In fiction, we all want our characters to be as alive to
readers as they are to us. Yet, who hasn’t struggled with writing a character
who is fully developed and three-dimensional?
Writing Tip for Today: Here’s a simple method for increasing
character depth and stakes in your story using motivational circles:
The Cheese Stands Alone
If we begin with the innermost circle for the character, we are immediately faced with three possibilities. Who your character is today, was yesterday and will be tomorrow. Back story pops up its head—but we’re warned against too much backstory, especially in the opening. Why? If the stuff we need to understand is all in the past, you may not be starting your story in the right spot. Remember in media res?
Instead of drawing a simple small circle for this character’s
motivations, draw three interconnected circles for the center. In each circle,
name one to three emotional states of the character—in the past, right now and
tomorrow. Now, compare the story main goal with each of these emotional states.
How does the character relate to her world in each time phase?
The reason this is helpful is to show you how your character
is changing and growing over the story’s course. Her goals, wants, desires may
change considerably, but always begin with a sense that the dam is about to
burst. Readers may not stick around if you insist on prolonging a character’s
ordinary life beyond a set-up.
Circle of Embrace
The next bigger circle is similar, but instead of only focusing on the character’s three time periods, you’ll list her relationships and how they are affected in the past, present and future.
You could add another slightly larger circle to show your
character’s relationships with the community (for instance, if the setting is a
small town), the workplace or a new-to-the-character environment. By
identifying the character’s emotional state toward all her relationships (past,
present, future), you can get a better sense of how your story should unfold.
The World and Beyond
The largest circles encompass the widest influence your
storyline will have. Most of the best stories not only follow a character’s story
but also echo in the larger community and even affect or showcase the culture
I’ve said before that the more layers of affect that you add
to a story—that is, your hero’s goal impacts more than just his own life—the deeper
and bigger the story. For example, a story about a child dealing with a strange
new disease is intriguing, but how much higher the stakes if that disease is
also spreading worldwide.
Try your hand at these circles of motivation as you develop
your work. I’d love to hear how the exercise worked or not for you.