WWMCD: Creating Depth and Motivation in Your Characters
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I've always admired those people who know what their main character eats for breakfast. I don't. I've never had the stamina to fill out long questionnaires aimed at getting to know your main character better. For some people, it's that kind of intimacy that brings their characters to life.
For others, it takes out the mystery.
No matter what your approach, you need to know what drives your main character, and enough about him or her to make sure your characterisation stays consistent.
To that end, I present: WWMCD? What Would Main Character Do?
This idea comes courtesy of my friend Nick, a sci-fi writer who also blogs about sleep deprived parenthood over at Seeking Morpheus. The approach involves dropping your main character (MC from here onwards) into a series of situations, and watching to see what happens. For me, the great strength of this approach is that the situation and context are already familiar, so you can focus on just your character. Here are some examples:
1. The Hunger Games: MC is dropped into the arena!
How does MC respond? Fight or flight? What drives that decision? Does MC have family to worry about, and is that a driver? How does MC respond to violence, threats or a situation beyond his or her control? What does MC have to fight for, and how far will he or she go? What's the first thing they try? The first thing they think?
2. Harry Potter: MC's letter from Hogwarts arrives!
MC's a muggle, and has never heard of Hogwarts before. When the letter arrives and reveals a hitherto unimagined world, what does MC do? Does he or she experience relief that magic really does exist? Believe? Disbelieve? Respond with excitement or trepidation, jump in with both feet or run for the hills?
3. Star Wars: MC's home is destroyed!
MC returns to the family compound on Tatooine to find only smoking ruins. What does MC do? Chase down the perpetrators? Hide down a hole? Give up, or look for something to fight? Why?
I've picked three relatively well known examples that will help you see how your main character responds to pressure, risk, threats, opportunity and change, amongst other things. This sort of brainstorming works well for me, because I can do it on the train, or in the shower, and it gets to the heart of what's really going on in my MC's head--which leads to more realistic and consistent reactions on the page.
Do you have a (spoiler free) suggestion? Do you find this approach helpful? Where else can we ask WWMCD?