Creating Great Characters: Develop your character's relationship with themselves
Last month we dug deep into your character's formative memories, and today I'd like to build on those memories and learn about your character's relationships. Specifically, I'd like to help you discover how your character feels about themselves.
Why your character's relationship with themselves matters
Your character is a person, and like any person, their relationship with—and beliefs about—themselves impact everything they do. It influences how they see other people and the world around them. Those perceptions go on to influence every action, small or major, that your character takes.
Let me demonstrate this point using Lai, the main character in my book Keeper of the Dawn. At the beginning of the story she's extremely confident in her skills, and it shows. She's been training for the priestess trials all her life, and now the trials have arrived. Only one girl can become priestess, but Lai believes succeeding is her destiny. She has only brief moments of doubt.
When she fails the trials, her confidence is shattered. She's still an amazing warrior, and she knows it, but she no longer knows her purpose. She spends years guarding a man she hates for money, because she doesn't believe she can have a fulfilling life without being priestess.
The rest of the book is about her journey to regain her confidence and find a new purpose in life. At the end she still isn't perfect, but she's found herself in a big way—and it shows in her final actions.
This journey shows how much one core belief, such as Lai's belief in her own purpose, can influence a person's actions. A character who actually loves themselves will act different than someone with superficial confidence. A character who strongly believes in their own skills will act very differently than a character struggling with massive self doubt. And a character struggling with depression and self hatred will act differently from any of the others on this list.
Your character's beliefs about themselves are also a great starting point for a character arc. The best character arcs involve a character facing and overcoming false beliefs, and the false beliefs we hold about ourselves can be the most damaging of all.
Convinced? Let's dive into the exercise!
Exercise: Me, Myself and I
This exercise is quite simple, but it comes with two caveats:
1) At a bare minimum you should do this exercise for every point of view character; consider doing it for everyone important enough to get a name
2) If your novel stretches over a lifetime or similarly long period you should do this exercise for each distinct time period
To get started you'll need either a blank word document or pen and paper, a timer, and 20 minutes.
STEP ONE: Set your timer for 15 minutes.
STEP TWO: In your character's first person point of view, free write about the subject "myself". You can start with the character recounting a laundry list of facts, but push yourself to dig deeper and get into their beliefs.
Keep these questions in the back of your head as you write:
1) What does your character believe about themselves NOW, at the beginning of your story?
2) Why do they hold these beliefs?
3) How has this belief changed over time?
4) Why have these beliefs changed over time?
5) How have their relationships with society and other people shaped these beliefs?
STEP THREE: Take a quick break to stand up and move, still thinking about your character's beliefs.
STEP FOUR: Set a timer for three minutes and write, this time from your point of view, a summary of everything you learned during the first part of this exercise. You can also use this time to brainstorm how these beliefs will influence your story.
BONUS STEP: If you have a character profile set up already (I've talked about how I use character profiles and made a template available on my YouTube channel), add the summary to the document. Keep it on a separate page. We'll work more with it on another day.
Dianna Gunn is author of YA fantasy novella Keeper of the Dawn and columnist at Writer's Corner, writing both Professional Interaction for Authors and Creating Great Characters. She also blogs about creativity, life and books at The Dabbler.
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