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?


15 Responses to WWMCD: Creating Depth and Motivation in Your Characters

  1. Charlie Rice Jun 6 2012 at 6:23 am #

    Emergency Comment:

    File me under knowing my characters too well. At first I needed to create everyone bio’s to get them straight. A couple of books later, I discovered I didn’t know the “new” characters as much. I went back to bio writing. I should point out that I love all the back story stuff, even though I seldom use it.

    • Amie Jun 6 2012 at 7:27 am #

      Oh, you mock me because I didn’t fix my title up before I hit publish! This would never happen to one of you organised character biographers, would it?

      • Charlie Rice Jun 6 2012 at 8:42 am #

        I would never mock you, just some pre-coffee funnin’. 😀

  2. AVJohnson Jun 6 2012 at 7:24 am #

    I love this exercise! I did brief character studies for my book, but this is a more organic approach. Love it. Thanks.

    • Amie Jun 6 2012 at 5:42 pm #

      “Organic” is a great word for it, I agree. Glad it helps!

  3. Jess Jun 6 2012 at 8:46 am #

    Great post, Amie! I will definitely be using this in developing the characters for my WIP!

    • Amie Jun 6 2012 at 5:43 pm #

      Excellent! And lovely to see you, Jess!

  4. Rowenna Jun 6 2012 at 10:25 am #

    I love this idea! I tend to have to just “spend time” with my characters to get them fleshed out–questionnaires are fun, but this is much closer to the experience of writing through scenes and scenarios in a WIP…plus really interesting to think about how a story would have changed if it wasn’t Katniss in the arena or Luke Skywalker on Tatooine, but someone else with a completely different personality!

    As a history nerd, might I suggest real-life examples, too? WWMCD at Valley Forge, as an enslaved African American, or on D-Day?

    • Amie Jun 6 2012 at 5:45 pm #

      Eeee, excuse me while I geek! I love real-life examples! WWMCD during the great depression, or at the World Fair?

  5. Patrick Stahl Jun 6 2012 at 12:49 pm #

    This is a rather interesting approach. The protagonist of my manuscript is in his mid to late 30’s, so it would be quite odd for him to end up in the Hunger Games, but I’ll see if I can think of something… He is a rather intelligent knight with training in swordsmanship, so he would probably stay back at the initial massacre and improvise some weaponry before eventually obtaining a “real” weapon. As for receiving a letter to Hogwarts, there is already magic in my world and due to his age, I really can’t answer for that scenario. His reaction to having his family killed would probably be muted compared to most, as he is stern and tough. I’m not sure that I’ve really learned much about my character, but thanks for the exercise.

    • Amie Jun 6 2012 at 5:53 pm #

      I think you’re letting yourself off too lightly! There’s a lot of room to dig into these scenarios (or others) and find the elements of them that make them challenging. For example, he might be too old for Hogwarts and already know about magic, but what if that wasn’t so? What if he was his younger self, and living in a different world? Would be he excited, daring, jump into it or shrug and ignore it? What kind of personality is he? Or perhaps you can think about the essential elements of that experience — being challenged to abandon beliefs and enter a new and completely unknown world. What would your knight do then? Be flexible, there’s always more to learn about characters!

      • Patrick Stahl Jun 6 2012 at 9:01 pm #

        Wow, great reply. You’ve put me in a tough place. If my character were eleven years old and living in the world of Harry Potter, he would have a slight skeptic reaction, although it would be hidden. Someone would have to be sent to retrieve him if they really wanted him to attend Hogwarts, as he wouldn’t leave his family, and if it were Hagrid at the door he would defend his kin despite the (obvious) disadvantage. Once a little proof was given, and assuming his family wanted him to go, he would attend Hogwarts and become a great Gryffindor student.

  6. Tim Jun 6 2012 at 5:36 pm #

    I find putting myself in my main character’s role really helpful. Like in an acting, theatre way. I actually start striding around my room saying what my character is doing, and doing what my character is doing.:p

    • Amie Jun 6 2012 at 5:46 pm #

      Yeah, I definitely do faces, move around, try things out before I write!

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