18. The moral core of your characters

Plot, writing, and character – those for me are the three crucial elements of an author’s craft. In posts 3 I talked a little bit about character and plot, and in post 12 I described some of the tools I’ve used for developing and keeping track of plots. I haven’t said much about tools for developing characters. That’s probably because I haven’t yet encountered many tools I find really useful, beyond the checklist in post 3.

  • Name
  • Age
  • Origins (including family and background)
  • Appearance
  • Characteristics (positive and negative) and flaws
  • Distinctive mannerisms
  • Likes and dislikes
  • Goals
  • Key relationships

As I started work on the sequel to A Prize of Sovereigns, I’ve been wondering whether there aren’t other tools I should think about. There are new characters in this sequel, whose working title is The Wheel Turns, but most of them have already appeared in the first book. I know these characters well. They’ve lived with me for the last two years. So why the anxiety about them?

I guess it’s because some of them are going to change in ways they were never challenged to in the first book, most particularly morally. There is morality in A Prize of Sovereigns. It is, among other things, about goodness. I was interested in looking at goodness not so much as measured by individuals’ characters but rather by the consequences for others of their actions. But this is a fairly easy moral universe. Characters either succeed or fail in their stratagems. In The Wheel Turns, different characters’ senses of what is right will come into play, and will be changed. I realised that I didn’t actually know enough about each of them constructed their moral universes, so I began to think and to do read around how other writers had approached this. I tried a couple of the approaches out for my characters.

You can, for example, build your characters by understanding their attributes or traits. There’s quite a lot of this in the Writers Helping Writers website (http://writershelpingwriters.net/). One approach is used by Angela Ackerman, who writes:

‘What really resonates with readers is when a character shows deep convictions–a passion for something meaningful. Why is this? Because buried deep within each of us is our moral center, a belief system that influences our every thought, action and choice. And, for characters to be authentic, they too must display a highly tuned set of beliefs that guide their motivations.’

She advocates building your characters in four onion layers, starting from the moral centre. You work out what particular moral attributes they have, such as kindness, loyalty or responsibility. You then work to the second layer of achievement attributes, aligned with the moral centre and which help the character succeed. Examples of achievement attributes might be resourcefulness or perceptiveness. The third layer, interactive attributes, defines the way your character relates to others, through traits such as honesty or courtesy. The final layer is the identity attributes, which help your character express who she or he is, such as introversion or idealism.

I tried this with my characters. It didn’t really tell me anything about them that I didn’t already know. More importantly, it also didn’t make intuitive sense to me. It’s not how I understand people. It seemed like a sort of character “kit” in which you collect attributes and glue them together to make a person.

Another approach was more intuitive for me. I had quite a lot of fun with this one. It begins with the pyramid of needs, an idea developed by psychologist Abraham Maslow. He argues that people’s behaviour is driven by a set of five needs. At the bottom of the pyramid are basic needs, such as food, clothing, and shelter. Without these, an individual can’t go on to express and try to realise other needs. With basic needs satisfied, people are driven to achieve safety and security. After safety and security come the needs for love and belonging. The fourth level of needs are those esteem and recognition. And finally, at the top of the pyramid, once all the other needs are satisfied, comes the need for self-actualisation – realising one’s potential and achieving personal fulfilment. I mapped some of my characters onto this pyramid.

What was intriguing about this was that I could map my characters’ personal journeys onto this. So Jyoti for example starts with the need to protect her family, somewhere around the border between safety and love/belonging. Her evolution will move her to becoming a fighter for the rights of women, in the self-actualisation tip of the pyramid. In A Prize of Sovereigns she was the only character who underwent no change. She remained strong and cheerful, a helpmeet to her husband Reuven. He is not especially smart or especially brave. He’s a foot-soldier in the King’s war, who returns broken, and suffering post-traumatic stress. In The Wheel Turns, both of them will ascend the pyramid, though Reuven starts from a different place, grappling with esteem issues. Other characters, however, descend the pyramid, most dramatically the King, Byrom, who plummets from the self-actualising tip, to struggling at the bottom of the pyramid to save his life. I’m still not sure I learned anything new about my characters, but I was intrigued by this way of graphically showing the dynamic of their story arcs.


The only concrete upshot of all this fun, however, has been that I added one more element to my basic character sheet checklist – moral dilemma. In real life, few of us have a moral code as unshakeable as we like to believe, and in extreme circumstances we may do things that conflict with our codes. Most moral choices aren’t between the good and the bad, but between conflicting goods. So, for example, Jyoti’s character sheet now includes this dilemma:

As she becomes a stronger advocate of women’s rights, is forced to confront her ideals of duty to her husband and family. She becomes ruthless in her pursuit of this goal

The other thing that tickled my fancy was a couple of posts on M Talmage Moorehead’s blog (http://storiform.com) who says, writing about the idea of voice, ‘I think the term ‘voice” applies more to the viewpoint character than to the writer … because it keeps the reader feeling as if all the plot twists are happening to a real person..’ He describes an interesting experiment where he has a secret blog, ostensibly written by his viewpoint character. He uses this to detect where her voice disappears and his own intrudes. I thought that was a really fun idea, if a lot of work. I think he probably lavishes more attention on his characters than I do on mine. One clue to this is another post, in which he says that to make a character’s beliefs credible, you have to know the information on which those beliefs rest. So if your character is a conspiracy theorist, he says, you have to go and read all those conspiracy theories, with attendant dangers to your grip on reality.

Now there he has a really interesting point, which I’m still working through. The main knowledge base for the characters in The Wheel Turns is their religion. So I’ve had to build their religion. There’s a bit of religion in A Prize of Sovereigns, most obviously in the religious girl Marta who hears voices commanding her to lead her country’s fight-back in the war. But all of that was easy compared with the new book which is going to be full of religious schisms and revolutionary ferment. I’ve had to add four new Gods to their pantheon and work out in some detail, what the attributes are of each God, which social group they appeal to and why, and the associated theological and ritual elements of their worship. As social ferment accelerates, Jyoti and Reuven are going to transfer their allegiance from the traditional peasants’ God, Kaldin, to Hekla, Goddess of music, love and magic in Jyoti’s case, and to Gobannos, the artisan God in Reuven’s case. Jyoti is drawn to Hekla because her adherents champion the idea of the equality of women and men. Reuven is drawn to Gobannos because his adherents champion fairness. I’m sure the theological and political disputes this couple are going to have are going to challenge my world-building skills.

I shouldn’t complain though. How many people are privileged to build their own worlds? This is the joy of writing.

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