Using Core Beliefs to Create Authentic Characters

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I took this in Wilson’s Promontory National Park in Victoria, Australia. When you look at this picture, what do you think?

Obviously, there’s a million different thoughts you might have, ranging from okay, some dead trees, to cool mix of life and death/light and shadow, to when are the Ringwraiths going to ride out?

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This picture was taken on a subzero day in Wisconsin. I think, wow, it looks like these barren tree branches are covered with glittering diamonds. My husband thinks, ugh, Wisconsin winters.

In my day job, I’m a school psychologist. School psychologists are one of the mental health professionals in the schools. Translation: I like to dig into people’s brains (not literally) and figure out what makes them tick.

As I writer, I try to apply psychology when creating my characters, and use it to guide their reactions to events and interactions with other characters, as well as to find their unique voice.

When thinking about what makes people (and therefore my characters) tick, what’s made them who they are, a lot of it stems from their past experiences. Our past helps shape who we become, how we see the world, and how we interact with events and people. Our past experiences, stemming from birth and how our parents raised us, impact how our brain develops. It creates our core beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world.

So this is where I try to start with my characters. I don’t plot out their entire life story, but I think through how their parents raised them, the nature of the parent-child relationship, and general family things like siblings and extended family. Was it a close, intimate bond? Distant? Inconsistent? Who did they feel most connected to? Or were they connected to no one? Then I think through both positive and negative major life events that impacted them: deaths, moves to new communities, bullying, parental substance abuse, births of new family members, unique experiences, travel, etc. How did these impact how they see themselves, others, and the world?

Next, I consider who my character looks up to. Who is their role model? All of this creates my character’s core beliefs. Our core beliefs are things we generally accept as 100% true. Core beliefs dictate our whole lives and how we operate in the world. They can be healthy or unhealthy, protective or harmful. They can often cause tunnel vision to facts that challenge them.

Examples of core beliefs about self: I’m a good (or bad) person, I’m intelligent (or dumb), I’m worthy (or unworthy) of love, I can usually accomplish my goals (or not), I’m attractive (or ugly), I’m unique (or abnormal), I’m exceptional.  The rules don’t apply to me. People don’t understand me because I’m special. I deserve attention and praise. I can’t ask for help because that means I’m a loser. I have to do everything perfectly. My needs aren’t important. If I express negative feelings in a relationship, he/she will leave me. I’m helpless. I’m out-of-control. I don’t deserve good things. I’m going to be rejected/abandoned. It’s always my fault. These last few are big ones I see in children who have suffered abuse and neglect. They may start acting in ways to trigger rejection, so at least the rejection happens on their terms.

Examples of core beliefs about others: People are generally good (or bad), people see the best (or worst) in me or others, certain groups of people are more dangerous than others. It’s safe (or unsafe) to trust others. People should respect me. If I let people in, they will just betray me. People only look out for themselves. People always take and never give. Other people have all the luck. Other people have it easier.

Examples of core beliefs about the world: The world is generally safe (or dangerous), the world is fair (or unfair), there is a higher being, the world/God determines fate, my actions can impact the world and my fate, the world is beautiful (or ugly). Seeing only the bad actions or others and not the good. I can leave my door unlocked at night, or I need three dead bolts.Also the classic glass is half empty or half full or rose-colored glasses.

Now, putting my school psychologist hat on, I’m shifting into a counseling framework called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This posits our beliefs shape our perceptions of events and interactions, and shape our THOUGHTS about events. Our thoughts and interpretations of events then trigger our EMOTIONS in response. Then our thoughts and emotions cause us to ACT. Our actions are directly, causally related to the way we perceive and interpret events, which are created by our beliefs.

Our thoughts and perceptions don’t occur in isolation—they are fueled by our past experiences, which have created our world view and our core beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world.

Going back to the tree picture…. I grew up in Wisconsin. I don’t always love winter, but I try to find beauty in everything. My husband loves me so much, he endures Wisconsin winters for me, but despises every second of it. These experiences created our core beliefs about winter: a thing or beauty or something to be endured.

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The example I always use with children involves a dog.

Let’s say you were bit by a dog when you were younger, or your parents were constantly warning you to stay away from dogs because they’re dirty/dangerous. This may shape a core belief in you that dogs are bad. Therefore, when you see a cockapoo walking down the street, your thought might be “It’s going to bite me!” Your emotion might be fear. Your action might be to cross the street. If you’d never had those experience, your thought might be, “Oh, look at that cute dog!” Your feeling might range from indifference to happiness. Your action might be to just walk on by or even ask to pet it. But it all stems from beliefs about dogs.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy teaches people to recognize and challenge core beliefs and initial thoughts.

For the writer, digging into character’s pasts, and figuring out their core beliefs, can help figure out who characters are, how they might think, feel, and therefore guide their actions in ways that feel authentic and real act in a way that is authentic and real. It helps find their voice.

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Turning my writing brain back on

I’m just going to admit it. I haven’t done any sort of writing for a month. October was so busy with work and weddings and my daughter’s birthday and all the lovely Fall things that I didn’t even think about writing.

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But, to be honest, it’s been rejuvenating. With one of my WIPs, I’ve felt like I’ve been running a marathon with no finish line for about five years. It’s been in a perpetual state of me thinking it’s almost done, only to discover some major issue, triggering major (if not almost entire) rewrites. This WIP is particularly complicated for many reasons, but now–for real–it’s with my agent.
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In September, I dabbled with a few other WIPs, but none of them grabbed me at the time.

But after a month off, I feel like my creativity wells have been replenished. I’m ready. And I’ve figured out why one of my WIPs wasn’t working, even though–for once–I have a fairly strong plot from the get-go. The problem is I’m not connected to one of the main characters. I can’t feel her voice. I don’t feel her inner conflict. II don’t know who she is as a unique (imaginary) human being. I don’t know her core beliefs and fears or her moral compass. She isn’t real to me yet, therefore I can’t care enough to write her. I need to discover her. Once I do that, I know this WIP will carry me away, because I love the setting, concept, theme, and other main character.

Here’s my plan to kick start my writing brain again.

I’ve got my playlist, my personal soundtrack for the book, ready to go.

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I’ve started a new Pinterest board with quotes that inspire my MC (and me) as well as images that inspire the setting and scene.


And I’m delving back into a few writing resources that challenged me to become a better writer a few years ago to get me into my character’s head.

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I’m excited to finally write again 🙂

The post-it notes that helped get me through

IMG_7442Revisions and major re-writes are hard. To put it VERY mildly. Scuplting your latest draft into a thing of beauty require completely different mental processes than pounding out that initial first draft. And, for me, each round of revision requires a focus on a different part, starting with each POV character’s internal and external story arc, then the evolution of their relationships with secondary characters, then setting/dialect, then finally line edits and word count. Then, for me at least, repeat the process again after any feedback that leads to major changes.

To help me keep my brain focused on the right things, I plastered the wall over my computer with notes to self, presented to you in no particular order above.

Stakes: What’s at stake for each character? The world (if appropriate)? How are the stakes rising with each section, each page? What happens if the main character gets what they seek? What’s at stake if they fail, for them personally, but also possibly their loved ones, and their community/world? And why should I care as a reader?

Goal, Motivation, Conflict: What is the character’s goal? Why do they NEED it? And what’s getting in their way? Every chapter should have it’s own GMC and should move the overall internal/external plot forward. Thankfully, I had several critique partners who hounded me about this 😀 Gotta love good CPs!

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Agency: What active role is the main character taking to achieve their goal, to resolve the internal/external conflict? What choices are they making that drive the plot forward and have serious consequences?

Backstory: This I got from Angela Ackerman’s Backstory Checklist.

Chapter One: I literally wrote at least a dozen different chapter ones for my most recent WIP. Finding a starting point was a challenge. Beyond that, it was hard find the balance of essential information/backstory with action, dialogue, and forward momentum.

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Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but still it’s no easy task because chapter one is the foundation of your book, where you create the contract with your reader, set expectations about genre, voice, character, central conflict, hint at obstacles and antagonists, etc. I like to think of it as the seeds you plant that will grow into the rest of your story. Writing a good first chapter is an art.

IMG_6664(My back garden at dawn)

The Backstory and Chapter One post-its are directly tied to my next post-it, what can the reader find out later? One of my greatest struggles with chapter one was the complicated situation that set the stage for one of my POV character’s inciting incident. But how much was absolutely essential for the reader to know to get the gist of what was going on and to connect to the character? Asking what the reader can find out later helped me stay focused on writing the active scene as opposed to drowning them in all the stuff that set the stage, which could be dribbled in over the next few chapters.

Patience/take your time: waiting for critique feedback, taking revisions slow, putting the WIP through another round of feedback can be excruciating when you just want to be DONE. Or maybe you’re 99% certain you are done. But sculpting you WIP into the best it can be is what really matters in the end, whether your goal is to get an agent, or get it on submission, or prepare it for publication (self-publishing, Big Five, and everything in between).

Open mind: Getting critique partner feedback can be very hard. Good critique partners should always give you hard but constructive feedback that challenges you as a writer. I can’t count the times CPs have called me out on stuff I didn’t realize or ignored. There were so many times I just wanted to ignore hard feedback, rationalize it away, but then weeks or sometimes months later, I realized they were right. Of course, the caveat is that it must be true to your story, not what they think your story should be.

Nice vs. necessary: Word count was a big issue for me in this revision. I needed to cut at least 15,000 words. Hence nice vs. necessary. What scenes, characters, bits of dialogue and prose, lines, even words are absolutely necessary to move plot and character development forward? If it doesn’t fit into that category, cut it. A scene description might be pretty, a bit of dialogue funny, or a bit of prose may be lyrically inspiring, but if it’s not moving things forward, it’s not needed.

It’s not just what you think is the goal, the reader must feel it: You won’t be sitting next to a reader telling them, oh, Bob needs to figure out he’s worthy of love, or Susie needs to realize they can love their father and hate what he did. The reader needs to be able to infer that on their own. If multiple CPs aren’t picking up on it, then it’s not working.

Filter words/interiority reveals something new: This is also related to slashing word count. For more on filter words, here’s something from Pub(lishing) Crawl. And when your character is thinking something make sure it’s revealing new information or perspective, not just rehashing what’s already on the page.

These post-it notes were some of things that helped me emerge from this round of intense re-writes, revisions, and line edits feeling proud of what I sculpted.

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It’s been a long road

IMG_7330(My daughter at Devil’s Lake State Park)

It’s been a long road.

I’ve spent the last two years feeling like I’m running a marathon, nearing the finish line, only to have it moved farther and farther away. Of course, I’m only racing against myself. But feeling like I’m perpetually so close makes it hard to stop pushing . I started working on this novel in November of 2011, set it aside, then dug it up again after moving to Singapore in 2013. It’s been completely re-written several times, based on feedback from critique partners and my agent. On my computer, literally dozens of different saved versions exist. My document of “cut stuff” is twice as long as the manuscript itself.

It’s been daunting and frustrating at times. It seemed impossible. I wanted to give up, doubted my capacity as a writer. Doubted my ability to find my way through.

IMG_5297(My daughter hiking in the Canadian Rockies)

But my writer friends believed in me, which helped me believe in myself.

Now I’m thrilled to say, after filling entire notebooks with revision planning and brainstorming around feedback… After almost completely re-writing one of the two POV story lines (yet again)… After four rounds of feedback from both new and old critique partners, with comprehensive revisions in between… After seven months of late nights and very early mornings…. And lots and lots of this:

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(A flat white, my favorite coffee drink)

Now I can say that I’ve finally crossed the finish line for this shiny new version of my novel and sent it to my agent. I’ve been working on it so long now that I can’t objectively say if it’s ready to go on submission, but I am so proud of what it’s become.

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(My celebratory cupcake with ridiculous quantities of frosting)