A great novel engages the reader by showing the characters in some type of predicament right from the start. This situation must be intriguing enough to seat the reader in the scene and keep them cheering for that character’s success until the very last page.
Challenging for the writer? Absolutely.
Why? Because the reader MUST CARE about the character on a personal level. The story must be relatable (See Virna Depaul ’s Cheat-Sheet on the Relatable Concept).
Where to begin:
Your characters are born with a unique personality. The Enneagram is a personality method that spells out a person’s strengths and weakness. Applying this personality assessment to your characters means there’s little guessing on your part as the writer. Once you’ve nailed down what type of character you need for your story, you can start building their back story.
I used the Enneagram to describe Sarah. She’s a #6—committed, security-orientated type: engaging, responsible, anxious, and suspicious.
- Her Basic Fear: being without support and guidance.
- Her Basic Desire (Motivation): security and support.
How did she come to have these fears and desires? Trauma.
Sarah’s major trauma in her back story that caused her flaws (anxious, suspicious, etc.) goes something like this:
At five years old, buckled in the back seat of her mother’s van while her mother came to a stop at a red light, Sarah watched as her mother was pulled from the car in a car-jacking. She never saw her mother again. Her father was a workaholic, and she was left to raise herself.
This example supports why she fears being without support as well as explaining why she desires security.
Remember, events (wounds) morph into flaws and follow a person throughout their adult life. Changes can only occur when a person recognizes their flaws and makes a conscious effort to change their behavior to either accept or reject these flaws (Character Arc: Future Topic).
Ready, set, blog…
As a writer, you must understand the concepts of Goal and Motivation for each of your characters.
Imagine for a moment that you are running a race.
Goal would be the finish line.
Motivation would be achieving the title of “winner” or receiving some fancy gold medal.
Now, dig deeper. Why are you running, and why do you want to win so badly? Is it to prove to your mother that you don’t give up no matter how much pain you’re in?That you’ll never walk away from your family like she did?
This is the true motivation of your character.
Throw in several hurdles, one where you fall and can’t finish the race and must watch from the sidelines (Black Moment: Future Topic). But you finally realize, with your kids by your side, you’re a great mom whether you win a race or not .
This is the key to understanding Goal and Motivation.
Put another way:
Motivation + Change = True Goal
Change = a series of disasters the flawed character must face and learn from. Only when they recognize they will never attain their goal unless they are willing to surrender everything will they come to understand that salvation has been in their control and can be found within themselves all along.
When do I introduce Goal and Motivation into my story?
I’ve heard within the first ten pages, but why not put it on the first page, the first paragraph, or even the first sentence?
Rainbow sherbet streamed across Sarah’s fingers like satin ribbons swirling a Maypole, never stopping to pause at her ring-less finger.
She sighed, releasing on her breath, “Diamonds don’t melt…”
Goal: This shows Sarah’s longing for committment and a solid foundation. From the Enneagram example, we know she yearns for security and support.
Her fundraising ice cream booth jiggled, and a man’s left hand swished a thick layer of $100 bills between his fingers in front of her on the counter.
She jogged her eyes from her hand to his, barely focusing on his hefty donation. Instead, she locked her gaze on his thick, calloused fingers—the kind molded by hard work, brute strength, and commitment. Not micromanaging, like her father did. She rolled her eyes upward and found Blake Corbit—her father’s foreman, the one who’d been demoted for fighting on the job. “You stay away from him…” her father had preached. Not a chance. Surely, Blake could empathize being chided by her father, and she needed an ally if she was ever going to assume her father’s role as president of Chester Developments. “Mr. Corbit, I didn’t get a chance to—”
“Blake.” He leaned his elbow against the counter. “No woman is going to be disrespected in front of me…ma’am.
Her heart swelled with the warmth of a thousand hugs. He’d stood up for her when her father had hung back, idle, while those men had made lewd comments—something about buttering her bread… What had her father expected her to do? Lash out? Cry? She never cried. She wiped her one hand on her apron, the other fondling the ice cream scoop. “How many scoops would you like, Mr. Cor — Blake?”
His dark lashes, cresting his blue eyes, dipped quickly before rising to hold her stare. His lips parted slightly and he leaned in closer. “All of them…ma’am.”
She swallowed slowly. Could he be her teammate? Would he be more? “Please, Blake, call me Sarah.”
She’s expecting someone else to come in and rescue her so she doesn’t have to stand up to her father (truly, so she doesn’t have to confront her mother’s death). What she’ll have to learn by the end of the novel is that she’s the only one who can come to terms with her past and confront her father. She’ll either accept her father for who he is or separate from their abusive relationship. Either decision will be right because she made the choice and someone else didn’t make the choice for her.
Goal and Motivation are key concepts to understand when you’re writing. By using the combination of the Enneagram and back story, you can create three-dimensional characters that readers are sure to relate to.
Check back on June 1st for my next blog on how to create Likeable Characters—those characters your readers will remember and beg for more.
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