Crafting Rich Characters (Part 5)

Greetings Storytellers! We’re off to Part 5 of Crafting Rich Characters, the final installment of this series. In Part 1, we explored a character’s Physical Appearance, Mannerisms, and Quirks. In Part 2, we covered Attributes and Traits, Skills and Abilities, and Occupations and Interests. In Part 3, we looked at the Formative Backstory, Core Values, and The Lie. And in Part 4, we explored Secrets, The Big Fear, and The Mask.

In this post, we’re going to finish up character-building with Motivations and Goals.

And at the end, you’ll be able to download a worksheet with the aspects of character-building I’ve presented in this 5-part series.         

Motivation

All images from Pixabay

Motivation lies at the heart of a compelling character’s profile. Much of what we’ve talked about in previous posts will contribute to an understanding of a character’s internal motivation.

Motivations and Goals are often confused since they’re both related to things characters want, and they both can drive character and plot. So, what’s the difference?

  • Motivation is the underlying reason why a person has a goal, such as a fear of abandonment, a desire for security, the need to prove their competency or save the day.
  • A goal is something measurable a character wants to achieve. It’s a conscious objective like winning a championship, getting married, clearing his name of a crime, or slaying the demon king.

Character motivation is the reason behind a character’s behaviors and actions. They might relate to external survival needs, or they might relate to psychological needs, such as love, security, or professional success. Ask yourself – what’s the one thing this character deeply desires above all else? Capturing this motivation will increase the believability of the characters’ choices and drive up the stakes in the story.

Characters can share an identical goal — like surviving a night in a haunted house — while having different motivations. Bob wants the prize money. Sally wants to impress Bob. Carl wants to prove it’s all a hoax. And Jack wants to murder everyone for making fun of his weird ears!

Remember, motivations don’t need to be rational. Jack might not be particularly sane, but he’s clearly motivated to save the world by ridding it of people with perfect ears. (Perhaps there is a trait, core value, family history, big lie, secret, fear, or a mask that provides the twisted logic of his motivation — there better be!).

All characters need plausible motivation(s), and that includes villains. Without it, characters may seem like cardboard cutouts. To bring them to life, give them real, understandable reasons for doing what they do.

And to make things even more interesting, motivations within a single character can conflict. Benjamin wants to survive the plane crash in the wilderness, but that means he’ll need to steal food from his companions, which is in direct conflict with his need to be the hero who saves the day. Ah, the turmoil!

Goals

Strong goals – kill the vampire king, arrest the spy, marry the billionaire – are backed up by strong motivations. The combination will prevent characters from wandering off on irrelevant tangents and slowing down your pace. If a character’s desperate goal is to escape the burning museum, she’s not going to stop to photograph the artwork or have a long luxurious kiss with the firefighter (like they do on television).

A protagonist’s overarching goal will drive the plot, but consider that the main characters will also have goals related to subplots. Rebecca wants the promotion at work, and she also wants to reconnect with her estranged father. The character’s thoughts, actions, and choices focus on what they want and how they’re going to get it. Motivation keeps the stakes sky-high.

We all know that for every goal, our characters need a handful of obstacles. What is the main obstacle that stands in the way of the character reaching her goal? This may be a nemesis, a personal flaw, or a condition of the culture or world. Or all three! Remember that villains aren’t the only ones that can stand in a character’s way. Obstacles can be large and small, and there are usually lots of them in the protagonist’s path.

Some questions for exploring character motivations and goals:

  • What does your character desperately desire?
  • Why does the goal matter?
  • If the character failed, how would they react?
  • How far would the character go to avoid failing?
  • What would this character sacrifice to achieve the goal?

A final note on character goals: at some point in the story, the main character(s) must move into an active role in overcoming obstacles and achieving goals. If they don’t, they’ll lack agency and seem passive. Powerlessness is fine at the beginning of the story, but something must change to light a fire under the character’s feet. What changes to catapult the character into action?

Character Profile Prompts

Five parts to this series! You might be wondering when you’re going to start writing your book if you need to pen a biography for each character first. I certainly don’t write a complete bio for every person in my stories, but I write something for the vast majority of them, even if it’s only a wart on the grocer’s nose.

Naturally, the main protagonists get a great deal of pre-work. I encourage writers to go through this process for their villains too, which will make those important characters memorable, as well as prevent them from being two-dimensional.

Even secondary characters are worth a smattering of attention. It will keep them from being bland bodies that the protagonists and villains merely bounce off of. The beautiful office manager has garlic breath. The side-kick has a sick kid and his family is falling apart. The computer geek is overly helpful because she has a secret crush on her boss. Giving secondary characters lives beyond their plot-roles in the story will make them more interesting.

Trust me that this series of posts took more time to read than it will take to jot down the very short answers to some prompts. A character bio shouldn’t take more than a page or two. It’s up to you how many questions you answer and whether you write a word or two, or a paragraph. Some aspects of your character’s profile will resonate, explore those.

On a final note, not everything from your character bio will end up in the text, and it shouldn’t! You need to get to the story. But, in my opinion, the reader can “feel” the richness of the character because you know the person inside and out.

Most importantly, when your prework is done and you begin to write, let your characters flow and change as they tell their stories. A character profile isn’t chiseled in stone, and your characters will tell you where you got it wrong. That’s part of the fun of writing “real” people. Trust their voices and enjoy .

Attached is a downloadable worksheet that you can use as a guide to whatever degree you wish.

Character-Building Worksheet

             There you have it. Thanks for reading, and thanks for sharing your character profiling tricks.   

Happy Writing!

123 thoughts on “Crafting Rich Characters (Part 5)

  1. Here’s a different take on things as you end your informative series here, Diana: imagine if each of us real people spend as much time considering all of these things where we ourselves are concerned, if we set aside regular time in quiet reflection with the sole goal of understanding our own motivations, goals, secrets, possible blind spots, etc. I can’t help but believe that for each of us who chooses to do this, the collective story on planet Earth changes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So true, Erik. I love your comment. I also believe the world would be a better place if we took time to reflect on our own strengths and weaknesses. It’s all human psychology when it comes to ourselves, each other, and our characters. We are complex beings and hopefully we mirror that complexity in our books. Thanks for stopping by and adding to the discussion! Have a great Sunday, my friend.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for taking time to read the whole series, Michele. I’m glad you found the worksheet useful too. Of course modify it if you have other character prompts that work for you. Have fun crafting characters and Happy Writing!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Robbie. Oh, you love thos kissing in dire circumstances scenes. Lol. I’ll bet you’re rolling your eyes too. I’m so glad you enjoyed the posts and found a little inspiration. Have an awesome day and Happy Reading!

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    • Thanks so much, Michael. I’m glad you enjoyed the series and the wrap up. I had a lot of fun with it, and it’s never a bad thing for me to review this stuff as well. Happy Sunday, my friend!

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  2. Well, shoot–I haven’t had a fictional fiery kiss from a fireman in ages. Can’t the burning building wait just a little while? (insert sigh here)
    This is a lot like my process, although I’m a lot less methodical about it. I generally start with a character who wants something they can’t have–just like you’re character who wants to be a hero AND to steal the food.

    That’s really almost all I write. Plot-driven (or action-driven) just isn’t me, apparently. I have to have characters I can relate to.

    Lovely series. You really put a lot of work into it, and it really shows. : )

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ha ha. No fiery kisses in burning buildings, huh? Lol. I can’t imagine making that work without getting an eyeroll. Characters who want something and can’t have it is a great way to start. Instant conflict. Thanks for the visit, my friend. Enjoy your spring and keep up the writing. ❤

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  3. This has been a terrific series, Diana. The way you’ve clarified character development is so important and I’ve learned a few things along the way. Richly developed characters make for a richly developed story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for the kind comment, Steven. I think a lot of writers do this stuff naturally, but it’s it’s always helpful, I think, to understand the whys and what fors. 😀 And to apply the principles to more than just our main characters. So glad you enjoyed the series. 🙂

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      • I don’t usually keep a physical list, but compile the details in my head. My memory, though, is starting to lose its glue, so I do jot down a few things now again. And you’re right about the whys and what fors. Instinct is a great thing, but even better is knowing the underlying reasons for whatever it is we’re doing.:)

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      • Exactly. I think we can strengthen what we do by understanding why we do it. And sorry about the unglued memory. I can relate, Steven. I think writing is good exercise for the brain cells, though. 🙂

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  4. What a great last chapter in this series Diana! I love how motivation and goals are supportive of each other and different and the opportunity to download this. It is so generous of you. I am looking forward to having it in my notes for future. Thanks so much for this! 💖

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  5. I love the way you describe goals versus motives, Diana. This is something many may not even consider when creating characters. Our characters have to be real to us if we hope they will be real to readers. It’s as you stated: know your characters inside and out. Thanks for writing this incredible series.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Beem. A lot of readers liked the distinction between goals and motivations. It’s pretty important to think about our character’s motivations, which dig a little deeper into the why’s of their behavior. Have a wonderful weekend and Happy Writing!

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  6. I enjoyed reading how you differentiate the motivation and goals. Some characters may not understand their own behaviors such as being motivated by fear, but the characters have something they want to achieve. As readers, we keep flipping the pages because we want to see if the characters achieve their goals.
    Thank you for your generous offer of the worksheet. I copied and pasted it into Excel to use as a worksheet. Have a wonderful weekend, Diana!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That was a great idea to use it as an excel worksheet, Miriam. I should do the same thing! I’m so glad you enjoyed the posts. And you’re right that the character’s motivation may not be conscious, and as long as there’s a sense of urgency, that’s okay. 😀 Have a wonderful afternoon, my friend. Hugs.

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  7. A great explanation of the difference of a goal and motivation. One of my part parts of a character is their motivation. I always created a character bio, not only to keep track but to understsnd them, even if I don’t use all the information. I enjoyed your series, and thanks for including the sheet, Diana 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s awesome, Denise. I think knowing what makes our characters tick is essential. If we know them well, that will show in our work without us having to spell it all out. Have a wonderful weekend and Happy Writing!

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  8. I think motivation is one of the most critical elements in a story. Of course, sometimes characters do seemingly irrational things, but their underlying reason must be plausible. If someone does something odd in real life, the first thing I often ask myself is, “What what their motivation?” Perhaps it’s not something quite so apparent at first glance.

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    • Thanks for the visit, Pete. Oh, I agree that sometimes the motivation for certain behaviors is a mystery, but as the author we need to know what they are and eventually the reader needs to understand as well. Otherwise the character’s actions won’t make sense. Just like real people. 🙂 Have a wonderful weekend, my friend. Happy Writing!

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  9. What a great installment in this series! Motivations shape goals, which shape characters’ actions. I love the useful questions you highlight and your tips for coming up with relatable and interesting goals. 🙂

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  10. Creating character bios is my favorite part of prep work for writing, Diana. I LOVED this whole series! Today’s post was an outstanding close. I especially liked how you addressed the difference between motivation and goals, and the bonus worksheet is exceptional. I’m going to be starting a new project soon (I’m down to the final edit on my current WIP), so the timing of the worksheet is perfect. I have one I cobbled together in Word, but yours is more detailed, and I’m going to give it a try. Thanks for a fabulous post and series. I’ve really enjoyed it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for the visit and comment, Mae. I’m glad I pulled it off. Lol. And I can’t wait to hear how the worksheet works for you. I’ve used it a long time, and it continues to evolve. I’d love to know if something is missing that you think is helpful in your work. Glad to hear that youre getting close to having a book out too. Happy Editing!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve used that worksheet for a decade at least, Judi Lynn, and its evolved a little over time. I’m happy to share it. And I’m glad the comparison of motivations and goals was helpful. Examples always work for me, so I tend to include them. 🙂 Thanks again and Have a Wonderful Weekend!

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  11. Thanks for another outstanding post, Diana! You should be teaching a class on Creative Writing… We’re so fortunate for you and all of our Story Empire contributors cluing us in with some of the finest tips and resources for writing around.

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  12. Incredible post, Diana. Thank you for highlighting the distinctions between goals and motivations and pointing out why they are so important in character development. Very, very helpful. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for reading and for the kind comment, Gwen. It all sort of comes clear doesn’t it? Our characters have to want something really really bad to ramp up the stakes and keep our pace moving along. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Have a wonderful weekend and Happy Writing!

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    • Yeah, Anneli, that’s such an important point. It’s like research in that way. It adds nuance without having to be explicitly stated. We can just feel that a book is well-researched. Same with a character’s depth. Thanks for taking the time to read. Have a great weekend!

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  13. Characters make a book worth reading. Diana, I appreciate the way you’ve guided the aspiring writers to follow a strategy and create memorable characters. This series is a treasure trove for authors! Well-done!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, Priscilla, your characters are great, so no worries. Especially in novels, fleshing out secondary characters can add depth to the story, and I kind of enjoy that process. Sometimes they become quite interesting in their own right! Thanks for the comment and I’m glad you enjoyed the posts. Happy Writing!

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  14. Reblogged this on Myths of the Mirror and commented:

    Greetings Storytellers! I’m over at Story Empire today with the last installment of “Crafting Rich Characters.” If you’re interested, there’s a worksheet with prompts from the entire series for your downloading pleasure. If you have the time, stop by to say hi. 🙂

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    • Thanks so much for stopping by, Mary, and for reading this entire thing. Lol. I hope it was helpful and sparked your imagination. Also hope you’re doing well and getting some writing in. Have a wonderful weekend, my friend. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Excellent conclusion to your useful series, Diana. I tend to use the character profile questions as part of the drafting and revision process. They’re a great way to keep the irrelevant or inconsistent from creeping into the story and hanging around.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Outstanding post, Diana. Having excellent advice like this can help both beginners and seasoned writers. The Character-Building Worksheet was the icing on the cake. I did love your examples and advice on how deep to go with characterizations. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. This has been such a useful series. I can see that it’s the characters’ responses to situations that make the story. Towering Inferno or Titanic were successful because of the past experiences, motivations and goals of the people experiencing the situation and this series has helped to clarify why this is so! I do jot down some ideas before I start to write but your worksheet looks like a great framework for understanding different responses to changing situations. I’ve saved it and will definitely reference it in the future – sometimes it’s the small details that make such a huge impact further along the line. Many thanks, Diana! ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for the lovely comment, Trish. The worksheet is really just a prompt for thinking about our characters and what makes them tick. I complete the whole thing, but that certainly isn’t necessary. Pick and choose what works. And your characters are great anyway, so whatever you do with working. Happy Writing, my friend, and have a wonderful weekend.

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  18. This has been a fantastic series, Diana. I don’t do a full bio on all my characters, but I do a brief sketch of my main ones. Thanks for the bonus worksheet. It’s different from what I’ve used in the past, but I’m going to give it a try.

    Liked by 2 people

  19. Thanks for this indepth analysis. I didn’t quite get the differences between a character’s goal and motivation and they are this very important. Now from this I understand that the goal is what the x-ter wants to achieve and the motivation is why they want to achieve it or why they are behaving ad they are. This was a useful series, to me. Thank you for taking your time to write and for sharing without restraints. Aren’t you people at Story Empire kind and wonderful! I enjoyed and, most importantly, learnt quite a great deal of helpful info. 💗💗

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks so much for sticking with it and reading, Jill, and for your lovely comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the prompts for thinking about our characters. Have a wonderful weekend and Happy Writing, my friend. ❤

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  20. I LOVED this series, Diana.

    I really resonated with this quote from today’s post:
    “And to make things even more interesting, motivations within a single character can conflict. Benjamin wants to survive the plane crash in the wilderness, but that means he’ll need to steal food from his companions, which is in direct conflict with his need to be the hero who saves the day.”
    I was taught that having conflicting internal and external goals will build in tension and automatically make your work more exciting and your characters more vibrant. So nice to see that principle reinforced here.

    And great worksheet. Thanks so much!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks so much for the kind comment, Staci. Yeah, giving our characters conflicting motivations really ups the turmoil, doesn’t it? I’m putting one of my characters through that wringer right now. Ha ha. Writers are so mean. I’m glad you enjoyed the series and the worksheet. Have a wonderful weekend and Happy Writing. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  21. Pingback: Crafting Rich Characters (Part 5) | Legends of Windemere

    • Thanks for the insightful comment, Linnea. I think your point is especially true of fantasy characters who are often so overwhelmed by their worlds. Something I have to keep in mind! I’m delighted that you enjoyed the post and series. Have a wonderful weekend and Happy Writing!

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  22. A fitting conclusion to this useful series, Diana!
    I haven’t methodically written character bios, but I always live with the characters in my head before, during, and after writing the works in which they appear. Sometimes this leads to spin-off pieces of writing after the fact, which may or may not be turned into publish-worthy works.
    I agree that not all the background work we do on our characters needs to be incorporated into a novel or story, but it does pay off in details and nuances we add almost unconsciously. It’s like research and reading that soaks in and then oozes out when needed.

    Liked by 3 people

    • That last part of your comment, Audrey, about the character-work being like research is so true…. it pays off with nuance, soaks in and oozes out… you said it better than I did and that’s exactly what I meant. None of this is wasted, even what doesn’t get explicitly said in the text. Great comment. Thanks so much for reading and Happy Writing!

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