There are tons of writing frameworks out there that promise to help you write better stories. But most of them focus on the how, rather than the why.
A hero's Character Core Values are the puzzle pieces of their why. And your hero's why becomes the driving energy for their growth arc.
The fastest, most dependable way to write the right story the first time is to base your hero's journey in the heart of the character arc, the hero's personal transformation.
Not sure what your hero's "personal transformation" is? Click here to learn about character growth arcs.
I'm not a typical editor, not even in the world of fiction developmental edits, where thinking about the hero's feelings is expected.
And even in my superniche of romantic fiction, where the characters' feelings are supposed to take up a lot of space in the story, my style of book coaching is unique.
I'm different because I believe that a story is more than just a combination of scenes and plot markers and genre beats. It's more than just a beginning, a middle, and an end.
A good story—the kind you want to read over and over—is an experience.
It is a glimpse inside the hero's heart, mind, and body for a small snapshot of time.
My storysmithing techniques are grounded in discovering the hero's Root Fear, then empowering your hero to make decisions in spite of that fear.
And for someone who specializes in happy ending stories, that sounds awfully dark, right?
But we're all driven by an inner darkness (even if we don't realize it), and figuring out why we—or our heroes—avoid the things we do (the Root Fear) can be really hard, even for an experienced writer.
That's why I design my story planning and revision techniques around the hero's Character Core Values.
So what the heck are Character Core Values, and how can using them make your writing stronger from the very first draft? Below, I'll introduce all 7 and show you which one can give you a shortcut to writing the right story the first time.
Character Core Values: Your hero's behavior blueprint
If seeing the phrase "core values" sent your brain into political, religious, or social territory, I can totally see why. Much of our personal identity as human beings is a reflection of the historical and cultural influences that have shaped our lives. And in the larger picture of who a person is in general, you might think of core values a little more broadly.
But my Character Core Values storysmithing system is much more specific and personal than that.
No matter how epic the journey or voluminous the word count, a story is merely a snapshot of time in a hero's life, so the defining personal factors that lead to key story moments must be specific.
Character Core Values explain why a character acts the way they do, and these 7 traits are heavily influenced by relevant events in the past.
Character Core Values are a personal reflection of the unique ways a hero embodies their past experiences. These traits lean on the hero's backstory to explain their everyday behavior.
These seven character traits give us clues about how the character has adapted to limitations, will react to fears, and protects themself from everyday harm. The Core Values are a storyteller's first glimpse into understanding what has happened to the hero in their life before the start of the story and why those events matter so much during the on-page journey.
If your hero's growth arc is a map of their story journey, their Character Core Values are the legend to that map.
We're talking about human psychology: Why people do what they do, and how their everyday behavior broadcasts their why. And just like understanding real people, figuring out our heroes' true motivations can be tricky.
So I split up these essential character clues into 7 different categories. (Well, 8, but Void is essentially the mother of the other 7.)
The 7 Character Core Values
There are 7 Character Core Values you should define for your hero character(s) before you start revising (or writing, if you're a plotter) the story's first draft. (Click the links below to read more about each Core Value. An article on Limiting Belief is coming soon.)
- 2Root Fear
- 4Limiting Belief (article coming soon)
- 5Augmentations (or "armor")
- 7Surface Fear
Need and Root Fear are listed first because they are the true heart of a hero's story. The Root Fear drives the first half of their growth arc, and the hero's Need fuels the second half. These two are an inverse pairing that reflect one another.
But the Root Fear is the strongest element in a hero's character makeup, so it is the Core Value that most of the story's plot milestones are anchored in.
There is one other essential character trait that the Root Fear grows directly out of, but it's typically not something that can be resolved within a single story. Your hero's Void is the basic human experience they are missing in their life—their emotional gap—and the shape it takes in your story (their Root Fear) is determined by when the story is set in your hero's life. Void is technically a Core Value, and you can learn more about it here, but I don't count it as one of the essential "7", since it is represented in the hero's transformation by the Root Fear.
The Core Values help us understand what types of scenes—what tone or content or conflict setups—will best challenge, tempt, and guide our heroes toward their happy ending. The Lie and Limiting Belief, for example, are strong traits at the start of a story, where the hero is trying to avoid experiencing something uncomfortable. The Augmentations are personality quirks you can slowly grind away from your hero as they progress through the middle of their journey. The Want and Surface Fear are powerful late-story elements that can help us set up a hero's sacrifice or Turning Point moment.
The Lie: Your storytelling shortcut
Trying to figure out all seven storytelling Character Core Values for your hero can feel overwhelming, especially if you're still learning what each one does in a story. Nothing about human psychology is simple, and even I sometimes need a few drill-down passes to recognize a character's truest traits.
But the more you think about your hero in these terms of reactions and chosen behaviors, the more intuitive they become.
The Lie is the simplest Core Value to discover.
Because it unlocks the Root Fear and Limiting Belief.
The best way to set up the legend for your hero's growth journey map is to start with the Character Core Value that reveals the most about your hero's guiding trauma: Their Lie.
Do you know what Lie is your hero telling themself?
And do you know how to harness that Lie to craft a story that resonates with readers?
Learn how to understand, identify, and turbo-charge your hero's Lie in my self-paced online course Liar, Liar, Plot on Fire.
(I also share my 5-question Plot Diagnosis Flowchart to help you expose the most critical problems in your story draft before investing in valuable revision time.)
Got a question or comment?
Let me know below! I'd love to hear what you learned from this article and where you're still confused.
Do you already use my Character Core Values system in your own work? Drop a comment below and tell me about it!
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