I’ve mentioned before that I love the question “why?” as a writer. It allows you to make your characters more realistic, because you understand the choices they make and the thought processes that got them there.
So, as an author, I’ve found two questions that will help you understand what motivates your character. These two questions are also useful for understanding whole societies: why certain people fit in and others don’t, what the unspoken rules are, how characters can manipulate large groups of people to get what they want.
But, on a more personal level, I often ask these questions of myself, because I like to understand why I do the things that I do. Tends to cut down on the stupid choices, at least a little bit. So, when I speak of “you,” you can also read it as “your character,” and vice versa.
Here are the questions, and some sub-questions that will help you get to the answers.
1. What do you value most?
This could mean many things. You could take a look at the physical objects you value, and then go deeper and decide what that says about you. It could be naming your love languages (although, as I explain , I’ve never really understood this concept). It could also be creating a priority list: which ten beliefs are you most sure about, how would the way you use your time divide up percentage-wise, what qualities do you look for in a friend? All of these deal with values.
Careful, though—there’s often a difference between what we say we value in theory and what we actually value through our actions. Both are important to understanding our motivation, but don’t make the mistake of assuming they’ll always be the same.
In a larger group, like a family or city or a whole culture, there are broader questions you can ask to get at a value system. Attaching “why?” to any of these questions should help: Which occupations are looked down upon, and which are considered very important? What age group or gender is most respected? To instantly impress everyone as a stranger, what would you need to do? What accomplishments are most flaunted and talked about by others? What do people do with their free time? How would they define a successful person?
2. What are you most afraid of?
Unless you were subjected to a particularly traumatic event in your childhood, heights and spiders do not top the list. They just don’t, mostly because they only arise when certain triggers are present (if you’re constantly paranoid that a spider may be somewhere in a 10-foot radius of you, you’ve probably drifted past fear and into phobia).
Here’s a short grocery list of terrifying things that are a bit more internal. Some may seem the same, but they all have a bit of a different flavor to them.
Failure. Rejection. Being insignificant. Disappointing others. Being abandoned. Hurting someone close to you. Not being able to forgive or move on. Looking back on your life with a lot of regrets. Having your words twisted and used against you. Becoming the kind of person you hate. Finding out everything you believed was wrong. Standing before those who once looked up to you with all of your faults and failures exposed.
We don’t always have nightmares about these things, but they are what haunt our restless minds late at night when we can’t go to sleep. Sometimes we don’t put them into words. They’re the shadow fears, the ones that won’t make it into haunted houses or horror movies.
Obviously, if you were faced with any of these things, it would be pretty scary. But usually, there are a few that you actively worry about, some that stick out to you more than others. That will tell you a lot about yourself or your character.
Things get a little less personal if you’re analyzing how a society or culture works. The things that societies fear can be a certain group of people, disorder, a return to an old way of life that they’re trying to leave behind, change, or a particular belief system. Remember, though, that collective fears are always just a large cloud of small, individual fears.