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I'm reading KM Weiland's Creating Character Arcs. In it, she lists:

Questions to Ask About the Thing the Character Wants and the Thing the Character Needs

  1. How is the Lie holding your character back?

  2. How is the Lie making your character unhappy or unfulfilled?

  3. What Truth does your character Need to disprove the Lie?

  4. How will he learn this Truth?

  5. What does your character Want more than anything?

Weiland, K.M. Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author's Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot, and Character Development (Helping Writers Become Authors Book 7) (p. 37). PenForASword Publishing. Kindle Edition.

In my character's case I know she's a mother that wants to keep her family together by helping the husband expand his land and wealth, and she needs to accept that people need independence and her kids may choose their path regardless of her efforts.

Now, my problem is that I have no clue what is the lie is or how is it holding her back, before reading that I thought I would find out as I write, now I fear I might compromise the story because of missing a foundational piece of information about my character. How deeply should I understand my character before writing her?

Update: To further clarify my main character to the reader:

  • She's 42
  • She loves her husband deeply and he loves her back, but he's older than her (10 ~ 15 years).
  • She has three children: one stepson, and two biological children (a son and a daughter).
  • Her husband is self-made, and she was there from the beginning.
  • In their backstory, she had a relationship with someone of her age, but that didn't manifest as conflict before the story proper.
  • Want: her children to pursue futures of her choosing that will help advance the family legacy (but, think Eastern mothers in the US pushing for doctors and engineers).
  • Need: to allow her children (and, to an extent, her husband) their free will and independence.
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    To test the robustness of the proposed test, how would you apply it to Frodo, for example? What lie is holding him back? How is this lie making him unhappy or unfulfilled? If you can't make the test fit an existing good story, maybe the test isn't helpful to your writing either - either because it's not a good test, or at least not a universal one; or because it just doesn't fit the patterns of your thinking, so it's not helpful to you. – Galastel Mar 14 at 17:38
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    Your character is suffering from Female Character Lack of Agency Disease. You have a doormat who is not a character, that's why these questions are unanswerable. She has zero self-motives, just supports her husband and respects her children. This is nothing about her. There is no character there so it doesn't matter what she thinks or feels, she has no "truths" or "lies" of her own to solve. The character has no agency, it's all up to her husband and her children, they are the characters with agency. If they fail it isn't her flaw. – wetcircuit Mar 14 at 17:45
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    @wetcircuit, my character is not a doormat. She is the powerhouse of the family; it's just that I don't see the depth of her personality yet. I.e., I don't know the root of her motivation to manipulate her husband to expand and overtake opponents, or to force a marriage on her son. – iamtowrite Mar 14 at 18:52
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    @mbadawi23 can you say 1 thing about her that is not about someone she is related to? This is classic "Female Character Syndrome". You have not said a single sentence about HER. When you think you are talking about her, you actually just talk about OTHER characters…. Hopefully you can start to see my point. She is not the family's doormat, she is your doormat. You have created her only as an extension of others. that isn't a character. This is EXACTLY what these exercises are trying to force you to do: build a more realistic character. Her OWN person with her OWN flaws and needs. – wetcircuit Mar 14 at 20:30
  • This exchange feels like its turning into a chat, and drifting into a tangent. Anyways, you've shown me an aspect of my thinking of which I wasn't aware. And this touches on a fear I had starting this: a man writing about a woman. I fear I wouldn't do her justice, but also, I see her of strong convictions and stubborn and has good humor which makes her difficult to resist. I'd like to hear more from you about other pitfalls to watch for. I read questions like writing.stackexchange.com/questions/3539 but it is still a scary proposition for me to write a female MC. I love her, though :) – iamtowrite Mar 14 at 20:52
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The "lie" can be just an untruth that she accepts.

Here, the untruth can be that she knows the way to happiness. She thinks that by expanding her husbands land and wealth, this will keep her family together. But that might not truly be what her husband wants, or even if it is, it may not be what her children want or need. They may want a father that isn't working all the time, that isn't at war with his neighbors (whose children are their friends) over land rights, or water rights, or passage rights, or whatever.

Another falsehood can be that she thinks that by controlling her kids and their lives she may make them unhappy for now, but she will increase their happiness in the long run, by making them "successful." In fact it seems like the lie can be, for her, that she thinks "financial success and wealth" are synonymous with happiness, and in your story world, believing in this lie leads to utter disaster.

Say, one of her children commits suicide, or becomes a drug addict, or goes into horrific debt trying to get wealthy gambling. Her husband, by her pushing, becomes successful -- And successfully begins a love affair with another woman, much the opposite of her, and then divorces her.

How is the Lie holding your character back? It prevents her from seeing the red flags in her life, about her unhappy children and unhappy husband. They rack up the accomplishments, and her assumption that "awards + money" = "happiness" makes her blind to the unhappiness they feel.

How is the Lie making your character unhappy or unfulfilled? She doesn't understand why they don't appreciate her prodding. She is only trying to make them better, or make their future better. Can't they see that by forcing them to produce now, she is guaranteeing their happiness later? Yet all she gets is resentment, resignation, and tears.

What Truth does your character Need to disprove the Lie? That people really can be happy with "enough" money and property. That life is finite, that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. That all work leaves no time for romance, or laughter, or just being glad to be alive. And some people, if they feel doomed to slavery for life, would rather be dead and get it over with; there would be less net misery.

How will she learn this Truth? That is up to the author.

What does your character Want more than anything? In a twisted sense, the happiness she doesn't have, and has probably never had. The happiness she thinks her children and husband lack (although a big source of their unhappiness is her slave-driving). She wants happiness more than anything, she is just suffering under the obsessive delusion that somehow wealth IS happiness.

  • You've hit the mark with this: "How is the Lie holding your character back? It prevents her from seeing the red flags in her life, about her unhappy children and unhappy husband. They rack up the accomplishments, and her assumption that "awards + money" = "happiness" makes her blind to the unhappiness they feel." – iamtowrite Mar 14 at 19:35
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"She needs to accept that people need independence" - that includes her. Right now whatever wealth, power and prestige she has comes from other people. But is she satisfied with that, or does she secretly long to become a power in her own right?

Her lie is that she's content to just support her husband and children. What does she really want for herself? Does she want to go back to school, finish her degree, and have a career of her own? Start her own business? Or even just escape for a while and see the world by herself?

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    Love this. To accept the others' "truth" she has to learn to include her own needs as a "truth". Of course we are making up a character for her to have that is not in the OP, but… yes this would be a good story with high stakes for the family. Once her truth and lie are in conflict it jeopardizes the existing family dynamic. They will all be forced to adjust. – wetcircuit Mar 14 at 18:08
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Caveat: I have not read the book but I've thought about wants and needs in the past, and I typically see wants as external (e.g. money) and needs as internal (e.g. love).

You said:

In my character's case I know she's a mother that wants to keep her family together by helping the husband expand his land and wealth

I think this means she wants to take action to expand his land and wealth. Those actions might include facilitating the sorts of meetings he needs, managing the household finances more frugally, finding opportunities for him to make more money. As I see it, her want is to facilitate his need. This might be the agency she shows as a main character. She sets up meetings at the home, she searches out land sales, she puts their items on eBay to bring in more income. Et cetera. Maybe she nags him.

You said:

and she needs to accept that people need independence and her kids may choose their path regardless of her efforts.

It seems to me that if she needs to accept that people need independence, then she has an immediate conflict. Because she isn't allowing her husband the independence to fail on his own. She is trying to force her version of success on him, because she wants him wealthy (as a means of keeping her family together.)

If she needs to allow independence in others, then she needs to allow her family to fall apart.

Answer: The lie is that she thinks she can help people find independence. They must find it for themselves.

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    I think you understood my MC well. But is the lie: "you can help people become independent", or "families should stick together"? My struggle is to understand how that is holding her back? as the question in K.M. Weiland's list. – iamtowrite Mar 14 at 19:21
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    I don't know, @mbadawi23 . But, there may be more than one lie, more than one want, and more than one need. There are dozens of way to conceptualize a story ... what you are doing sounds like a fantastic approach but in the end it is one exercise of many that are available to you. – DPT Mar 14 at 21:20
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    Typo: "never help people find independence. They must find it for themselves." Which makes wanting her children to pursue futures of her choosing a direct conflict of interest. The lie would be her telling herself that that's ok. - OP is struggling to understand how that is holding her back? She's holding her kids back, preventing her from being a good mother. – Mazura Mar 14 at 22:47
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    I changed it but not as you suggested, @Mazura . I think we are at cross wires. – DPT Mar 14 at 23:28
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I sometimes find things that my mind goes up against like a solid wall. It seems that you are having a similar problem with the questions that you listed. After some thought I agree with those who have answered so far. There are a lot of options in this character already. The question is, where do you want to go with it? What sort of story do you want to tell?

It sounds -as you have described it- like the story of a woman who works hard to help her family succeed, but does not seem to realize that there is such a thing as being so helpful that you're in the way. Enablers are one example of this. Enablers are some of the nicest people you will ever meet. They don't want to hurt people's feelings, and they want to make sure that everything goes perfectly for those that they love. Enablers are also the ones who would 'give a drunk a drink' and think that they were being nice by doing it. Their lie is that fixing everything for those that they love -or making it so that they have whatever they want- is right and good, and to deny them of these things is selfish and bad. The truth that is needed to break this lie is that tough love is sometimes needed. You have to sometimes look past what an immediate want/need is and determine what this will do to the one who receives the 'help'.

The Enabler might not match your character's problem exactly, but you can see how there was a lie in it. Make a list of possible lies and truths that relate to your character, and choose the one that makes the most sense for her and your story.

Now, if after this you find that the best one -the one you are most excited to tell, and find the most interesting- completely contradicts the story, then perhaps this story is not the one you should be telling right now. Maybe you really need to tell her story, the way she revealed it to you. Some of the best stories have grown in this way, as they are living things.

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