Physically, we need air to breathe. We need food and water to survive. Emotionally, our needs are far more complex. This is where understanding core character values become important for our stories. In this month’s Pro Tip, I’m breaking down the most important elements of a character’s psyche that help us look deeper and push our heroes to their limits (and beyond). If you’re the sort of author who likes to trial-by-fire your characters, this is a must-read case study!
What can a character’s Core Values tell us about their journey?
Before we continue my case study of Anna in Frozen, it’s essential to understand that every author, editor, and teacher has their own set of terminology, and some of those lexicons share terms with varying meanings. I’m sharing mine today, but as long as you understand the essence of a concept, you can call it anything you want.
Pro Tip: Definitions vary, so choose your terminology, understand it, and stick to it.
My terminology definitions
We’re mainly talking about one definition today—Void—but because core character values tend to be entwined and interdependent, here are all the definitions relevant to a character’s story journey. I’ve tried to structure them so they make intrinsic sense, but if you already associate one of these with something else, it’s up to you whether to adjust your current vocabulary or mine. The only term you truly need to understand before moving on is Void, so you can always come back and reference the rest of the list as we move through this case study.
- Void – The thing the character craves most but lacks.
- Need – Fulfilling this basest requirement will satisfy the character’s Void.
- Want (External) – The action-oriented (or worldly) manifestation of the character’s core Need.
- Want (Internal) – The emotional manifestation of the character’s core Need.
- Values – The things that matter most in the character’s life, what they’ll fight for. (Rooted in Void)
- Fear – The thing the character most dreads happening or coming true. (Rooted in Void or Wound)
- Wound – The original trauma that caused or amplified the Void. Void and Wound can sometimes cause (or worsen) one another.
- Ghost – The phantom (usually emotional) pains or heartache and continued misery resulting from the Wound.
Where my definitions came from
Explaining why I used which terms is heavy enough to be its own separate lesson, so let’s use this quick-reference chart for simplicity today:
(Subscribe to my mailing list if you want to be notified when I post my walkthrough for the chart above)In order to truly understand a character, we need to identify the emotions and traits in pink text above. Then, we’ll be able to more easily isolate the wants and needs that will guide their story journey (in green text).The most important character traits to understand are, in order:
- Void, Fear, and Values
- Need, Internal Wants, External Wants
Notice how nearly every core character element can be traced back to the Void.
Today, we’ll focus on Anna’s most important core character trait: her Void
Anna’s Void (what she lacks yet craves) is companionship.This drives most of Anna’s goals (even short-term ones) in Frozen:
- Convince Elsa to play with her (temporary companionship)
- Marry Hans (because a husband would be a permanent companion)
- To reverse the never-ending winter spell (because she values the love of her people and to alleviate her guilt)
- To save Elsa from Hans (protect the companion she just got back)
The primary hole in Anna’s life is companionship. Before the main part of the movie starts, she’s perpetually lonely.As she’s going after Elsa, she starts to verbalize her situation and admits that communication could have prevented everything. This is a manifestation of Anna pushing past the core beliefs shaped around her Void (she’s eternally lonely, so she believes she isn’t worthy of love, and it has damaged her self esteem)—she’s feeling guilty and responsible. We won’t go into depth about core beliefs today, but it’s worth noting the connection back to Void. Note also how her guilt in the mid-story Motivation is more of a driving factor than the health of the kingdom—she’s focused on her perceived mistake, not Elsa’s factual one.
Fear and Values
The other two essential core character traits we need to consider are what Anna fears and what she most values, and both of these are an extension of her companionship Void.
- Anna’s biggest fear is losing her sister, both literally and figuratively.
- Anna values friend and family bonds above all else.
Most of the choices Anna makes, particularly her reactive ones, stem directly from either fearing for her sister’s safety or desiring to create and preserve friendships. For example:
- She recruits Kristoff and Sven to help her, courting them with gifts of food and supplies, then follows through on her promise to buy them a new sled.
- She literally sacrifices herself to save Elsa from Hans. This is a snap-second decision.
How Void, Fear, and Values affect Anna’s story choices
Take a quick look back at my flowchart and notice how I’ve highlighted Need and the Wants in green. These are essential story definitions. You must know what your character wants, as well as what they need, before you can understand what their growth arc will look like.
Sometimes what a character wants is different from what they need.
And sometimes a character wants and pursues different things at the same time. These are usually External and Internal wants. Needs don’t change, but wants can. Let’s look at Anna’s Need and Wants throughout Frozen:
- Anna needs social acceptance and immersion [rooted in her Void]
- She wants to stop and reverse the eternal winter. This is an External Want (not Goal, see Common Mistakes below), something physical that she desires and which is based in her guilt (rooted in her fear of losing her sister’s love).
- She wants to be romanced and fall in love (hinted at in an early song sequence and evidenced in her quick engagement to Hans). This is an Internal Want that leads to her goal of marrying Hans, something she pursues for emotional satisfaction and which is motivated by her need for social connection and companionship [Values/Void].
Earlier in this section, I claimed that a character can Want and Need different things. More on that in the Common Mistakes section below.
One other notable core value: the Wound
From my flowchart above, you can see how Wound and Void can play an equally important part in a character’s emotional makeup. Depending on a person’s backstory, the Wound might have caused the Void or vice versa, and they can certainly make one another worse, so it’s worth looking at Anna’s Wound in Frozen.Her Wound (the thing that hurt her in the past) is that she lost her family—both Elsa, through forced separation, and her parents through death. This Wound plays a part in her decisions, goals, and motivations.
- [Fear] She’s scared to lose Elsa (her only remaining family)
- [Values] She accumulates found-family on her adventure—Kristoff, Sven, and Olaf (protecting herself against complete loneliness and loss of family)
- [Fear + Values] She’s willing to sacrifice herself to save Elsa (values regaining family over safety of self)
Wants vs. actionable goals
To finish up March’s Pro Tip, I’ll circle back around to a nuance that tends to trip up writers in the planning stages—learning to distinguish between a character’s wants and their real goals. In February’s Pro Tip, I wrote:
[In the middle of the movie], Anna’s focus is only to bring Elsa back home. While Anna wants to stop the never-ending winter, it is not her active Goal. Anna expects Elsa’s goal to be ending winter, since Anna does not believe she can accomplish it herself due to her lack of magic.
Similarly, in February’s Pro Tip, I said that Anna’s Act 1 goal is to “convince Elsa to play with her” rather than stating the goal as “Play with Elsa”. While Anna does want to play with Elsa, her actionable goal is to convince Elsa to agree. If Elsa didn’t need convincing, playing together wouldn’t be a strong goal. Keep the Want vs. Actionable Goal distinction in mind as you look more closely at your own characters’ Core Values and GMCs.
Whew! This one was a little intense too! Are you liking these in-depth case studies, or would you like to see something simpler in the future?