Love and Fear and Character

When we think of what creates a good character, we, of course, need to get into motivations. Vonnegut famously said in his eight points on writing, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” But is want everything? What is it that makes a character feel real?

Take a hint, bub! So, I used to say that characters had three basic motivations: love, hate, and fear. But in a discussion I had recently, the obvious pointed out to me that you cannot hate something unless you fear it. This is why, I assume, people do not hate the Buffalo Bills.

So, point made. Seems simple enough, but what of this fear thing? When we thing of character motivations, can’t they be boiled down so simply? As in, if a character must choose which road to turn down, left or right, he must consider what it is he is hoping to find down that road and what it is that he is terrified of finding. This happens in every story. It’s about risk.

Zzzzzz … Capitalism (bear with me) is about risk aversion and cost-benefit analyses. True capitalism, that is. It’s about investors looking for gains while mitigating risk all the while. But the same can be said of conflict and fiction. Think about it. In Jane Eyre, she makes a calculated risk to allow Rochester in her life romantically despite the fact that she’s been hurt by nearly every other person she ever got close to. The true conflict is about her overcoming her fear to get what she wants. But then, when the stakes get higher, when she finds out that Rochester is married and with that, the risk of public humiliation and shaming enters, her fear wins. The thing about Jane Eyre is that she does not triumph in the story. She fails to overcome in the end, and it is only when that risk is removed that she can rejoin her blinded and disfigured boyfriend.

You blog like the English cook. I don’t know why I have this tendency to boil things down. And yes, this point seems obvious as I write it, but it’s an interesting way to think about conflict, that it’s all internal and that it’s all about want overcoming fear.

So, the question cannot be just as simple as “What does the character want?” but “What does the character want, and what fears is he willing to face to get it.” I know, for me, when I write, I often think about what the character wants, but I rarely note exactly what it is a character fears.

Do you?

About Adam Nannini

The greatest writer of his generation ... which isn't saying much.
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