Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Digging Deeper to Get to Know Your Characters—Sometimes a Game of Hide & Seek

by DiAnn Mills @DiAnnMills

You’re an excellent writer. You’ve spent hours developing your character, but something’s missing. 

Frustration is eating a hole into your creativity because your character is too proud to admit he might not be perfect.
You have:
  • Researched your character’s personality.
  • Interviewed him and asked tough questions.
  • Developed a unique voice and dialogue.
  • Established a setting that promises to spin the story into a whirlwind of action.

But the character is guarding his weaknesses and flaws. He won’t divulge one moment of backstory, and you’re helpless to discover his motivation for any behavior.

It’s time to hit the psychology books. After all, this closed-mouth character may be the best one you’ve ever created.
Flaws and weaknesses in human nature stem back to creation. God created us with three needs: relationships, significance, and security. Those needs are supposed to be satisfied by Him. But Adam and Eve kicked off their own program of relying on God. The question is how does your character fulfill his basic needs that don’t factor God into the equation?
The following is a list of those weaknesses that your character may use to fill the empty spots in his life. Where does your character fit?
  • Money
  • Power
  • Sex
  • Material acquisition
  • Work, relationships, education, and aesthetic values

Your character uses his weaknesses to satisfy unmet needs. Characters have unmet needs that fall into these categories.
  • Survival - the need to have continued existence
  • Security - the need for emotional and economic stability
  • Sex - the need for intimacy
  • Significance - the need to amount to something and be worthwhile
  • Self-fulfillment - the need to achieve goals
  • Selfhood - the need for a sense of identity       

Once the writer is able to discover weaknesses and unmet needs, then motivation slips into an issue of backstory. Human motives have been categorized into four areas, and these areas extend into each one.
  • Biological
  • Social
  • Cognitive
  • Spiritual     

So take a look at that stubborn character. What is his or her basic need? Is it relationships, significance, or security? Or a combination? What does he use as a Band-Aid to cover up what’s lacking in his life? What category does his unmet need slide into? Now what motivates your character into action?
I bet you’ll learn something remarkable.   

DiAnn Mills is a bestselling author who believes her readers should expect an adventure. She combines unforgettable characters with unpredictable plots to create action-packed, suspense-filled novels. 

Her titles have appeared on the CBA and ECPA bestseller lists; won two Christy Awards; and been finalists for the RITA, Daphne Du Maurier, Inspirational Readers’ Choice, and Carol award contests. Library Journal presented her with a Best Books 2014: Genre Fiction award in the Christian Fiction category for Firewall.

DiAnn is a founding board member of the American Christian Fiction Writers; the 2015 president of the Romance Writers of America’s Faith, Hope, & Love chapter; a member of Advanced Writers and Speakers Association, and International Thriller Writers. She speaks to various groups and teaches writing workshops around the country. She and her husband live in sunny Houston, Texas. 

DiAnn is very active online and would love to connect with readers on any of the social media platforms listed at


  1. DiAnn, I learned from another writer years ago, to search out the lie the character believes about themselves. I do an extensive backstory (that normally never goes into the book) to find out what happened in their childhood that resulted in them believing a lie about themselves. That colors their outlook, their world view and their personality. :) Their personality and motivation are rooted in that lie. It makes for some great plotting fodder.

  2. Before I put a single word of a story down, I make dossiers for all of my main characters and flesh out the secondary characters. Since my plots are "character driven," I have no other choice!

  3. DiAnn,

    What a great post! Thank you for the insights.

    One of my most difficult characters is a near-genuis level Marine/former Marine who holds two doctorates and numerous other degrees related to her service.

    She's also refused every attempt to get to know her at all. The only ways I've found so far to explore her character is through the eyes of other characters. A loving grandfather. An elderly pastor who pastored her unsaved father and continues to pastor her. The lead male lead, a former subordinate who is now a friend and other such people.

    Interestingly enough, I know her back story, how she grew up, what events shaped her life, and all the rest. But she's completely closed down in every other way. I'm at a loss to proceed with her, so the story has stalled, too. In fact, I've tried many different stories on for size and nothing seems to fit because I can't figure her out.

    Your suggestions are the first new suggestions I've seen in some time. I'm going to have to try them out and see what happens.