I’m dating again, which is scary. And funny. And a good exercise in thinking about character motivation. On various dates, I find myself thinking of the guy across the table from me as someone else’s invention, a fictional character. It makes me wonder a little about what would be the dating habits of my own characters, if they were real.
In fact, the compliment I treasure most about my writing is anytime a reader says, “Your characters are so real.” It makes me happy, because they are real to me, so if my writing manages to make them real to other people … well, madness loves company.
One question that comes up frequently on writing forums is about making characters more real. People ask about how to create characters, how to make characters three dimensional, how to develop characters, but the real question hiding under those is “How do I make my characters seem real?”
The popular answer is, “Here’s the list of questions that will help you discover who your character is.” The list contains dozens (and in some cases hundreds) of random questions that the would-be writer is supposed to answer. Favorite color, most embarrassing moment, favorite food, hair color. Implied is the suggestion that in answering all these questions, the writer will discover the character, and the character will therefore be full-fleshed on the page.
I don’t think it works. With all due respect for those writers who use this method successfully, I think most writers who are struggling with how to make their characters seem real will not succeed with this method.
It doesn’t work for the same reason online dating can be so tricky. A man can write up a very thorough list of his likes and dislikes, highlights of his life, but it may tell you nothing about how he’ll behave in any given situation. In any scene, it doesn’t matter what the character eats for breakfast, or what kind of car he drives, or which of his parents he loved best. It doesn’t. The only thing that matters is: “What does the character want?” Right now.
Put the character in any given scene and your task is not to make him/her seem real, but to figure out what the character wants, why he/she wants that, what the character is willing to do to get that, and how he/she approaches getting the desired outcome.
In the course of doing that, you should be able to figure out what sort of person your character is. And from real life, you can often reverse-engineer from behavior to motivation.
For an example, I proffer two dates.
DateOne has a very bland profile, proclaiming himself to be “a good guy.” He owns his own business and is interested in movies, motorcycles, and dogs. I go on the date with low expectations. I have to start somewhere, don’t I? So…what’s his motivation? He wants to have fun, he wants me to like him, and he’d like to make out with me in hopes of scoring during a later date. How does he go about accomplishing these goals? He tries to be funny. He figures out that I like stories so he tells me stories. Crazy, reckless stories, where he occasionally pulls the trigger on the punch line too soon in his hurry to get to the funny parts. He listens to my stories. He compliments me in nice but slightly alarming and sexually suggestive ways. But he draws the line at having to pretend to be something he isn’t, so he doesn’t try to dazzle me or bullshit me, and he doesn’t “clean up his act” for that first date. There is no “best behavior.” He opens doors for me, but makes fun of my hair and eats food off my plate without asking. What he has to offer on the first date, that’s what he will have to offer on the tenth date.
End result of DateOne: in the first 10 minutes, he tells me I have “nice cans.” Then he makes me laugh hysterically for the next six hours as we meander all over town, until I take him back to my place. At 2 in the morning, I’m still having so much fun he kind of has to pry me off so he can leave.
DateTwo has a profile that declares him to be “a bit of a bad boy,” with interests in motocross, skydiving, and literature. He’s also a small business owner. Not surprisingly, he wants me to like him and probably has an eye on getting lucky on some future date. See how they start with the same motivation? It’s generally safe to assume that lots of people go into a first date with the same motivations, so the question is how they approach getting what they want. DateTwo thinks the trick is to impress me. He wants me to know that he’s smart, rich, successful, handsome, desirable. He dresses up. He exfoliates. He takes me to a very expensive restaurant and orders wine to show me he knows about wine. He tells me about the book he’s currently reading. He tells me all about his business, so that I’ll know it’s successful. He smiles in this particular way that shows off his dimples.
End result of DateTwo: this is what I think of as a “nap date.” I rouse myself mid-meal from a half-stupor and realize I’ve lost an hour of my life and he’s still talking about his eco-friendly construction business and his favorite charities. After dinner, which he insists on paying for with his American Express card, we take a few polite turns around downtown. He walks me to my truck, I shake his hand. The date is over in less than two hours.
On paper, or the computer screen as it were, DateTwo and I have many more common interests than DateOne and I. We like a lot of the same movies, books, and music. We’re both interested in the environment and similar political issues. DateOne isn’t even registered to vote and his idea of recycling is selling used motorcycle parts.
So two men enter the dating arena with the same motivations, but markedly different approaches. We learn volumes about them from that approach, not from knowing their favorite food or color. As for the reasons they fail or succeed, well, that’s all about me as a character. My favorite food is tomatoes and my favorite color is black.