know your character’s struggle so that you can write their actions with consistency — a key step in how to write a good character.
But how do you identify your character’s struggle?
Getting to know your character’s heart
There’s no one way to find out what’s driving your character emotionally, but every method can broadly be summarized as time spent getting to know your character.
So to start, you need to do some basic character development, using whatever tactics you prefer: character sheets, stream-of-consciousness brainstorming, a character Q&A, or other writing activities.
But you won’t truly know your character’s heart (and their struggle in particular) until you’re elbows-deep into their lives, writing their story and experiencing their history. That happens to an extent in your outline, but the best insights come while writing your first draft and throughout the revision process. The key is listening to your character. Look at what they do in your story, and continually ask why they do what they do.
My personal process is this: I come up with a basic idea of what the character’s struggle is, plan it into my rough outlines (my outlines tend to be loose, rather than detailed), and then I start writing. While I write, I try to let my characters surprise me with their actions. First, because it makes for interesting writing, but second, because it’s when our characters surprise us that we learn the most about them.
So I write. I listen. And I learn.
And once I finish a draft, I try to identify the clearest pattern in their actions — what struggle seems to be driving them. Then I revise the story so every action they take reflects it.
That approach may not work for you. Everyone has their own process. But know that if you want to truly understand the struggle that drives your character’s actions, you’ll need to spend significant time with them. So experiment a bit to find what works best for you.
Just remember: spend time with them. And listen.
Want help identifying your character’s struggle?
Leave a comment below if you’d like some help identifying the struggle that drives your character’s actions. I’ll gladly help with the broad strokes, so that you can continue to write, revise, and start taking notice of the nuances of your character’s heart as it shines through the story.