What’s the One Thing Your Character Can’t Live Without?

There are a myriad of ways to create characters. Problem is, there are so many of them that we can spend all of our time creating characters and never actually write the novel those characters exist in.

I tend to be a minimalist when creating characters, because I like to learn who they are by tossing them into the plot and seeing what they do. But it helps to have a starting point for those characters, otherwise they develop willy nilly and feel completely inconsistent and at odds with themselves. They make decisions based on plot (what I want) and not what they want.

When I first create a character, I like to ask: What is the one thing this character can’t live without?

This pinpoints what matters most to this character, and suggests the type of person he or she might be. Some characters can’t live without an item, such as a prized possession from their dead spouse, others can’t live without something loftier, like the freedom to choose their own destiny. Both of these characters will have unique approaches to how they interact with the story world.

That’s why it’s important to ask next: Why?

People value things for very different reasons, which in turn makes them very different in both personality and motivations. Valuing a possession could suggest a materialistic nature, or profound sentimentality, or even a fear of loss. A desire for freedom at all costs could create an idealistic dreamer or someone who’s afraid to commit to anything that might tie her down.

Once we understand why that character values that “thing” we know more or less how she’ll react in a situation.

This can also lead to some other fun and useful questions to ask, such as:

If this character lost that thing, how would she react?

This can suggest how the character might react to adversity in general. The person who sits down and cries for a week is probably not going to be an in-your-face confrontational type, while the person who seeks revenge on whoever took what she values is likely to react in a much more aggressive fashion.

What would this character do to avoid losing this thing?

This can suggest the lines a character might cross, or how much she’ll endure for something important to her. Can she be pushed beyond her limits? Would she betray her own morals? How far is she willing to go? If she’s willing to break laws or vows for this thing, where else might she be flexible with ethics or morality?

What would this character sacrifice to protect this thing?

This is a great way to determine what choices to throw at the character by forcing her to make such a sacrifice. It also helps with developing what else might be in the character’s life, or what she might not value as much even if she does care about it. Willing to let a tyrant oppresses a village as long as her family is left alone? Willing to give up that family for the greater good if it stops the tyrant? Maybe she’s willing to sacrifice herself for what she values.

Some characters start as wispy outlines, while others leap fully formed from our heads. No matter how they make it to the page, they all care about something more than anything else in their lives. Knowing what matters to them will help us turn them into real and compelling people our readers will remember.

Where do you start when you create a character?

5 Responses to What’s the One Thing Your Character Can’t Live Without?

  1. Chicory Aug 27 2014 at 10:06 am #

    These are such good questions! (But then, you do have a way of making a person think.) I’m glad you mentioned that what the character can’t live without can be an ideal rather than a thing. For me, I usually realize what my characters are willing to put up a fight for only after I’ve written a chapter or two -that’s when they really start to jell for me. My current MC can’t bear solitude. He’d rather hang out with people who look down on him than be alone, and he is currently going to great lengths to get back to those people. (It’s a sad story.)

  2. Julie
    Julie Aug 27 2014 at 12:12 pm #

    Janice, this is a fantastic post – exactly the kinds of questions that help me round out a character. Reading this, I thought of the characters in my WIP, and I realize that some of these things work their way into the story. But I think these questions are just as important (maybe more so?) when they don’t get mentioned in the story. Thanks for this! 🙂

  3. Becki Aug 27 2014 at 4:29 pm #

    I found this question so intruiging I answered your questions in a full blog! Thankyou for the inspiration and the opportunity to explore something further about my main character. It made me think a lot more about some of her motivations and weaknesses. This is a great starting point for character creation.

    literarypancakes.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/whats-one-thing-your-character-cant.html

  4. Julie Musil Aug 27 2014 at 7:01 pm #

    These are such great questions to ask ourselves, Janice. My favorite craft book, Plot & Structure, suggests that we make lists like this and then dig past the first few things on our list. It’s a great exercise for plotters.

  5. Caroline Ludovici Aug 29 2014 at 6:56 pm #

    Great article. Sometimes an author is told to cut back on the background of characters and stick to the point. I do not agree. I try to bring mine alive and make them very real, believable, with feelings, thoughts and tell the reader what’s going on ‘off stage’, as it were. We need to get to know them. And in YA, this is missing so much. It is usually all up front, loud and without subtlety…

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