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Wednesday, March 14

What’s the Emotional Core of Your Character?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

When we’re developing characters, there’s a lot to think about. We need to create names, backgrounds, personalities, likes, dislikes, flaws, strengths, the list can go on and on. But at the center of all those traits is a guiding force that influences them all.

The character’s emotional core.

Although people (and thus characters) can be complicated creatures, the emotional core is a simple thing.

It’s the primary driving emotion behind a character’s thoughts and behavior.

Think about the people in your life. If you had to describe them in one word, what would it be? Cheerful? Selfish? Cheap? Generous? Loving? Goofy? This doesn’t mean they always act this way, but a selfish person tends to think of themselves first and even their generous actions are often guided by that selfishness.

For example, a selfish person might:
  • Offer to help out at a party so they can bask in the gratitude of the host and look good
  • Show up early to events where choices are made so they get first choice
  • Manipulate situations so they get what they want while appearing magnanimous by helping others get what they want next
Externally, the selfish person can appear to be a generous person, but the motives behind those acts is one of personal gain, not a need a support others. How we’d write this character is different from how we’d write someone who was outwardly greedy or selflessly generous.

This doesn’t mean the selfish person is a bad person. They can still be a good person who cares about others. The results of their behavior can still be positive, they can still do nice things for others, but their motivations behind them come from a different place than someone who acts just to be kind.

Take a look at your characters—especially your protagonist and antagonist.
  • What is their emotional core?
  • What emotion is driving their actions deep down on the subconscious level?
  • What kind of person do they think they are?
  • Are they right?
Sometimes we think we’re on kind of person when we really aren’t. We think we’re generous, but that generosity comes from a need to be liked, or a desire to be admired, or a fear we’ll be left out. That subtle distinction creates gives us layers of emotional depth to play with as writers.

A character’s emotional core helps us write them because we understand the subtle aspects of their motivations. Actions from a place of love are different from actions from a place of greed. The action guided by love might not expect anything in return, while the action guided by greed might see a personal benefit to behaving in such a way. That benefit might exist in both cases, but the greedy person will see it and act because of it, while the loving person doesn’t see it acted regardless of it being there.

Characters are complicated, so they will act and behave in conflicting and contradictory ways. A selfish person can indeed be generous, and a generous person can have a moment of greed, but if you look deep down, odds are the motivations for those unlikely behaviors still stems from that emotional core. It would be subtle or obvious, depending on how clear you’d want to make it to your readers.

Take a few minutes and think about the emotional cores of the characters in your current project.
  • Do they have one?
  • Is it guiding their behaviors?
  • Are you making the most of that emotional core to create interesting conflicts?
Use the emotional core of your characters to create layered, interesting people who at and behave for personal reasons unique to them. Not only will you get better characters, but usually better stories as well.

What’s the emotional core on your characters? 

Looking to improve your craft? Check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. My MC is selfish and disingenuous, but not cheap. This is hard to bring up, as he is always justifying his actions as means to help others, but most times he is pursuing his own interests and is prone to ignore the impact of his actions on another's life.

    That doesn't mean he will not help help someone in need. He is not an evil person, nor bad. Just selfish at a deep subconscious level.

  2. My main character's emotional core is a desperate need for love and affirmation. Which is a problem because he lacks loyalty. He pretty much just tries to please whoever he's with in the hopes that they'll love him- even if it goes against whoever he was trying to please five minutes ago.