In my presentations to students and authors, I am repeatedly asked, “How do I make a character believable?” or “How do I develop a strong character identity?” It’s an interesting question because, initially, I didn’t have a consistent response. I hadn’t really considered what it was that enabled me as an author to write well-developed characters. I just listened to what they (the characters) said to me and wrote their words.
Nowadays, my answer to the complex question is quite simple, really. Motivation. The best way to write a compelling character is to analyze that character’s motivation. What do they want more than anything? What are they willing to do to achieve it? What are they willing to say to those who support and oppose them? How badly does that motivation propel them?
Consider the fictitious character Inigo Montoya of The Princess Bride. For those unfamiliar, Inigo Montoya—in the movie version—is portrayed as a Spaniard who excels at fencing. Although he initially acts as henchman to Sicilian criminal Vizzini, he eventually comes to respect the book/movie’s protagonist and joins his ranks. Despite his loyalties however, Inigo’s motivation, his purpose, remains consistent throughout his criminal pursuits and adventures: locate the six-fingered man who killed his father.
After witnessing his father’s murder, Inigo trains for years in fencing with the hope to avenge his father. This leads him to duels with strangers and general waywardness as he feverishly hunts the man. When he realizes it is unlikely that he will ever find his father’s murderer, he grows depressed and becomes an alcoholic. Only when the protagonist, the Man in Black (Wesley), sparks some life back into him via a rambunctious fencing duel does he regain the willpower to continue his search.
Inigo even goes so far as to tell Wesley what he will say the day he crosses paths with his father’s killer: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” If you’ve not heard this famous phrase, well, now you know where it comes from. SPOILER: Inigo eventually meets his father’s murderer, Count Rugen, and defeats him in decisive combat.
Inigo’s motivation directed the paths he took in life. His determination to avenge his father made him pursue study under some of the best fencing instructors of the time, earning him the title of “wizard,” an esteemed rank greater even than “master.”
When writing characters, it’s okay to simplify their motivation. After all, a complex array of reasons can create a purpose. So, keep it simple.
Naruto Uzumaki wants to become Hokage.
Jeff Winger wants to earn a degree to replace his fake bachelors and get out of Greendale.
Michael Scott wants to be the best boss ever.
Katniss Everdeen wants to save her sister from the Reaping.
Veralidaine Sarrasri wants to find a job to help her escape the backwoods where she grew up.
Create a motivation. What does your character want more than anything? Give your character direction and purpose. Once you have that, they’ll tell you what lengths they’re willing to go to pursue that goal. Their personality will take shape; how they talk and address others will follow.
Give them a foundation. Everything else will take root soon after.