When building characters, a lot of people like to create dossiers or put their characters through personality tests to get to know them better. While knowing your character’s favorite food, color, and song might be helpful, there are some deeper traits that are useful to uncover while planning or before revising our characters. My favorite of these is core motivators—what drives each of our characters.
The tool I use most frequently for understanding and defining these core motivators is the Color Code by Dr. Taylor Hartman. Because this test is “motive-based” instead of “behavior-based,” it opens up insights into WHY a person (or in our case, character) might respond a certain way to situations or other people, instead of just WHAT they might do.
The Color Code uses four colors to represent the core motivators: Red, Blue, White, and Yellow. Here’s a quick breakdown, and then we’ll see how this applies to creating characters and ensembles:
A good motto for Reds is, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way. Better yet, get out of MY way.” They are motivated, natural leaders, and like to be right.
Blues are all about real, quality human connection. They are the caretakers, the nurturers, and the people most concerned with fairness. An easy way to identify a blue is to ask if they remember something their second-grade teacher said or did that was unfair. Emotional memory runs deep for blues.
Whites tend to be non-confrontational, steady, and logical. They are not attention seekers, and are happy to help things work smoothly from the background.
Yellows are spontaneous, love the spotlight, and are often very charismatic. If a yellow shows up, suddenly any gathering is a party.
Let’s look at some literary examples of each of these.
First, from the Hunger Games, we have Katniss and Peeta. Katniss is primarily a white. She is not eager to be in the limelight, and has to be pushed into action again and again. If it were her choice, she’d just be left alone. Peeta, meanwhile, is a blue. He is a caretaker, a nurturer, and is motivated by relationships and connection.
For yellow, we have characters like Gilderoy Lockhart from Harry Potter. Now, he definitely exhibits some of the more negative yellow traits, and we see that more clearly because we see him through the eyes of Harry and his friends—but he is described as very charismatic, and he loves being in the spotlight. He doesn’t always think ahead, and does spontaneous things like removing all the bones from Harry’s arm instead of fixing the broken one. Merry and Pippin from the Lord of the Rings are also good examples of yellow characters—fun-loving sidekicks are often yellow characters.
For red, just look to Thorin Oakenshield from The Hobbit. He is goal-driven and motivated, even sometimes at the expense of his people.
Each of the core motivators can lead to healthy and unhealthy character traits—for example, reds are great leaders, but might prioritize goals over people, leading to hurt feelings and personal or group losses. Blues are experts at understanding human emotions, but can also be manipulative and are known for using guilt trips to influence others and themselves. Whites can be steady and dependable, but they can also be reclusive, or conflict-avoidant to the point of being walked on. Yellows are easy to love, but can be irresponsible, abandoning a task as soon as it is no longer “fun.” Hartman’s book delves into these traits and others, and also discusses how each of the colors might interact with others who may have a different core motivation.
Now that you have a feel for the basics behind core motivators and how they might look in character form, let’s talk about why this is useful as writers.
One of the things that can quickly throw a reader out of a story is when a character acts “out of character.” Often this occurs when a character acts against their core motivator without a compelling enough reason. Knowing what most motivates our characters gives us a way to check their behaviors for consistency, or helps us see where we need to add more support if we want to show a convincing change in personality or motivation.
Another way understanding the Color Code can be helpful is in adding depth to characters. No one wants their character to be a one-note-sonata, but often our characters can fall into personality stereotypes that make them feel flat. If this is your struggle, first take a look at all the healthy and unhealthy traits listed for your character’s personality type. Make sure they have some of both—these strengths and weaknesses pair together naturally, and will feel believable together while still adding some layers and nuance.
Next look at what might be your character’s secondary motivator and how that might manifest—for example, is your character MOST driven by connection and caring and fairness (blue), but also really loves performing and being spontaneous? There’s likely a yellow secondary motivation at work, which you can highlight early on to provide believable motivation for when your normally responsible, caring character suddenly sneaks out her window past curfew to go sing at a local open mic night—which she will then feel guilty about even if she gets away with it, because she is a blue. Hooray, internal conflict!
Speaking of internal conflict, pairing up a some of these attributes in one person can be a fantastic way to get a character with a lot of conflicted feelings. Hartman’s book describes someone who is equal parts red and blue as “the most tortured personality,” because both reds and blues tend to be power characters, but for different and sometimes conflicting reasons.
A great example of this is Gansey from Maggie Steifvater’s Raven Boys cycle. Throughout the series he is pulled between his indomitable drive to find the lost Welsh King and his need to nurture and care for the people in his life. He is the indisputable leader of his group of friends, but both he and his friends sometimes have a hard time understanding if it’s because of his red side (his intense task-oriented focus) or his blue side (the emotionally conscious, caretaking side) that they want to follow him. It makes him a wonderful, complex character, and brings some great tension to his decisions.
You can probably already start to see how these traits can be used to build ensembles. In fact, if you look at a lot of ensembles, you’ll easily pick out characters who represent each of the different motivators (try it on the Ninja Turtles or the Avengers). One of the reasons this type of ensemble is common is that when you have a group of people who are all motivated differently, there are a lot of different strengths you can draw on, but also a lot of different weaknesses and sources of conflict between group members.
What happens when you have a very driven, motivated (red) character who gets paired up for a job with someone who just wants to have fun and do everything off-the-cuff (yellow)? What happens when you have a red and a blue who both feel they should be in the leadership role—one because he’s driven and motivated, and one because he needs to make sure everyone is taken care of and everything is fair? And then what happens when they’re arguing and try to get the white character’s opinion, placing them in the middle of an unwanted conflict?
Blues are a very popular viewpoint character for these types of ensembles, in part because they so naturally feel the connections to all of the other characters. It’s natural for a blue to spend a lot of time considering what the other characters might be thinking or feeling. If your viewpoint character is NOT blue, being aware of the difference can help you write their viewpoint more effectively.
Knowing your characters’ core motivators can help you understand how they see the world and the people around them. It can help them feel real and consistent. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses common to each of the core motivators can help you provide believable and targeted conflict (for example, a white might let unfair behavior roll right off her back, but a blue would be very upset), and can help make both your individual characters and your ensembles feel more nuanced and well-rounded.
Knowing WHY your characters act as they do is as important as knowing HOW they act, so as you’re casting or revising your next novel, take a little time to uncover their core motivators.
For more information, you can check out the book here or the website (with a free online version of the test) here.
Shannon Cooley is a dancing queen who looks seventeen (a.k.a. a babyfaced ballroom dance instructor). Her favorite type of dance is anything with lifts and drops, which might explain the adrenaline-seeking tendencies of her three children. She and her husband are both writers, resulting in children who refer to stuffed animals as “characters.” Shannon writes Young Adult and Middle Grade fiction, and is represented by Victoria Marini of the Irene Goodman Agency