Friday, August 14, 2015

Strength of Character(s)

Fridays aren't all that different from any other days when you're on vacation... but I'm going to go ahead and assume (as I sit here typing this, two weeks ahead) that it's a fine Friday nonetheless.  

Here to complement that Friday fine-ness is Bachiavellian, an author whom you might know for a story popping around near the top of the Top-All Time list on FiMFic as I type this (knowing the volatility of that list, it'll probably have a couple new downvotes by the time this post goes up, but what're ya gonna do?), but whom you really should know for his RCL-induction-earning, quintessential sad-tagged Carrot Top story.

...What?  Yes, I have a soft spot for Carrot Top, but that's a story that more than stands on its own merits.  Now, head down below the break for Bachiavellian's thoughts on how to conceive and create compelling characters.


As a newer writer, one of the things that used to really worry me was how strong my story’s characters were. Characterization is one of those things which is pretty easy to spot when it’s done badly, but at the same time it can be often frustratingly difficult to figure out how to make a character feel three dimensional. It can really drive someone up a wall to find something that’ll make a character feel likeable, relatable, and interesting.

In this post, I’d like to talk about how I, personally, approach the problem of making ponies, dragons, and the occasional minotaur feel rounded and in-character. I hope this might be a help to people who might be struggling with making character sound like their show-selves or making OCs feel whole and fleshed-out. It’s a bit of a daunting task for novices and veterans alike, but, like all problems, it can be broken up into simpler components.

That being said, it may be an exercise in futility to try to describe every single element of what makes a good character tick. After all, a character is essentially a fictional person, and I don’t think anyone knows exactly why people do or say the things they do. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it is virtually impossible to create a character that is completely understandable and relatable.

This is something we can’t even do in real life. Think about your friends and family—although you have an idea of how they’d react to certain events and situations, you’d never know for sure. Instead, we build a mental image of this person based on our own experiences with them and use this as a reference guide when we interact with them. Take heed, authors, because we can use this to our advantage!

As writers, we have a lot of control over when and how the audience is allowed to study a character, which means that with a little bit of help, the readers themselves will fill in a lot of holes in order to create an image of this character the same way they create “reference guides” for the people they know in real life. This is what I think makes a character come to life.

However, even with the reader to do a lot of the heavy-lifting, a character needs a few concrete elements to make them seem real. In the end, it becomes a balance of giving enough information for the reader to understand a character while giving enough room for the reader to organically fill in the gaps to create the image of an actual person. Too much explanation, and characters will feel wooden, stilted, and robotic. On the other hand, if you have too little description you’ll end up with a intangible, unrelatable character that never seems to pull together.

In my opinion, a character needs only two well-defined essential elements to function properly. The first is Motivation, the second is Expression. Along with some personal touches like phobias and pet peeves, this is everything you need to let your reader do the magic of bringing a character to life.

Motivation is often the easier of the two (and it happens to be very self-explanatory). Put simply, it’s what a character wants. I’m sure you’ve heard the expression that deep down, everyone is the same. That’s because in both real life and fiction, people often share pretty simple Motivations, like to please their friends, or to rule the world, or just to feel good about themselves. Of course, everyone has a different way of pursuing happiness, based on their own personal experiences and knowledge. This is where Expression steps in.

Expression is how a character makes their Motivations concrete and tangible. It’s how they celebrate when they’ve won, how they mourn a loss, or how they voice their displeasures. Unlike Motivations, this often takes wildly different forms in different characters. In fact, the same character can have different kinds of Expression for different situations. Remember, these are often rooted in a character’s individual memories and experiences, and they can make up a big part of their personality.

You want to give a character a simple goal (Motivation) and give them their own method of accomplishing this goal or bemoaning their failure to do so (Expression). If the situation calls for it, you can also give them a reason why they chose this method over any other (Experience), but you can also leave this bit to the reader. It’s one of those things that’s often pretty easy for people to fill in when they create their character images in their heads since we are rarely intimate with the core memories of others.

And, there you have it! Give a character a couple of solid Motivation-Expression pairs, and they should be good to handle any situation your story throws at them.

When dealing with pre-existing characters (as fanfiction often does), the same rules apply, only now you have to pair character-appropriate Expressions to the their core Motivations or risk sounding out of character. Let’s break down a simple example, using ponies.

One of Twilight Sparkle’s biggest Motivations is to be a good friend to the ponies around her. Her experience as a long-time student makes her view conflict around her as “friendship problems” that can be solved through proper application of her knowledge of her friends and their unique personalities. Thus, she often becomes a mediator in conflicts that she isn’t directly involved in.

However, this Expression changes dramatically when she herself is a part of the problem. Oftentimes, she finds an overwhelming need to prove her self-worth, which is implied to have come from her comparing herself to Princess Celestia. She hates feeling useless, and often becomes nervous or apologetic for her self-described failures. While Lesson Zero is the most obvious example of this kind of behavior, you can even see it in Winter Wrap Up and Party Pooped.

This is an exercise you can do with any of the Mane 6, and even with background ponies that are largely defined by fanon. Watch an episode or read a good fic with the character you want to write about, and pay attention to what they do in each situation. Try to link causes and effects; ask yourself why a particular character would react one way now but in a totally different way later. Maybe she gets defensive when there are other people are watching her, or maybe a certain subject always makes her giggly. When you have a good idea of which Expressions tie into which Motivations, find a pair relevant to the story you’re writing and try to imitate it, but feel free to add your own twist to some of the smaller details to keep things unique and interesting.

One important thing to note, though, is that barring any extreme circumstances, a character’s Expressions tend to be pretty consistent when faced with similar situations. In fact, a lot of instances of someone acting out of character arise when the audience recognizes that a certain Expression isn’t the norm for a particular character’s Motivation. To tie things back to our example, Twilight casually casting want-it-need-it spells to make ponies like her wouldn’t usually be considered an in-character Expression of her desire to be a good friend.

Still, a lot of humor can be derived from bending a character out of shape, but you’ll need a pretty strong reason for it. Take Lesson Zero as a good example of an instance of Twilight behaving in a way that is not at all like her established Expressions without feeling OOC. The trick, here, is that the episode spends the bulk of its time giving Twilight reasons to act in ways she wouldn’t in normal circumstances. We get a good explanation as to why Twilight went from someone who fixes friendship problems to someone who makes them, instead. Finally, the end does a great job of tying things back to her core Motivations and Expressions. The episode as a whole does a great job of expanding on Twilight’s personality by putting her out of her comfort zone.

Whether you’re studying a character or twisting them out of shape, it’s always important to have a good grasp on their existing Motivation-Expression pairings. In other words, try to pay attention to what makes a character do what they do. Then, compare your story’s conflict/scenario to what you see on the show before deciding how they might act. Finally, take a few appropriate liberties to spice things up.

And that’s pretty much it. Show, don’t tell, leave the rest to your reader, and a lot of wonderful things can happen.

Good luck, and happy wordsmithing!


I think "Motivation" and "Expression" as described here are some handy tools to use if you're having trouble figuring out how a character ticks.  If you're sitting there wondering "What would [insert character] do?" or "Why would my OC want to [insert action here]?," maybe approaching it from this angle will help.  Thanks again for sharing, Bachiavellian!


  1. As I was reading this, I couldn't help but think how this could tie into plotting. A reader would find it satisfying to see what they know about a character's Motivations and Expressions be reconfirmed, or to have their knowledge challenged in an explainable way ("That's so Raven!" or "What? Raven would never do that! Oh... so that's why Raven did that!"). However, with an original character, readers don't know anything about them right away. An author could use this as an opportunity: if you know you'll need some particular Motivation-Expression pair for a later part in a story, try coming up with some ideas on how to introduce that to your readers early on. Sorta like good game design

  2. Thank you for being kind enough to upload some of my words, Chris, and for the endorsements too! It was really fun putting this together, and I hope it ends up being useful for someone.

    1. All good advice, Bachiavellian! I liked this. It was all well thought out and straightforward, and explained in a way that was easy to understand. Whenever I've written characters in the past I've always just kind of... gone for it, but maybe next time I'll try thinking about it your way. Adding some method to my madness could make the process a whole lot easier.

  3. This may be a little on a tangent, but there's some fairly long-standing advice floating around about character motivation. It starts with what Bachiavellian pointed out: what does the character want? It's also useful to decide what the character is willing to do to get it, and what bad thing will happen if he doesn't. Things get more interesting when the character wants multiple things, and better yet when those things conflict or are mutually exclusive.

    Thanks for the writing advice, Bach. Writing topics like this can be very complex, but it definitely helps to boil them down to their core concepts to make them easier to apply and keep in mind.

    1. Moreover, this can be taken as the opening for a guide to writing conflicts. Conflict is what makes stories work, and understanding your characters' motivations is a necessary step towards constructing plot points that cause believable and engaging conflicts.

      Strength of character and the engagingness of conflict go hand in hand. Too many stories fall flat because a reader fails to get the sense that a conflict is even taking place, and truly knowing your characters' motivations is a good way to be sure that a conflict 'clicks' with an audience.