Core Drives: What They Are, And Why Your Characters Need Them
Core drives are something that can benefit every character you write - major characters, minor characters, protagonists, antagonists, heroes, villains, sidekicks - everyone. Also, they can also benefit you, as a writer! So here's a look into what core drives are, how they work, and how exactly they help both your characters and you!
Table of Contents
- What a core drive is and what it does
- Examples of core drives - and how core drives work
- How you and your characters can benefit from core drives
- In summary!
What a core drive is and what it does
In this context, a core drive is an attitude, value, or belief that drives many of a character's pivotal choices and causes that character to behave certain ways in certain situations. Captain America/Steve Rogers in the MCU is a good example of how this works - in Captain America: The First Avenger, he says that he "doesn't like bullies." In other words, he hates the idea of powerful people who push around and hurt less powerful people. It's this attitude that drives him to try enlisting in the army at every recruiting station he can find, and keeps him fighting villains throughout the film series.
Good core drives push characters to move the plot forward in some way, or give us insight as to why they're so invested in doing whatever it is they're doing now. They're especially good if the character is doing or has ever done something that requires a lot of sacrifice or dedication. After all - people don't typically just up and volunteer for highly dangerous jobs that will take them away from their families for years simply because someone offered it to them, nor do they spend hours studying a difficult and complex subject just because there's nothing good on TV. Usually, there's something more behind it - and core drives are that something more.
And of course, characters can have multiple cores, too. About two or three seems to be a good number for most characters. This adds just enough complexity and depth to them to keep them feeling real. You probably really won't need to go too far beyond that (and might not want to, to avoid overcomplicating your characters).
Examples of core drives - and how core drives work
Core drives come in all shapes and forms. They might be connected to fear, shame, or guilt; or they might relate to feeling happy or accomplished. They might be connected to some tragedy or hardship in life, or they might be connected to something that someone learned to hold in high regard. Here are some examples of what core drives can look like:
- "I have committed a great wrong, and I must make amends for it. It would be unthinkably wrong not to. I would be a horrible person not to try."
- "I need to know why X happened to me. I would feel so much better if I did."
- "Whatever I set myself to doing, I must do the best job I possibly can. Anything less would be laziness - and that's unacceptable!"
- "There are people out there getting hurt, and it's not right to do nothing about it - not if I can do something!"
- "The problem with the world? X. If someone did something about X, the world would be a much better place."
- "Life's about having fun where you can find it, and finding the beauty in every moment you can."
- "X makes me so happy and fulfilled when I do it. I'm doing something worthwhile when I do this."
- "I need people to like me. If I do X, they'll like me more."
- "Engaging in X is wrong. I will not commit X"
- "People who engage in X are the worst. I will not support nor work with those who are guilty of X."
- "I must take care of my loved ones, no matter what it takes."
- "Whatever it takes to survive and get by, that's what I'll do."
- "Nothing makes sense. I must find the truth so that I can make sense of it all."
- "If nothing else, X is worth fighting for - so that's what I'll do."
- "Nobody deserves to go through X. I'm going to do what I can to make sure no one else has to."
- "I must do X because to do otherwise would be unthinkably shameful."
- "I wish I had a purpose in life. I need to find a purpose."
It must also be stressed that core drives are ultimately based in emotion, rather than rationality. The character who committed a great wrong feels deep shame and guilt over what happened, and even more shame and guilt at the idea of not trying to make amends. The character who needs to do something or other to be liked feels deeply fearful and anxious at the thought of being disliked. Some cores might be rational reactions to emotionally-charged situations - the person who believes in finding joy and beauty in every moment has probably consciously decided that feeling good is preferable to feeling bad, and has adopted this philosophy to make that easier.
Also, the same type of core that makes one character act heroically can make another character act villainously, and vice-versa. It all depends on how the character acts out from this core drive.
Core drives can also change. For example, a character who wanted to learn the mystery behind something would no longer have that drive if the mystery was solved. Such a character could eventually develop a new passion or goal to replace it, which could become a new core drive. If you plan for your character to experience an ideological change connected to a core drive, then Changing Alignments, Allegiances, & Loyalties More Believably is highly relevant.
How you and your characters can benefit from core drives
Core drives help make your characters more interesting overall and help prevent them from feeling fake. Characters who do something because of a deep conviction or desire are much more compelling than characters who just do something (or who have already done something) Because The Plot Demands It. Also, characters without cores tend to come off a bit like puppets who exist only to serve the plot, which makes them difficult to really emotionally connect to and/or makes them feel unreal or forced.
They help you keep your characters consistent. When you've pinned down what it takes to drive your characters to act, or the reasons why they act the way they do, and you make sure your characters' dramatic actions or reactions are always in accordance with this somehow, you're less likely to end up with characters whose actions feel random or forced.
They help you keep your characters distinct. When you have your characters operating from different cores, you reduce the odds that they'll end up following near-identical behavioral patterns.
They make it easier to create dramatic scenarios. You can look at your characters' cores and ask yourself how you can play an interesting scenario off of them. What kind of things affront a particular character's core so much that the character is driven to act? What if this character's actions go too far? What would it take to make this character to act in defiance of a core? What would it take to make this character to question or re-evaluate one? And what if this character has to work with someone with a core at odds with this character's own? What if a situation arises that makes a character's cores come into conflict with each other?
They make it easier to adapt your characters to other settings. By figuring out your characters' cores, you figure out essential aspects of their personalities and identities. When you ask yourself how your characters could end up with these cores (or analogous ones) in different universes, their alternate backstories will practically write themselves.
- A core drive is an attitude, value, or belief that drives a large part of your character's actions and reactions. Good core drives will push or relate to the plot in some way. They won't be something that's brought up once or twice to be never seen nor heard from again, but will be a continual impetus behind a large part of a character's actions, especially the dramatic ones.
- Just about anything can be a core drive. Also, core drives are ultimately rooted in emotion, rather than rationality - though they may be rational reactions to emotional issues.
- The benefits of giving your characters core drives include making your characters feel more realistic, making them more interesting, keeping them both consistent and distinctive, making it easier to create dramatic scenarios for them, and making it easier to adapt them from one setting to another.
Also, take a look at:
Character Creation & Development Theory (Or, How To Make Characters 101!)
Reasons Your Character Might Be Boring
Simple Ways To Fill Out & Humanize Your Character
Mindsets & Rationales That Lend Well To Villainy
Building Better Backstories - Tips & Ideas
Writing Character Profiles & Bios - Tips & Advice
Dropping In Characterization Without Dragging The Story
Changing Alignments, Allegiances, & Loyalties More Believably