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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