Time to bring out the writer’s bag of tricks again! I’m deep into my novel’s second draft and I’m getting that twisty-turny-twingy uh-oh feeling right in the center of my chest: something’s off about my main character. You know the feeling. You can run from it, but you can't hide. It’ll catch up with you sooner or later. Time to dig deeper. Again. But this time, how?
Thinking about a character’s “controlling belief” is one way writers can dig deeper into their characters. I first heard about the notion of controlling belief from National Book Honor Award Winner Kathi Appelt when I was studying with her at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Kathi says, “The controlling belief is the primary belief that ‘pushes’ the character. It shapes and colors every action and reaction that the character does and serves as the motor or engine that motivates the character.”
A character’s goal is different. Goal answers the question, what does a character want? Controlling belief answers, why does she want it? To author Sarah Aronson, “the controlling belief is the emotional core of the character. You can ask what he wants...but more important...why does he want it?”
For example, in Appelt’s stunning picture book biography about Lady Bird Johnson, MISS LADY BIRD’S WILDFLOWERS, Lady Bird’s controlling belief was that wildflowers could heal a broken heart. Lady Bird’s goal was to change the way our country treated its natural heritage.
Sometimes controlling belief and goal can be the same for a character. In E.L. Kionigsburg’s SILENT TO THE BONE, Connor believes that there’s no way in the world his best friend, Branwell, could have ever hurt his baby sister, even as “the authorities” come to believe he did. Connor’s goal is to break through Branwell’s silence in order to prove his innocence.
And sometimes a character’s belief proves flat-out wrong. Gilly, in Katherine Paterson’s The GREAT GILLY HOPKINS, believes that her absent mother will come for her and it’s her goal to make that happen. This steadfast belief makes Gilly distrust her new foster family and keep seeking out her mother.
When a character such as Gilly’s belief is wrong, that character suffers a painful crisis of faith… but, oh, such a satisfying (for the reader, at least) opportunity for growth and change.
When we can clearly state the controlling belief of our characters, they will more readily move the story forward. Try it for each character, not just the main character, and watch the fireworks begin! (The controlling belief is never outwardly stated in the text; rather, it serves as a compass for the characters and their author in revision.)
So I’m back to my draft considering all sorts of CBs for my MC: loyalty to my friends is more important than doing the right thing; having the right friends raises my social status; I need these friend because I am a geek….
What’s the controlling belief of your main character?