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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Building Your Characters from the Inside - Part 1: Values

by Susan May Warren

It is a New Year and you want to take your writing further this year than ever before. But where do you start?

There you are, you’ve got a blank computer screen, and the smallest tickle of an idea, something you’ve read, or seen, some question you think might be interesting tackled in a book. But where do you go from there? How do you turn a blip of an idea into a full novel, one that will resonate with readers?

Or maybe you have a novel complete but it keeps getting rejected and doesn’t seem to be resonating with others.

Christian books should reach beyond our hearts to touch our souls. Regardless of the genre — suspense, romance, historical, or chick lit — stories can touch our lives, even change us. And, while plot lines are important…it is characters that drive stories. When we think of the Hunt for Red October, we think of Jack Ryan. When we think of the Fugitive, we think of Dr. Richard Kimball. Characters drive the plot. So, how do we create characters that live and breathe and drive a story into our hearts? Here are Four Hints: (Check back January 22 for Hint#2, January 27th for hint Hint #3, and Feburary 9th for Hint #4!)

Hint #1: Throw away the list!

When I began writing, I did what seemed logical – I filled out character lists. Answered hundreds of questions. But my characters still felt flat, and more than that, their actions, dialogue and conflict didn’t seem to connect. At the time, I was home schooling, and as I looked at developing my children’s self-esteem, it hit me. People reveal themselves from the inside out, based on how they see themselves, or want others to see them. And discovering how a character defines himself is the key to making them come alive. Start by asking your character who they are.

Who am I?
I  have an identity – as a wife, a mother, an author, and by those three words, I’ve given you a glimpse into who I am, based on your understanding of what those words mean to you. Everyone has an identity, a way they describe themselves. Knowing how our character defines him or herself will help us understand his/her motivations and values. And knowing those will help us figure out what their greatest fear and dreams are, and help us craft internal and external conflict.

Let’s take the characters I mentioned above:

Jack Ryan – a CIA analyst, rising in the ranks who hasn’t had much field action. He’s a family man who wants to keep the world safe. His greatest fear in this movie is misinterpreting the actions of a Russian sub that has gone AWOL and accidentally igniting WW3. His greatest dream is to be right…and gain access to this sub. His motivation is his family…keeping them safe.

Dr. Richard Kimball in the Fugitive. He’s a doctor who has been wrongly accused of murdering his wife. His greatest fear is never having her murder solved. His greatest dream for the purpose of this movie, is apprehending her killers. His motivation is his love for his wife, and his freedom.

Knowing a person’s identity makes their actions believable. So, how do we discover our characters?

First, create a character. Then, ask how he defines himself. For example, I created a character, Joe, for my book Happily Ever After. Joe called himself a drifter. Why? Because he hadn’t had a home in years. Why? Because he left home as a teen. Why? Because it hurt too much to stay there. Why? Because his father left them after his little brother was born with Down Syndrome. Why? Because he’d been close to his father and his heart was broken.

See the pattern? Start with an identity and start asking WHY. The key is to keep asking until you get to the underlying motivations behind your character’s identity. Once you’re there, it’s not too hard to discover the three things that will give your character resonance:

  1. Your character’s values
  2. Your character’s greatest fears
  3. Your character’s greatest dream
Q: But why are Values important?

A: Because Values drive actions.

We do things because we believe in them. For example, if my character has a broken past, maybe he values trust and family. And maybe he’ll do anything to protect the ones he loves – i.e., his brother and mother. But maybe he also values his privacy? One way to create internal conflict in a story is to pit a character’s values against each other. What if this character has to sacrifice his privacy to earn someone’s trust? Or sacrifice his family to keep his privacy?

A person’s values also lead to mannerisms and ancillary information. For example, my character might carry a picture of his family in his glove compartment. Actions and behaviors that are value-driven carry meaning and deepen your character.

Now, it’s time to make your character suffer!

While you were asking your character the whys you should have also asked him about his greatest fear, and greatest dream. Because, your goal is to make him suffer. For example, if my hero loves family, maybe his greatest fear would be to lose the family he has left. And maybe his greatest dream is having a family of his own?
What about the extras?

Oh, you mean the kind of car he drives? The clothes he wears? Your character’s identity, motivations and values will also reveal the “list” questions. My character might drive an old pickup…maybe unconsciously the same kind his dad did. Or maybe he’d drive something completely opposite. Maybe his hobby is fishing…reminiscent of the old trips with his father. Once you know your character’s identity, he’ll fill in the gaps. Your job is to listen.

So, brew a cup of coffee…sit down with your character, and have a little chat! (See, you can be a Therapist too!)

See you January 22nd when we talk about CONFLICT!

And don’t forget this year, at Novel.Academy, we’re diving deep into the editing process with a series called Extreme Book Makeover! We’ll be looking at everything from the structure and characterization, to scenes, scene tension, storyworld, dialogue, emotions, wordsmithing and even polishing your novel. Get that course, and over 100 more when you join Novel.Academy. Check out our free lessons and see for yourself!

Your Story Matters. Go, Write Something Brilliant!

Susie May


Susan May Warren is owner of Novel Rocket and the founder of Novel.Academy. A Christy and RITA award-winning author of over fifty novels with Tyndale,BarbourSteeple HillSummerside Press and Revell publishers, she's an eight-time Christy award finalist, a three-time RITA Finalist, and a multi-winner of theInspirational Readers Choice award and the ACFW Carol. A popular writing teacher at conferences around the nation, she's also the author of the popular writing method, The Story Equation. A full listing of her titles, reviews and awards can be found at: Contact her


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