Money And Your Characters

Writing believable, compelling characters requires knowing what’s happening in their minds and hearts. It also requires a deep understanding of human behavior.

One key to both is to figure out the relationships your characters have, including their relationship with money.

That’s so because people’s finances hit on all the same emotional issues as family, romance, and friendship.

What Money Means To Your Character

Your Character And MoneyMoney has lot of layers.

First, it has a practical and literal meaning. Unless your character lives in a society that is all barter, she needs money to survive.

Money also places a value on things, work, and—in some people’s minds—people. 

The average Major League baseball player in the U.S. earns about $4.47 million a year, while the average salary for a high school teacher in the U.S. is $47,760.

How Much Your Character Earns

You can argue about whether or not this statistic means our culture actually values ball playing more than teaching and what other factors go into those salary differences.

For the purpose of building your characters, though, it hints at many important questions.

For instance:

  • If the amount your character earns per year is zero, does that affect her self-esteem?
  • What if it’s in the top 1%?
  • How about if it significantly increases or lowers one year?
  • What if it’s higher or lower than the character’s best friend, sibling, spouse, grown child, or parent?
  • What does the amount earned per year mean to your character?

Money might be how your character measures success. It also might be a measure of good or evil.

To one person, being well-to-do financially could indicate being a good person who is showered with the bounty of God or the Universe. To another, it might symbolize selfishness or greed and signal underhanded dealings.

Does Your Character See Money As Love?

Money can serve as a proxy for love, which is why some wills and trusts lawyers advise clients to leave an exactly equal amount to each child, regardless of circumstance.

Going back to our ballplayer/teacher comparison, parents whose only real asset is a modest house may look at their baseball player child and think it’s ridiculous to leave him half of it. It will be a drop in the bucket to him. But leaving the entire house to the high school teacher child might cover a grandchild’s college bills, be much needed to supplement a retirement fund, or fund a move to a nicer neighborhood.

But giving everything to one child, even when the other is in excellent shape financially, can create bitter, “Mom always loved you more” feelings.

Disputes About Money

The best way to figure out how your character feels about money is to ask what she would do in a dispute over money.

Let’s say your character gave a sibling $5,000 two years ago to help pay for a child’s car or tuition. Your character believes it was a loan, the sibling says it was a gift. Your character absolutely does not need the money.

(You can switch the amount to $100 or $1,000 if that’s more realistic.)

  • If the dispute is never resolved, how long will your character think about it or talk about it?
  • Would your character consider talking to a lawyer or suing to get the money back?
  • Would your character ask for the money from the college student/car buyer?
  • Is it likely your character would stop speaking to the sibling?
  • If your character says, “it’s not the money, it’s the principle of the thing,” what is the principle?

These issues overlap into family, and that’s part of the point. If money means love, success, who is right or wrong, who is honest, etc., that’s magnified when it’s someone with whom the character has a personal relationship.

Because of that, drawing out your character’s feelings and beliefs about money reveals a lot about what matters to him and who he is.

Until Friday–

L.M. Lilly

P.S. This article contains excerpts from Creating Compelling Characters From The Inside Out, which is available in paperback and Kindle editions (and is free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers).

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