How To Test a Character’s Character

What is character? According to Merriam-Webster online, one definition of character is: the complex of mental and ethical traits marking and often individualizing a person, group, or nation <the character of the American people>

In fiction, as in real life, character is demonstrated by actions and choices. In my ongoing pretend novel, Bad Sale, a man’s character is put to task when he is tricked by a childhood friend into performing an almost illegal act. His instinct is to be law-abiding and honest, but just as strong is his instinct to help his troubled friend.

For a writer, testing a character’s personal integrity is necessary and fun. Why bother reading a story if the people in it are not put through trials and temptations? How can a character be compelling if they are not seduced, even a little, by their weaknesses?

There are a plethora of ways to test a character’s character. The following is a simple one that can be used as a writing exercise. It’s called the Found Money Character Test. Here’s how it goes:

A $20 bill is lying on the sidewalk in front of a small grocery store. There is no one around but Joe the Character. He sees the money.

Test 1:  What does Joe the Character do next?

  1. Pocket the dough and keep walking

  2. Go inside the store and ask if someone lost some cash

  3. Ignore it and go about his business

Each choice tells something about Joe the Character. What are some possible reasons why Joe the Character does what he does?

Test 2: Joe the Character has custody of the money. What does Joe the Character do next?

  1. Put the $20 in the Widows & Orphans jar next to the store’s register

  2. Put the $20 in his wallet and forget about it

  3. Go to a store and buy his wife or kid a gift

  4. Treat himself to a nice lunch

  5. Set it aside for a rainy day

  6. Call his bookie, he’s had a windfall

  7. Buy a baggie of marijuana

Each action demonstrates something about Joe the Character’s character. Until we get to #6, none of the choices are sketchy or illegal, but each reveals a trait. What do you think those traits are, with each act?

Now let’s test Joe the Character a little more. First, it’s not $20, but $200, in a Ziploc bag. Rather than finding the money in front of a grocery store, consider these scenarios:

Test 3:

  1. Joe is a recovering alcoholic. The money is lying on the sidewalk in front of a liquor store. Returning the money would mean walking into a liquor store. He wants to do the right thing but….

  2. Joe is an upstanding citizen now, but in his wild youth there was a felony conviction. He’s not to own or even touch a firearm. The $200 is lying on the sidewalk in front of a gun store. He wants to do the right thing but….

  3. Joe was laid off three weeks ago. He’s always been a hardworking guy, and unemployment is hard and humiliating. He sees the money and wants to do the right thing but….

  4. Joe is on probation, for good reason. In his mind, he’s got the worst luck in the world, but he sure could use that cash. If he’d pick up the money, with his luck, a cop would walk out the door, and who would believe he found $200 lying on the sidewalk? He wants to do the right thing but….

In fiction, characters are meant to change and grow. Does a person’s character change because of their experiences, or is personal integrity something set in stone? The final test of a character’s character addresses this question.

Test 4:

  1. At the start of the story, Joe the Character makes certain choices. Why?

  2. At the end of the story, would Joe the Character make the same choices he did at the beginning of the story?  Why or why not?

The Found Money Character Test is meant to make a writer think about how a character’s actions reflect their personal integrity. But, if you apply it to the end of the story as well as the beginning, it can also reflect character growth—or lack of growth. Do you want your character to be the same person throughout the story, or do you want him or her tested so severely, there is an internal sea change?

What would you do if you saw $20 lying on a sidewalk in front of a store?

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