Basic Beliefs of a Character

Hey Everyone! Happy Wednesday…

Back in December, 2013 I wrote the following blog post on Basic Beliefs for my young readers. This topic doesn’t refer to religious beliefs that a character may have but more likely a way of acting belief- meaning a life rule that that a character lives by. I was working on this very issue in my own manuscript during revisions and referred back to it. And even though the language in the original post is clearly targeted toward young writers, the concept holds up for adults too when writing for any age group. 

I hope this information helps you to strengthen your manuscript. Having a clear basic belief has definitely helped me to strengthen mine!

We all want to create interesting characters for our stories, right? I sure do! One of the best ways I’ve found to do that is to give your character a Basic Belief.

A Basic Belief is something that your character believes to be true. 

Here are 2 examples of characters and their Basic Beliefs:

  • Tori believes if people are nice to each other, everyone will be happy.
  • Jason believes people should only do something for someone if they get something in return.

Now that we know what Tori and Jason believe to be true, how can that help us turn them into interesting, believable characters? It’s easy…put them into a situation where that basic belief is tested.

Let’s say that Tori is your main character. She and her friends are building a fort in her bedroom.  When her friend, Molly tells their other friend, Jenna that her idea for building the fort is stupid, Jenna wants Tori to kick Molly out of her room. So what will Tori do? Will she take Jenna’s side and kick Molly out? Will she side with Molly and tell Jenna that her idea really is stupid?  Probably not.

But why?

Tori wouldn’t do either of those things because it would go against her Basic Belief. See, Tori believes that if people are nice to each other, everyone will be happy. Knowing that, we can guess that it’s important to Tori that everyone IS happy. So it would make more sense that instead of siding with either of her friends, Tori would encourage them both to be nice to each other.

In this example, writing about how Tori would react to this conflict is easy because we know her Basic Belief. When her Basic Belief is tested—when the girls begin to fight, Tori will encourage her friends to be nice. Why? Because she’s hoping that if her friends are nice to each other, everyone working on the fort will be happy!

So what happens when she tries it?

If Tori, encourages her friends to be nice to each other and it doesn’t work, the girls are still fighting, Tori may decided that her Basic Belief isn’t really true. She may think that just because SHE’S being nice, everyone else is NOT happy. On the other hand, if Tori encourages her friends to be nice to each other and it works…everyone working on the fort is happy, she will probably continue to believe in her Basic Belief.

See how that works?

But what about Jason? What happens to him when his Basic Belief is tested? Let’s say that Jason is a really good basketball player. Every day at recess, he takes shots from the foul shot line. He makes basket after basket. In fact, he hardly ever misses.  What happens when the other kids want Jason to help them improve their shots? Does he offer to give them shooting tips? Does he agree to practice with them until they get better? Of course not! That would go against his Basic Belief.

Remember, Jason believes that people should only do something for someone if they get something back in return.  So instead, Jason agrees to help each of the kids play basketball—only if they pay him $1.00 every day he helps them. Since the kids agree to the deal, Jason probably thinks his Basic Belief is a good one.

What happens though when his Basic Belief is really tested?

Let’s say Jason is playing basketball outside in his front yard. He wants Billy to play with him but Billy is next door raking the leaves at Mr. Abbot’s house.  Jason runs over to see if he can help Billy. Surely Billy is getting paid to rake the leaves and maybe Mr. Abbot will pay him too. But when Billy says he’s not getting paid, he just wanted to help Mr. Abbot, Jason decides not to help Billy after all. That makes sense right, because Jason doesn’t believe in doing something for someone if he doesn’t get something in return.

Jason may think of it another way. He may offer to help Billy even though he won’t get paid. Why would he do that? Because even though he’s not getting money, Jason may think that the sooner Billy finishes the job, the sooner he can play basketball. This decision still fits in with his belief because even though Jason is not getting money for helping, he’s getting to play basketball with Billy. So really, he is getting something in return.

In both examples, Jason stays true to his Basic Belief.

But do characters ever go against their Basic Belief? Of course! Let’s say Jason felt bad for Billy. Here he is sweating and tired because raking the leaves is hard work and Mr. Abbot has a lot of leaves! Even though Billy has to go straight home after he finishes, and Jason knows that he can’t play basketball with him today, he may offer to help him anyway.

But why would he do that?

Sometimes characters decide that their Basic Belief is not a good one—or at least not a good one all the time. Jason may have realized that in this case, helping a friend is better than getting something in return.

That decision can make Jason a more likable character. In this situation, Jason is forced to think about the way he acts and the decisions he makes. In the past, his Basic Belief has always worked for him. He had no reason to change the way he thinks.  A good story will push a character to really question his Basic Beliefs. He will have to think about the type of person he wants to be, or about the way he wants to live his life.

Sometimes he will decide that his Basic Belief is a good one. Sometimes he will decide his Basic Belief is not a good one and instead choose to live by a new Basic Belief.

There is no right or wrong way for your character to act. It’s up to you as the author to determine this, but a story is always more fun to read when that Belief is put to the test!  So why not give it a try? First create a Basic Belief for your character. Then write them into a situation where that Belief is tested. You’ll be amazed at how great your story will be. J

Good luck! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this…or your questions. So as always, feel free to leave a comment, if you have one!

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