How to Create a Strong Character: Give Them Goals

by Jami Gold on October 26, 2010

in Writing Stuff

Atlas Holding the Globe

Last time, we looked at a simple list for What Makes a Female Character Strong based on The Female Character Flowchart.  But if that list is so simple, why does it seem so difficult to create a strong character?  Why do so many fail and fall into stereotypes?

Maybe because the list is made up of simple points, but it isn’t so simple to implement.  So let’s look at how to make sure our characters—male or female—embody each of those traits.  First up…

Can they carry their own story?

Umm, okay, sounds good, but what does that mean?  I think it’s helpful to analyze what we’d mean by this question if we were talking about a character who was not a main or point-of-view character.  If we were talking about a secondary character, what would it mean for them to be able to carry their own story?

Well, first of all, they’d have to have goals of some sort to create a story for them.  At the most basic level, a story is the journey from Point A to Point B.  So to have a story, a character needs a Point B in their life.  They need goals.  Without goals, that poor secondary character would just be standing around to act as a sounding board for the important guys.

As soon as they have goals, they’d have motivation for their actions beyond being a puppet of the plot.  They wouldn’t be doing something just because the plot told them to.  They’d be doing something because they thought it would help them reach their goals.

If you’ve studied the GMC (goal/motivation/conflict) structure of scenes, you can probably guess what comes next.  That’s right.  Conflict.  Characters reveal themselves through how they react to conflict.  What are their strengths and weaknesses?  What makes them more than just a cardboard cutout?

Okay, so a strong character is one that serves themselves—not the plot and not the other characters.  Listen to your characters.  Find out what they want.  Let them want what they want, even when…no, especially when what they want goes against the plot or the goals of the other characters.

In every scene, know the goal and motivation for every character, major and minor.  Let them argue if need be.  My post How to Fix the Infamous Info Dump talked about how showing conflict between characters can help fix info dump passages.  As the characters argue about the pros and cons of different options, they’re cluing in the reader about the situation.  Conflict creates tension.  Tension leads to page-turning stories.  It’s all good.

So let those strong characters of yours muck up stuff with their independent needs and desires.  They’ll help you build a better story, one populated by strong characters rather than puppets.

Do your secondary characters all have their own goals?  Has it helped or hurt your stories?  Did any characters try taking over the story?  How did you handle it?

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16 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Roni Loren October 26, 2010 at 1:50 pm

Great post, Jami! I think the question of could they carry their own story is a GREAT one. Because I’m writing a romance series, I’m always considering my secondary characters for their own book. I think this has inadvertently helped me create stronger secondary characters because of it. When my agent signed me, she listed 3 other people in the story she could see carrying their own novels–so I was so excited that she was able to connect with characters who just played minor roles in the first story.

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Jami Gold October 26, 2010 at 1:56 pm

Hi Roni,

Yes, that idea of secondary characters spinning off into their own book was kind of in the back of my mind with this.

I’ve heard of some authors wanting to wrestle with their characters and get them to stick to the plot. But if you ask me, the stronger your secondary characters are, the stronger your main characters will be too. That bit of pushback your main character gets from these troublemakers can help the reader see the main character’s strengths as they step up to the plate and make things happen regardless of the obstacles. :)

Thanks for the comment!

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Murphy October 26, 2010 at 4:51 pm

Awesome post, Jami! You nailed it. When you say:

‘Find out what they want. Let them want what they want’

This is really important when it comes to secondary characters, because I think most times they’re used as props for the main character instead of a good foil or, as you say, an important part of the conflict towards the MC’s main goal or resolution.

I’ll have to think about this some more.

Thanks!
Murphy

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Jami Gold October 26, 2010 at 4:53 pm

Thanks Murphy!

You know, so many of these lessons came because I discovered that if I didn’t listen to my characters, it would piss off my muse and he’d stop speaking to me. :)

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Shelly Chalmers October 26, 2010 at 5:06 pm

Great post, Jami! This is something it seemed to take me awhile to learn, and a weakness I see in some other writers’ work. The only danger is sometimes those secondary characters suddenly become WAY too interesting and start to try and hijack the book! :) So long as one watches out for those character hijackers (and makes them wait for their own book, darnit!) more dimensional characters always make a book stronger. Thanks for sharing. Also have to go have a peek at your flowchart too.

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Jami Gold October 26, 2010 at 5:50 pm

Thanks Shelly!

Yep, as I mentioned to Roni, the point isn’t necessarily to give the secondary characters what they want. *evil grin* Just don’t prevent them from wanting it.

Then the main characters have that many more obstacles/conflict to deal with and show their strength in return. Like you said, make the secondary characters wait for their own book to hijack everything. :)

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Jules Archer November 5, 2011 at 7:21 pm

Just stumbled on this blog. Enjoyed this very much! Helpful tips. Subscribing and off to peruse your other articles!

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Jami Gold November 5, 2011 at 7:27 pm

Hi Jules,

I’m glad you found them helpful. :) I saw you talk about needing to edit this weekend. Maybe check out The Perfectionist’s Guide to Editing post. Thanks for the comment!

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William R. Soldan June 18, 2012 at 8:24 am

Great article. I’ve actually stumbled across your page and have been reading your articles for the last hour. Very concise and informative!

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Jami Gold June 19, 2012 at 10:37 am

Hi William,

Thanks! Let me know if you have any questions. :)

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