The One Thing You Need To Know About Your Characters

Plot is simply letting characters’ desires unfold and run to their logical ends.

Ray Bradbury

My house is empty now, save some cough medicine and my Macbook desktop computer, which will travel in the back seat of the car. The contractors are upstairs painting and listening to Mexican ranchera. A favorite just finished playing, a song by Los Angeles Azules, “Como Te Voy A Olvidar.” And just like that, I was transported to someplace in Central America, sometime last fall. What fun.

I have been reading about character profiles lately since fleshing this out is going to require a lot of work when I revisit my manuscript. A Google search of character profile templates will turn up a variety of lists for a writer to simply fill out. Here is one that I found; they are all mostly like this.

https://www.deviantart.com/princelink/art/Detailed-Character-Profile-Template-283148629

I see a thing like this, and I’m intimidated. Do I need to fill one of these out for all my characters? I don’t know the answer to that yet, but one thing I have gathered is that character development is a very personal endeavor. Meaning developing a character can be done using whatever process will work for you as a writer. Maybe fleshing out these sorts of details in a very structured way using a template is part of your process, perhaps it’s not. The point is, though, you have to be intentional, and that will require work.

To me, it seems silly to take a list like this and just start filling it out. Characters, like people, are more than a list of data points. I mean, what’s the guiding principle? I started reading about enneagram personality theory for answers, but this, too, was intimidating. Again, it seemed like a random list of traits. Creating characters begs the question, what’s the hack to understanding people? What are the one or two bits of information that drive how a person behaves?

Sometime during quarantine, I started learning about Cognitive Behavior Therapy, which introduced me to the idea of negative core beliefs. For people suffering from chronic anxiety, depression, etc. negative interactions fuel negative core beliefs. Negative core beliefs perpetuate said mental disorder, which leads to negative behaviors. The strategy in CBT is to address the negative core belief because this lies at the center of negative emotions and behaviors. So. If I sit down to write a character profile, what’s the one bit of information that is a driver, almost like a negative core belief?

What’s your character’s greatest fear?

The great thing about this question is that the answer is unknowable. I like to think of it as there are candidate answers. Once I figured this out, I started having fun with it, and, while one my three-mile run yesterday, I started going through the list of everyone I know trying to think up what their greatest fear might be. Not surprisingly, some people were easier to pin down than others. What was surprising was who was easy to pin down and who wasn’t. I find that I needed to have at least one interaction where I saw person X somewhat vulnerable or uncomfortable to come up with a viable greatest fear candidate. So, if I have a friend for which I have a lot of data but have never seen a flicker of vulnerability, I can’t hazard a guess as to what person X’s greatest fear might be. Showing vulnerability is essential for getting to know people and characters, which is useful to know in writing.

The other peculiar thing is that I could not easily pin down was my own greatest fear. So, when I arrived from my run to the Airbnb, I asked my husband what he thought my greatest fear might be.

As you might imagine, this was a “fun” conversation. After all, my husband is a person with a range of data on me. What he told me about me is not important for this post (*nervous laughter!*), but what is important is that his answer served as a viable explanation for pretty much everything I have done in my adult life. Everything. Like everything. I turned the tables on him and broke him down shotgun style too, and let’s just say that he makes a lot more sense to me now.

All this to say, it’s probably less important to worry about your character’s physical attributes or favorite food or choice clothing. All that stuff is fine, but it’s not interesting. All that stuff is probably rooted in his or her greatest fear anyway!

When your PPE face mask doubles as an accessory