Through my experience writing prose character development has been something of a struggle. Originally I had assumed it would be as simple as imagining the characters, writing a bare dossier of the most important, and then, so begin the proper rite of transcribing their story. A clean–and–cut process as clear as one, two, three.
No sir. ‘Tis loco. When is it ever that straightforward when it matters?
Creating any characters worth a damn is a process. That triples in effect, when, in my case, your characters are the matter, mass and magnetism: they tell the story, they make the plot possible, they represent more than just words on a page.
In my opinion the best characters aren’t simply characters, they’re citizens. These individuals are productive members of the story you devise for them. They’re peculiar. They’re sympathetic. Like any human being forces act upon them (we aren’t immune from these forces any more than they are), and how they react to them reveals their character. They have to be perfect then, as perfect as humans can be, or hope to be.
How then? How is it possible to create these citizens? Individuals that live in your world and which the reader would want to know personally? Who represent more than a name and the archetypes of literature?
Well, I alluded to this in a broader scope in another post, The Culture of World–Building, but that is one facet. By that post I was made aware of a tool that can be used with. I was delighted to discover that some of what this tool taught me I had already put to effect in my novel. It is a tool that I can definitely use from here on out and so can you.
That tool: The Theory of Basic Values.
What is The Theory of Basic Values?
Generally put, it is a theoretical composition and conceptualization of goals supporting the society and the individual therein. These goals are “motivational.” They are motivated by human needs or requirements and while basic, they are dynamic and found to persist in nearly every modern society. We each possess these. Some of them are more close to us compared to others. We know them by their more common name, values.
To put it eloquently:
“Values are the socially desirable concepts used to represent these goals mentally and the vocabulary used to express them in social interaction” (Schwartz, 2012).
Values develop identity and individuality, and broadly, a people and their culture. They influence such variables as behaviors and attitudes, serve as standards, are soldered to our beliefs emotionally, and are arranged like a hierarchy, to state a few. According to Israeli psychologist Shalom H. Schwartz, who composed this psychological theory, there are ten values all together. Below is their orientation in a circular structure.
As shown in the colorful image above, the ten values, with their motivational goals (all of which are found verbatim in the link here(Schwartz, 2012)), are:
Self–direction: independent thought and action — choosing, creating, exploring.
Stimulation: excitement, novelty, and challenge in life.
Hedonism: pleasure or sensuous gratification for oneself.
Achievement: personal success through demonstrating competence according to social standards.
Power: social status and prestige, control or dominance over people and resources.
Security: safety, harmony, and stability of society, of relationships, and of self.
Conformity: restraint of actions, inclinations, and impulses likely to upset or harm others and violate social expectations or norms.
Tradition: respect, commitment, and acceptance of the customs and ideas that one’s culture or religion provides.
Benevolence: preserving and enhancing the welfare of those with whom one is in frequent personal contact (the ‘in-group’).
Universalism: understanding, appreciation, tolerance, and protection for the welfare of all people and for nature.
There is reason for the composition as a circle. Each piece is interconnected. They are a related continuum of compare and contrast. Those values adjacent to each other are compatible, while those within their particular color code, such as green, are their own dimension. Contrast manifests in opposing dimensions.
To use one example, take Benevolence and Universalism, compatible by nature, both sharing the color wedge yellow. Achievement and Power share the color purple, but these two are opposed to the previous two, being on opposite ends of the circle. This is shown further through their grouping into the Self–Transcendence and Self–Enhancement dimensions, respectively. At a basic level this is selflessness versus selfishness as the former focuses on objects outside the self, but the latter focuses on the self. Hence their opposition. The other dimensions, Conservation and Openness to Change, describe a general conflict among self–restraint and independence. The loner, Hedonism, straddles Openness to Change and Self–Enhancement as it qualifies in both dimensions.
In totality these basic values represent a triumvirate of global requirements:
“needs of individuals as biological organisms, requisites of coordinated social interaction, and survival and welfare needs of groups” (Schwartz).
They communicate with said requirements by their motivational goals. Such goals accord with these fundamental requirements, through which relevant value the latter can be expressed and realized.
Yet these values aren’t often thought about consciously until they’re at odds with the present situation, whatever that may be for the individual. Until an external force acts upon them, fraying values at opposite ends, there is little need to summon them, and even then, it might not be in explicit terms. But for the sake of this post, and the purpose of character development, we want to keep explicitly aware.
Let’s look at compatible values first. Take Conformity and Tradition. The motivational goal of conformity: “restraint of actions, inclinations, and impulses likely to upset or harm others and violate social expectations or norms.” It’s not likely you’ll come across a culture, whatever size it may be, and not sense and see some level of conformity. Not surprisingly it shares the same wedge with tradition as the two are very closely related, although, by the theory’s standard, tradition is more absolute than conformity. Tradition’s motivational goal: “respect, commitment, and acceptance of the customs and ideas that one’s culture or religion provides.”
These two values work well both ways: small and large. Small would be like a group, and large a society. They engender compelling subordination, but where one (conformity) is somewhat more present and flexible, the other (tradition) is “far” and established. The former also speaks to persons the individual is in habitual contact with. The latter to ideas and customs, thus abstract contact.
Both are effective when it comes to world–building, because, not only will they establish the external tone and gift credence to a world’s believability, but, by implication, they can aid in character development. These two values are strong outside motivators. The citizen has to acknowledge them for better or for worse. As in reality refusal to obey either can be seen as a threat. It disrupts the status quo. This can lead to a number of possibilities for any story.
How have you fostered tradition and conformity in your world? Would your readers be able to recognize it and make sense of it? If you were one of the citizens, how would you behave in your world?
Since both values are intimately connected, it stands that they would work together. The individual conforms to the group to avoid conflict, and the group to tradition for solidarity. When the majority rules in favor of conformity, the minority who desire a greater range of Self–Direction tend to stand out. Tradition might demand their punishment. As with many cultures extant and extinct, such punishments can be fair, or downright nasty. The Romans, for instance, bound a culprit of parricide into a sack with a snake and a cock, then threw them off a cliff. What offences would provoke similar judgments in your world and why? Are they even necessary?
In my coming novel one form of conformity is manifest in persons who are by all intents and purposes monarchs. Their reign is believed to be sanctioned through divine will, therefore, they are doubly important. These monarchs fill practically every role from judge to priest, but on top of all this, they are the commander–in–chiefs of their given tribe. Every individual within their tribe is expected and required to obey their monarch. They must forbear contravening actions and impulses against his or her rule and conform, or else they will be singled out. They will be punished. Sometimes savagely.
The monarch and his subjects are bound to an instrument which is equally a pedagogical constitution as it is a dogmatic codification of religious principles. It’s really strict in other words. It is tradition to follow and practice all that it contains. It is one of very few agents that hold each tribe, and the society at large, together. Without it there would be no degree of organization, however basic it is. The monarchs see their sanctity through this writ.
Time has been an asset for the monarch and the instrument. It has cemented their legacy, their authority, and their inescapability as most things are when given time. Time becomes tradition. In a sense conformity flows in and out of tradition not being as absolute. Like a fad there can be change. It can depend upon the culture: of the mind, of society.
How strict is your society? How do its citizens display their loyalty to it? With what agencies and behaviors? What reason would they have to disobey its traditions? The people whom they frequent? Would they even perceive it as disobedience then? A few questions to ponder for the citizen and their world.
Opposing values present a great opportunity for tension in the citizen. There is little else more effective to character development than conflict. Since certain values are naturally aligned against others they are ripe for the taking — if it works for the citizen. Let’s dig deeper. Let’s look at Universalism and Power.
One of my citizens, the monarch of the story, at times can struggle between this contentious pair. Within his being it is a manifestation of equality versus personal authority. He is in support of equality, I would argue, because of his past experiences of incessant persecution. It has opened his mind to the Golden Rule. A world where each is treated fairly living alongside a healthy, natural world would be ideal.
But dark strings pull at him. The past still affects him. It is not easy to dismiss deeds done to one that are inimical. He can say things contrary then or commit to actions that would be deemed villainous.
Why? How? By power. Where once he was low he is now high, since risen to his monarchal office. He can behave however he so chooses with little in the way for consequences except the instrument. And yet this instrument was created with his office in mind, so it largely stands to the conscience to enforce temperance and pathos. Not an easy thing to stand by with all that power in his hands. In his head. If universalism opposes his power, it’s quite unlikely the former will prevail. But perhaps Benevolence would.
One of his soldiers faces a conflict of values. A series of escalating events has her deciding whether to allow her monarch to die by another’s hand, or, intervene as his savior. She is devout, notably loyal to the established principles of her culture, and this has instilled loyalty to who she is as a person. She has one fundamental priority: protect her monarch under all circumstances inside every situation. But that man has just committed a grossly sacrilegious act. Why not let him die for his just desserts? It has never been more appropriate. It is fair.
So what to do?, what to do?
Protect him. It was a swift resolution. It was paradoxical since she would have to kill one monarch to save another. Thus she would have to commit a grossly sacrilegious act herself. Subconsciously she would prefer to avoid this. She wants to preserve her cherished values and the feelings about them. But how? Through diplomacy, in a broad sense, whereby both persons were spared their deaths, however, had her diplomatic mission failed, she was both willing and ready to kill. She would confront the grief after the fact.
In the above Security (“safety, harmony, and stability of society, of relationships, and of self”) won over Self–Direction (“independent thought and action — choosing, creating, exploring”). Tradition (“respect, commitment, and acceptance of the customs and ideas that one’s culture or religion provides”) won over Hedonism (“pleasure or sensuous gratification for oneself”).
Her value priorities are revealed: social order and culture outshine pleasure and independence. To break this compound, for this citizen, would take considerable heat, which the above circumstance instigated. Had she killed that monarch tradition still would have been violated. This undoubtedly would have haunted her for the remainder of her days.
In what scenarios could you devise that would expose your citizens values? What opposition might they joust with for supremacy? Would the opposition win? It could if the setting and circumstance are optimal. But what avenue would that open? Would the citizen be permanently altered or would they remain unchanged?
Whichever way, you can’t go wrong with competing values. This theory can help by putting them each into perspective. But always keep in mind the context of the situation. The consequences for each action. The citizen affected. If it has to be forced in the sense of being contrived — don’t do it. Natural is the mark of a free citizen and a breathable world.
The above are examples from my novel. When I wrote them it was not with the knowledge of The Schwartz Theory of Basic Values. I wasn’t aware of this theory until recently, but still I used values, like I’m sure all of us do, when we develop our characters. It was these “basic” values and all that they encompass that I wasn’t aware of. Now that I am, it is an applicable tool I can use to my advantage. It offers focus. I can further fine–tune my citizens and their unique voices with it when I know what to look for.
As stated these values are basic. Very broad motivational goals. Often it helps to think of them on a more micro level. In addition to their motivations there are terms within them. Some of these could be considered virtues, others like vices, but overall we can more readily identify with these since they are more specific. They persist in each goal. Power, for instance, contains such terms as authority and wealth, while Hedonism contains self–indulgence and pleasure.
With this in mind the first thing I did was write down the values of my monarch. I really had to think as to their order. I couldn’t just arbitrarily write them down. That order:
Self–Direction: Freedom to choose, live and grow unhindered.
Power: Authority over others and capability to direct absolutely.
Benevolence: Love for my companions.
Security: Protection for my companions including that of my office.
Tradition: Respect of tradition for the sake of my office and human obedience.
Universalism: Respect for nature and in general equality for humanity, but there remain potent exceptions.
Conformity: For the sake of stability and honor of superiors.
Achievement: I set my standards, thus success is my own.
Stimulation: No challenge remains. No excitement can be gained in the mundane.
Hedonism: Foul and primal impulses typical of the barbarian.
The above order wasn’t so simple to rank. For some guidance I decided to compare the values within their given dimensions (Self–Transcendence and Self–Enhancement for example). That value which was more significant to the individual I check marked. Of those top four values I then ranked. I selected the values which were with mixed feelings next. The final three produced ill or aggressive feelings.
Granted, this order is artificial. The theory after all is a continuum since each value is in some way related and so typically one value affected will implicate another. But there remains a hierarchy for the individual. I also find it helps to make a distinction for the sake of clarity, to further flesh out that particular citizen.
What would be the order of one of your citizens? How would they rate each value if given the chance?
Eventually I began to think about this order in an artistic sense, as if it’s the order of a column, a Corinthian column (I like those). These ten basic values are the drums, the base, and the capital that frame the column. They should rise according to their weight. At the capital would be the alpha value, i.e., what that citizen most embodies or stands firm to. With same regard should go to the base: the omega value, what that citizen notably feels ill towards, almost repugnantly so.
How I view it this pair should be stubborn to break: to be dethroned by the values above or below them. The drums will be susceptible, but how susceptible, and which ones I would argue, depends on the citizen. When it comes to the median values for my monarch, Tradition and Universalism, and Conformity behind, for him this trio I suspect would fluctuate often. There isn’t much space separating them as the feelings they conjure are more ambiguous.
As you probably noticed there is a sentence proceeding each value. This is my monarch’s subjective understanding and personal attachment to that value. How would your citizen define their values? What are the underpinning sentiments? Why are they relevant? Which of these values is most susceptible to transplantation and why?
I would imagine it helps to go into this exercise with some knowledge about the external forces (for more on that, check out this post if you haven’t already) which will affect the citizen. Such forces/situations/circumstances/objects have to exist. Those values can’t exist, especially not in the order which they do, without them. It’s nature and nurture. How did these forces affect that order? What are those forces? Is that order still being understood? A young citizen is likely still discovering their values.
Since values are theorized motivational goals, it is pivotal to recognize what will genuinely motivate your citizens, and not just abstractly but explicitly too. A whole lot can go in to this depending on how far you want to go. But so doing you will begin to unlock their fullest potential. Like with any art, the more you put in, the more you will get out.
It could be that what motivates you could motivate them. It does for some of my citizens. A few of them are outlets for my ideas, or represent an important value of mine, but they’re still their own unique person. They aren’t a singular, generic voice. Each individual could exist on their own, in their own story, but they need each other. They are family. They thrive best together, even if they don’t realize it.
Once you have the data you need, use it. Work on those citizens until they each can stand on their own. Open your mind from this point on.
Don’t constrict it.
Don’t just be content with what you know.
Learn whatever you will so your citizens can learn. They can and will develop with you. Remember: your characters and the world in which they advance can only advance as far as the extent of your awareness.
Some might argue imagination, but it’s my belief, through personal experience, that the more you’re aware of, the more effective is your imagination and everything else. You don’t have to dig as hard. The connections seem to come by a bit easier. You will be guided to the appropriate points, and your citizens will thank you for it.
I wish you the best!
This post was in response to Heather von Stackelberg who brought to my attention this theory by Mr. Schwartz. Never would have known it existed otherwise. Nor would I have spent one long ass month on what I had intended to be a quick post. 😀