Have you ever read a story where the characters felt real? I mean leap-off-the-page, slap-you-in-the-face real? Stories like that are enticing. They suck me in – in the best possible way. One of the things I’m constantly striving to improve in my writing is the authenticity of my characters. I aim to analyze them as much as I analyze the traits of people I know.
For the Love of Your Characters!
Recently, I talked about using personality tests to develop characters and determine their motivation. Today, I want to share with you another angle on digging deeper into your characters. It comes by way of a book my husband and I studied in our premarital counseling: The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate by Gary Chapman.
The aim of this self-help book is to create a successful marriage by way of correctly identifying and fulfilling your spouse’s specific needs for love. Its sequel, The Five Love Languages of Children, focuses on channeling your love for your kids through means that are tangible to them individually.
Chapman lists five different ways that individuals can receive love. Though a healthy relationship (either marriage or parent/child) should exhibit a sprinkling of all five, each individual will have a primary (and often a secondary) language in which he or she receives love best. In other words, depending on the person, some ways of showing love are more effective than others.
The Five Love Languages
- Words of Affirmation
A person with this love language most values verbal compliments including encouraging words, kind words and humble words.
- Quality Time
True quality time is more than doing something alongside someone else. It means giving them your undivided attention. Eye contact and conversation are vital aspects.
- Receiving Gifts
A gift is anything tangible that is given to show affection, no matter how big or small. The value of the object isn’t determined by whether it was expensive or free but by just the idea that the giver was thinking of you. A side note on this one: physical presence is sometimes more effective than presents when the one you love is going through a crisis.
- Acts of Service
An individual with this love language feels loved most when they are being served. The particular area of service (or dialect, as Chapman calls it) may vary. For example: cooking an elaborate meal may rank higher than mowing the grass – or vice versa, depending on the person.
- Physical Touch
Touch falls into two categories. It can be deliberate like giving a back massage or implicit like absently putting your hand on someone’s shoulder. Deliberate touches require more time, thought and energy, therefore they are often more effective. However, the type of touch preferred varies by individual.
Full or Empty?
Each person has one primary love language. In turn, if not taught otherwise, that individual instinctively uses his or her own language to show love to others. We give what we need. The problem is, often what we give doesn’t meet the need of the others in our lives.
Everyone has what Chapman refers to as a “Love Tank.” The meter on the tank, whether full or hovering near empty, determines whether that person is happy, satisfied and feeling loved. It is important to note that it is not the actual love felt by the giver, but the receiver’s perception of love that fills the tank. A miserable spouse may not be feeling love if his or her mate is speaking a different language. A rebellious child may have an empty love tank even if his or her parents are expending all their efforts to communicate their love in other ways.
Loving Your Characters
The principles from The Five Languages of Love can easily be applied to fictional characters. Ask yourself questions like these:
How does the protagonist receive love? Is his or her struggle related to a need for one of the five languages?
What drives your antagonist? Is his/her motivation related directly or indirectly to an unfulfilled need for love?
How have the main characters’ love languages been spoken or neglected in the past by parents, friends and those of the opposite sex? How does that affect their motivations within the story?
In what ways do differing love languages create tension and/or chaos between characters?
How do the love languages of your characters influence your story? What other key questions can we ask to determine more about character motivation? Tell me what you think in the comments.