As a writer you will know that the key to memorable, engaging fiction is believable characters that readers can relate to. But how can you dig deep into your characters to make sure that they are as real to your reader as they are to you? In this article I will take you through why developing an understanding of core values can help strengthen your characterisation and improve motivation and conflict.
What are core values and why are they important to fiction?
Core values are the foundation of who we are, the decisions we make, how we behave and interact with other people and the world. Our value system is shaped by our early experiences in life, and influenced by those key people around us, such as parents, teachers, and mentors. Our values remain the steady compass by which we navigate through the world.
When we live our lives in balance with our values, we experience fulfilment and live in integrity, but when there is an imbalance that is when stress and conflict creep in.
The chances are, if you’re writing character-driven fiction with a positive arc, your character will be facing stress and conflict but working towards a life of fulfilment. Understanding what is driving them at a core value level can help deepen their characterisation and motivations.
How can I identify my characters’ core values?
There isn’t one definite list of core values, but there are many lists readily available for use. The number of values on these lists vary from a handful to hundreds! This is because of the use of synonyms, and, as we know, language matters, so find what works for you. I really like the Life Values Inventory (LVI: Grace & Brown, 1996), which uses 14 relatively independent values, should you wish to refer to this.
A simple exercise is to identify one of these lists and think about your characters. Highlight the values that chime most closely with that character. Do they value financial security? Are they concerned about others? Perhaps they are fiercely independent.
Highlight all that apply to start with, then narrow them down to a smaller number (maybe between three and five) of those values that really characterise their behaviour or are most relevant for the story you are writing. Characters, like real people, will have many facets to their personality, but they will be most strongly driven by only a handful.
If you are in the early stages of getting to know your characters, you can start at the origin of their core values—in their backstories. Identify key life experiences and think about how they could lead to developing a specific core value. For example, if your character was raised in poverty, they may strongly value financial security. Or if they had a stable, loving home, belonging may be a key value for them.
Do keep in mind that humans are complex individuals and there is no simple correlation between an event and the value that is shaped. In fact, relying on obvious correlations can result in cliched characterisations. Someone raised in poverty may actually feel ambivalent about material wealth and financial security, and instead has developed a value of freedom outside of material constructs.
I’ve identified my characters’ core values. Now what?
Identifying core values and where they have stemmed from gives you a strong foundation to build a believable, well-motivated character. Values become an anchor to refer back to. Think about how a core value may manifest itself in the character’s current situation and how they may react if that core value is challenged, or when they are faced with someone who has opposing values. This is where conflict can come from.
For example, how would a character who values independence react if their independence is undermined? Or if a character strongly values belonging (to be accepted and validated by others), imagine how it could affect them if they are rejected by others?
Put pressure on your characters!
It sounds mean, but if you want to create believable conflict look to your character’s core value and put pressure on it! If you have successfully built their core values from backstory, that character will be highly motivated to overcome this conflict, to readdress balance in their lives—whether it is to regain their independence, sense of belonging, or financial prosperity. And if you continue to tap into how a person with that core value may react and behave, your character’s behaviours will remain true to them and be a more rounded, believable character as a result.
Doing deep character work is an essential part of creating strong fiction, and relating your characters closely to the psychology of people, such as their core values, can help shape truly believable and memorable characters. And in the process, you may even learn something about yourself!