Security, Sex, and Power: 3 Keys to Unlocking Character

Do you really know what motivates your characters? I mean beyond trying to solve the mystery of the plot you’ve woven around them, or being reunited with the person you’ve torn from them in the interest of suspense. What is the constant energetic force in your character’s life that drives him or her to do the things they do?

You can find out by looking at the three lower levels of human consciousness. These three areas are the ego’s favorite playgrounds. Most of us spend some time in all of them every day, but each us has one realm in particular that we favor. And that goes for characters too.

Here are the Big 3, going from lowest to highest:

Characters who are motivated by security tend to hoard things: Money, material items, food, etc. And they’re usually stingy when it comes to sharing. It’s difficult for them to trust others, and give or receive love. They tend to get jealous easily. They believe that if something good is going around, there isn’t enough and it will surely run out before it gets to them.

Security-focused characters manifest their underlying fears through rigidity, routine, paranoia and suspicion.

Gollum in the Lord of the Rings is a great example of a character who operates on the security level just about every single second of his life.

Sensation (or, the Sex Level)
Sensation-driven characters are motivated by the pleasures and delights afforded by their five senses. Sex is usually their obsession because it’s one of the most intoxicating sensations, but they might also have a thing for overindulgence in food, luxury items like silks, furs, and perfumes, or experiences that feed them adrenaline.

Characters who are obsessed with sensation are often daring, reckless, and sometimes foolhardy. They might take shape as a womanizing ladies’ man, or the high-roller with a gold-plated iPod.

The Vampire Lestat from Anne Rice’s books is an example of a sensation-driven character.

Characters driven by power are driven to dominate. They’re easy to spot when they’re being aggressive, but power plays can also take the passive form of withholding (resources or information) and a refusal to communicate. Power players see everything as a challenge and they are always looking to improve or hold onto their status in the hierarchy.

A character who answers to the siren song of power might typically manifest as the ruthless CEO or some other cruel despot, but they can also show up as the quiet yet domineering matriarch of the family who manipulates everyone according to her will in a sneaky and underhanded way.

The White Queen from the Chronicles of Narnia is an extreme example of this type of character.

If your character is an “evil” character these traits will be right out front and center and easy to identify. But if your character is a “good” character—or at the very least, a character trying his or her best—these traits will come out in the shadow side of the personality. The shadow level will show up when the character is under stress, and it will test the character by putting them through an addictive cycle of desire, and then despair.

So what’s your character addicted to? What’s the thing they can’t say no to? What draws them even as it repels them? When you find the answers to these kinds of questions, your character’s next move will announce itself loud and clear.

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  • Reply MJ Bush 13 January, 2014 at 9:57 am

    Great post. What motivates is fear or desire. I don’t believe all fears or desires will fall under these three, but they are a great place to start looking. =)

    I’d like to further explore how each character has a favored “mental hangout,” so to speak.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 13 January, 2014 at 10:33 am

      Thanks MJ! I’ve been finding lately that as I explore my own favored “mental hangouts” I’ll stumble across clues to my characters’ hangouts along the way.

  • Reply Rebecca Vance Rebecca Vance 13 January, 2014 at 9:44 pm

    I found it interesting that you mention the shadow, or our “dark side.” Just today I was reading a craft book on creating villains, and the author tells us that Carl Jung, had a unique approach to explaining the human psyche. “According to Jung, one important aspect of the psyche, which he called the shadow, is the opposite of the conscious self, and it often holds all the negative tendencies a person usually denies. The Shadow is often on display in our dreams.” She goes on to quote Jung from his Collected Works, Volume II: “Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself to be. Everyone carries a Shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”
    I’m not sure if I totally agree with that, but it does give one food for thought.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 14 January, 2014 at 8:23 am

      I LOVE Jung. And I am fascinated by the shadow theory as well, but I didn’t know that it is “often on display in our dreams.” Interesting!

  • Reply Phillip McCollum 14 January, 2014 at 10:00 am

    Great advice and examples, Lauren. It’s useful to have something like this to reference when putting together those character sheets!

  • Reply Paul Sutton Reeves 15 January, 2014 at 11:32 am

    Nice to see some Freudian analysis coming into the mix there, Lauren. Sound advice, as always. I loved the positivity in your previous post too.

  • Reply J. Meckes 15 January, 2014 at 6:57 pm

    This is a great post. I’ll be thinking about the Big 3 when I create characters. It’s a great mural, too. Thanks!

  • Reply hilarycustancegreen 16 January, 2014 at 2:53 am

    As a cognitive psychologist, I was a little troubled about the heavy Freudian/Jungian weighting of characters. This feels a little medieval to me. However all came good in the final paragraphs emphasising the complexity of individuals.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 16 January, 2014 at 9:55 am

      Well, you’re right Hilary. This system is a bit primitive. It’s sort of like being assigned a red, blue, and yellow crayon and nothing else to draw a picture. When I use this system I use it in a fast-and-rough manner to sort of cut through a lot of the other stuff I might get bogged down with when writing character. Burt that is a personal issue I have: I tend to write way too much detail and back story about my characters so I’m always looking for tools to help me simplify.

  • Reply Marie Ann Bailey 16 January, 2014 at 7:36 pm

    I haven’t read Jung, actually don’t know much about psychology, but your post resonated with me in terms of the characters I’m working with now. Both the “good” and the “bad” characters deal with levels of security, sex, and power. The bad characters are driven by their fears, their sensation-seeking, and their desire to dominate. They are obsessed and seem to be incapable of controlling their obsessions (which, in a way, may make them somewhat sympathetic). The good characters have the same drives but their drives run silent and deep, and self-reflection helps them to mitigate so they don’t obsess, they don’t cross the line into crime or “abnormal” behavior. But they still struggle and that’s what makes their stories interesting to me.

    I really appreciate your posts, Lauren 🙂

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 17 January, 2014 at 8:24 am

      Thanks Marie, I really appreciate you reading!

      I loved this that you mentioned, “The good characters have the same drives but their drives run silent and deep, and self-reflection helps them to mitigate so they don’t cross the line…” I see so many people go through that struggle, in real life. Especially during adolescence and the teenage years. I do feel that many of my “bad” characters are characters whose development was arrested in some way, usually by a traumatic event.

      Thanks so much for sharing this Marie.

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