Writing Excuses 13.21: Q&A on Character Depth and Motivation
Q: How do you write a deep and compelling character that you personally dislike and still treat them fairly as an author?
A: Look at the character and think, “I hate this person. But somebody likes them.”
Q: What do you think is the best, most useful way to discuss character’s underlying motivations without overtly talking about them in narrative?
A: How do they react to things. Careful and subtle seeding of motivations and backstory into quirks and interactions. Look around you, and ask “What motivations underpin their actions and talk?”
Q: How well should characters understand their own motivations?
A: Be realistic. Most people don’t understand all the reasons behind everything they do. Who is the character, and what motivations? Some things we ask, “Why do I do this?” but others, we don’t.
Q: How do we make a nonviolent main character or characters interesting?
A: Is interesting only violent action? Conflict is interesting. Review the elemental genres, many are not violent, but they still have conflict and interest. Look at the people around you that you find interesting.
Q: Can there be too much depth to a character?
A: Depends on their role in the story.
Q: How do you balance this [depth and roundedness] and what is your preference? To pick a few attributes and go deep, or to try to touch on a little bit about everything in a character’s life?
A: You have so many words to drill into the character. How do you want to spend them? Probably part depth, and part spread. Remember the difference between revealing and exploring an aspect of character. How important is this to the story?
Q: How can you make a character’s motivations seem not shallow, when most motivations are shallow?
A: Simple is not necessarily shallow. Also, people often don’t understand their core motivations, the underpinnings behind what seemed to be shallow motivations. Take something shallow, and explore or reveal just a little bit of the deeper underpinnings.
Q: Do you guys have certain questions about characters you have to answer for yourself before you can start writing about that character?
A: No. Later, when I am stuck, when I need to figure out how the characters could have gotten to this point, then I figure things out and write a dossier. When I am writing a character, I worry about voice, what do they say, how do they say it, which suggests backstory to fill in later.
Q: Is it possible to have a story without a villain? Is the world ready for that?
A: Yes. Man versus nature. You need conflict for a compelling story, but conflict does not have to be created by a villain.
Q: How do you know if a character voice works, and how do you make it work? How much effort do you put into differentiating character voices? Do you have a different vocabulary sheet for different people?
A: Yes, I have different vocabulary for different characters. For example, awesome, excellent, outstanding. Syllables and pop culture references. Age influences voice. You don’t want a 50-year-old using teenage lingo.
[Mary] Season 13, Episode 21.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Q&A on Character Depth and Motivation.
[Valynne] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Valynne] I’m Valynne.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And you have questions for us. Starting with Eliza. She says, “How do you write a deep and compelling character that you personally dislike and still treat them fairly as an author?” Now, we covered unlikable characters, but I think this is an interesting take on it. How do you treat someone fairly when you, as a writer, don’t like them?
[Howard] I… This has gotten easier as I’ve gotten older, because there are so very, very many people I’ve met that I don’t like…
[Howard] Who I need to associate with professionally anyway, and who I have grown to realize that other people like.
[Dan] My ears are burning.
[Howard] Those other people have valid sorts of opinions. That kind of… I know this sounds a little high-minded, but when you adopt that attitude, you look at a character and you think, “Oh, wow. I hate this person. Well, certainly somebody likes them.” Then it gets easier.
[Brandon] All right. We’ll move on. What do you think is the best, most useful way to discuss character’s underlying motivations without overtly talking about them in narrative? This is from Michael.
[Valynne] I think a lot of times that can come from the way they react to different things. Their reactions tell you quite a bit about who they are.
[Dan] Absolutely. One of the books that I wrote last year had a character who… And I talked about this in a previous episode. She’s not a nice person. There… I gave her one specific quirk, that any time she felt like she needed to expose herself, to make herself vulnerable in some way, there was always a very specific reason that she chose not to do that. Eventually, that turns out to be fully tied into her motivations, and something that happened to her in the past. But just carefully and subtly seeding that into the way she interacts with everybody else.
[Howard] The… There’s a psychological description here where one person says, “I’m thirsty,” and the other person says, “All right. We’ll get something to drink on the way home.” Contextually, the person has said, “I’m thirsty,” as they are driving past a root beer float store.
[Howard] Their actual motivation is I want to go get a root beer float. But they didn’t say that overtly. We do this all the time. There’s a thing that you want, and you will say anything that aims at it, but isn’t it. Obviously, this can be done in ways that past aggressive and gross and angry and whatever. But we also do it unconsciously all the time. So look at your life, look at the lives of the people around you, look at the way people talk, and ask yourself, “What are the motivations that they have that are underpinning the things that they are doing?” That will help you write these things.
[Brandon] Liz asks, “How well should characters understand their own motivations?”
[Valynne] I think you need to be realistic. Because I think there are very few people who are so self-aware that they understand the reasons behind everything they do. I think as the author, it’s okay to know, but I just think it’s really unrealistic to portray someone as knowing everything.
[Dan] I think that depends on who the character is, and which specific motivations. One thing that I am always very clear with in my own head about myself is I know why I do the jobs that I do. I know what is driving me to do that. Because I’m very aware of, if that stops being worth it, I’m going to stop doing this thing right now. But there are other things I do in my life that, yeah, I probably… I’ve never had that… Maybe never had cause or never had the self-actualization to sit down and say, “Now, why do I do this thing?” So different motivations manifest in different ways for different people.
[Brandon] All right. Katie asks, “How do we make a nonviolent main character or characters interesting?”
[Dan] It’s impossible. Violence is the only interesting thing.
[Valynne] That’s what I was going to say.
[Howard] Technically… Technically, poison isn’t violent.
[Dan] Oh, okay.
[Brandon] All right.
[Dan] That’s okay. Two people…
[Howard] Those were a series of…
[Brandon] You could pass if you want.
[Howard] Well, no, it’s… When you say, “How do you make a nonviolent main character interesting?” You are defining interesting as violent action. Okay? If that is your definition of interesting, well, that’s a high bar to clear. What is interesting besides violent action is… Have you watched… Beautiful Minds? The exploration of game math in their, the mathematics? I found that incredibly interesting, and there was no violence at all.
[Brandon] I think this is a question, Katie, go back and look where we’ve talked about conflict. Conflict is interesting. But go listen to the entire season where we talk about the elemental genres, because a lot of those are not violence oriented, and we talk about how to create conflict and interesting stories around those.
[Valynne] Well, I would also add that if you look at the people that surround you and you find interesting, I’m going to go out on a ledge and say, I bet most of them are not violent, or you probably wouldn’t be friends with them. So maybe look at the people around you and just what you find interesting about them.
[Brandon] Kate asks, “Can there be too much depth to a character?”
[Dan] Depending on their role in the story, probably. This can be a case where we… The question we get all the time is what do I do with my side characters are more interesting than the main ones? Maybe you’ve just made them too interesting and need to dial that back.
[Howard] Can there be too many adverbs in a book? Can there be too many… Yeah, that’s really subjective. If the story works, and the character is super incredibly deep, that’s awesome. If it doesn’t work, then… Nope.
[Brandon] Shawn has an interesting question kind of along these lines. I’m going to rephrase it a little bit. He’s implying, and it’s a good kind of implication, that depth and roundness can sometimes be in tension to one another. That if you go deep into one attribute of a character, you can actually make them less round by focusing too much on one attribute about them. He asks, “How do you balance this and what is your preference? To pick a few attributes and go deep, or to try to touch on a little bit about everything in a character’s life?”
[Howard] My form and analysis teacher in… When I was studying music, said, “You’ve got the budget to drill 1000 feet worth of holes. Do we want to drill one 1000 foot hole, two 500 foot holes, or a thousand one foot holes in this piece of music? As we study, or in music in general?” What we came up with was, well, we need to drill at least one 500 foot hole and probably a couple of hundred foot holes. What’s the budget for now 10 foot holes and 1 foot holes, because we want to look at a bunch of other things? If you look at it in those terms, how many words do you have? You have a thousand words worth of drilling into this character. 500 of them on depth, and the other 500 spread across other things.
[Dan] I think it’s important to remember that there is a difference between revealing an aspect of character and exploring an aspect of character. You can pointed out without having to spend a lot of time on it.
[Valynne] I also think it depends on how important that is to the story. Because if it is something that is very important to the story, then you can make… I think you can make it work.
[Brandon] All right. Let’s do our book of the week. Pitch Dark.
[Valynne] Okay. So Pitch Dark is a sci-fi book written by Courtney Alameda. She… It’s released in February. It’s basically kind of Raiders of the Lost Ark in space. With like combination of aliens and Raiders of the Lost…
[Valynne] So how could you not like something like that?
[Dan] I want to read that one too.
[Valynne] Right, of course. So it’s set in the future. One of the things that I really like about this is that they’re searching for things among deadly aliens who kill, and so they’re… It’s part terrifying, part just wondering what would happen in the future if our future was something similar to this. The thing that I think that Courtney does really well is reflecting different cultures, and just providing insights to how that then makes people think differently, how it makes them… Why they do certain actions, how it defines who they are. I think that she is just a pro at doing something like that. There are two protagonists. There’s the male and female. So it kind of goes back and forth between the two perspectives. But they are two people who did not plan on working together, and end up needing to work together in order to battle the aliens.
[Howard] We’ve had Courtney on the podcast once? Twice? At least once. I’ve been on panels with her before. She’s a lot of fun.
[Valynne] She is.
[Brandon] All right. Back to the questions. I’m going to tell Sheldon your question about untrustworthy narrators, we’re going to hit that later in the season, so we will get you a podcast on that. Tiffany asks, “How can you make a character’s motivations seem not shallow, when most motivations are shallow?”
[Brandon] Unpack that one, guys.
[Dan] We’re learning so much about the people asking us questions. Learning so much about our fans. I don’t know. I think that there are a lot of motivations that are very shallow. I don’t know if I’d say most in the entire world, but…
[Brandon] It depends on your definition of shallow.
[Dan] It depends on your definition… And your definition of motivation.
[Brandon] Like loving your family is simple, but not shallow. I would say. Right? Like there’s a difference between that… If you’re saying shallow like the love of money is a shallow thing, perhaps that’s your definition of shallow, and there is a lot of motivation that centers around that.
[Howard] Well, let’s… When you say most people’s motivations are shallow, fundamentally, most people don’t understand their core motivations. I’m hungry is… Well, my core motivation is I need food. Well, the truth of the matter may be I’m sad. I want comfort food. Okay? The underpinning there is a bad thing has happened, and I suffer from clinical depression, and I just ate, and I’m feeling guilty about being hungry, but I’m convincing myself that I am hungry, and all anybody else gets from me is I’m hungry. I am completely unaware of all of that. All I know is I’m hungry. So when you say people’s motivations are shallow, yeah, that was totally shallow. Because I can’t see the deep bits.
[Valynne] I agree. I think a lot of… For me, when I think of shallow, I think of the motivations may be behind the way people look, wanting to be thinner, or wanting to be more beautiful. That may seem shallow. What we value may be material. But, like you said, Howard, going behind the motivations of why do we value that. For example, if I am insecure about the way I look, which is about every girl I’ve ever known at any stage, why? What are the things that have been said to us? What are the things that are part of society or the culture or the media that have aided in that feeling of feeling insecure? So, I think that shallow is… It really does depend on the motivations behind it.
[Howard] So when it comes back to our writing, how do you give deep motivation when motivations are shallow? You do exactly the thing that we’re describing. You take something fairly shallow, and then you explore for just a moment a deeper underpinning, and let the reader see, “Oh, there’s something more here.” Then you can move on and the reader will understand that it’s deeper than just I’m hungry or I want new lipstick.
[Brandon] Do you know, we will do a podcast on character bias and our own biases as writers later on, so look forward to that. A lot of questions about what we call so-called dossiers. Meaning the questions you ask yourself about a character before you start writing. We covered this a little bit in an earlier podcast, but let me just make it explicit. Do you guys have certain questions about characters you have to answer for yourself before you can start writing about that character?
[Dan] No, I don’t.
[Valynne] I don’t either.
[Brandon] I do not either.
[Valynne] I just go. Then later…
[Dan] What it… Go ahead.
[Valynne] Later, when I am trying to figure out why this character is important, that’s… When I’m kind of getting stuck, that’s when I take the time to figure things out. Because I don’t want to…
[Howard] I’ve reached the point with a couple of characters where I realized, “Oh. You guys both fought in the same war and you fought on different sides.” I now need to build a dossier that explores where you were and when you were, because your reactions to each other in the story thus far suggests that you’ve never met. Okay? How can I canonically build this so that it works? That’s the point at which I end up writing a dossier.
[Dan] When I am writing a character, I am much more concerned with voice. How are they going to sound? What kinds of things are they going to say, and how are they going to say it? That will suggest to me backstory that I can fill in later.
[Brandon] All right. Stephanie asks, “Is it possible to have a story without a villain? Is the world ready for that?”
[Dan] Examples exist.
[Brandon] Can you find some? Examples?
[Dan] Well, I mean, the classic example that breaks like every rule is There Will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury, right?
[Brandon] It doesn’t have characters.
[Dan] There’s no characters at all, and so it’s easy to point out. I would say that…
[Howard] Any man versus nature story qualifies, because nature isn’t a villain. Nature doesn’t care.
[Dan] Uh-huh. So we need to survive this earthquake tornado title wave whatever that kind of thing can happen. I don’t think, and I’m sure someone will come up with a counterexample. I don’t think it’s possible to tell a compelling story without a conflict in it. But that conflict does not have to be created by a villain.
[Brandon] We’re getting a lot of questions about story arcs and character arcs which we will cover in the next few months. We’re also getting a lot of questions about character voice, which we’ve done a few podcast on, but not with this team. So I’m going to end by pitching you a couple of these. Eric asks, “How do you know if a character voice works, and how do you make it work?” Amanda asks, “How much effort do you put into differentiating character voices? Do you have a different vocabulary sheet for different people?”
[Howard] Let’s answer the second question with yes.
[Brandon] Okay. You do have a…
[Howard] There are words that I know that some of my characters will not say, and words that I know that they will always say. The example that I usually bring up is awesome, excellent, outstanding. I have characters who will always say outstanding in response. I have characters who would never say that, and who would instead say awesome. It has more to do with kind of their military bearing. There’s a whole list of those things that I keep track of.
[Dan] I don’t get that granular with my dialogue, with the vocabulary that they use, but I do think about syllables. Like how big of a word is it? I will control which characters can use pop culture references and which don’t.
[Valynne] I think that when you’re considering age, a lot of that will make a difference in terms of voice, because you don’t want a 50-year-old using teenage lingo, if you’re wanting the 50-year-old to sound cool.
[Dan] Unless you’re writing a story like 40 years in the future.
[Howard] I turned 50 in February.
[Valynne] So stop using the cool lingo, Howard.
[Howard] Because that’s been such a problem for me.
[Brandon] All right. I’m going to end us with a writing prompt. During this session of the podcast, Howard has drawn something. What did you call it, Howard?
[Howard] Okay. On the way over here, some syllables just marched around in my head, and I ended up with the idea. Tyrannopotumus Rex.
[Howard] So I didn’t bring a sketchbook with me. I asked Emily for a paper and pen. She handed me one and I scribbled a Tyrannopotumus Rex.
[Brandon] He says scribbled. It’s gorgeous.
[Dan] It was great, because he literally showed up at the house, sat down and said, “I need a pen and paper.” And just had to get this out of his head.
[Brandon] I’ve done that with stories before, so… It’s… It was fascinating to watch. He’s been doodle… Noodling on it during the whole thing. I guess he’s been doodling on it too. We’re going to put a picture up for you. In the liner notes. Your job is to write a story about this. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.