Core values shape our decision-making. They’re our own moral compass, and each person’s core values are specific to them. These are the passions in our hearts–what inspires to fight and argue and never give up. When we follow our core values, we feel peace and rightness. When we stray from them, it’s what keeps us up at night or makes our stomachs churn. That said, it makes sense that we can apply Core Values to character development. When used correctly, you can use core values to build strong, dynamic characters with distinct motivations and desires.
Before we get there, a few caveats to keep in mind…
1. There’s no such thing as a “wrong” core value!
Maybe it’s something you don’t value, but that doesn’t make it any less important to someone else. Keeping this in mind can be really important in taking your characters and their goals seriously.
Don’t dismiss the things they hold dear even if you don’t feel the same way! If its a value that keeps them from from connecting with people or living a full life, then it’s still not bad. It’s just another opportunity for character development.
2. Just because it’s not a core value doesn’t mean your character doesn’t care about it.
For example, just because “integrity” isn’t your core value doesn’t mean you’re going to constantly cheat on tests and lie to friends. Just because “friendship” isn’t your core value doesn’t mean that friendships hold no value for you and you want to be alone and friendless.
Your character will have a lot of values, but not all of them will be as close to the heart as core values.
3. You should do this exercise for your entire main and support character cast.
Protagonists, villains—everyone. They say you should write every character as if they think the story is about them. It’s a fantastic opportunity for character development and building a richer, more complex character growth arc.
Finding core values will help your characters make choices that reflect their own beliefs, instead of decisions simply contrived to make a point, further the plot, or support the MC. Basically, it’s an organic way to have your character interact with the story, make choices, and remain a necessary part of your plot.
Take your time. Do it for yourself, too, if that helps you get into it. Reflect on whether or not they’re your values. Just because you were raised in a competitive family doesn’t mean you have to value it like you’re expected to. It will probably take a bit of time to figure it out, but if you don’t know how to create strong characters or struggle with realistic character development, this is the trick for you.
And remember. Core values will add some stability to your characters’ lives, but it will also add some stress and suffering. To someone with a core value of “friendship,” losing a lifelong friend will be the ultimate torture. Someone with a core value of “adventure” will be absolutely crushed if they’re captured and live the next few years as a slave. After you figure out core values, find out what would destroy your characters and really push them to their limits!
Here’s How to Play
If possible, print this list out. Read through all the values. Then read through again, and check mark 10 values that matter to you. Finally, on your third read-through, place a second check mark next to 5 of them. Five isn’t a set in stone number though. If it applies, you can have anywhere between 4-6 core values.
- Achievement (sense of accomplishment by means of skills, practice, perseverance, or exertion.)
- Advancement (moving forward in your career through promotions)
- Adventure (work which frequently involves risk taking or travel)
- Aesthetic (involved in studying or appreciated the beauty of ideas, things, etc)
- Autonomy (work independently, determine the nature of your work without significant direction from others)
- Caring (love, affection)
- Challenge (stimulates full use of your potential)
- Change& Variety (varied, frequently changing work responsibilities and/or work settings)
- Competition (your abilities against others where there is a clear win/lose outcome)
- Cooperation (opportunity to work as a team towards common goals.)
- Creativity (being imaginative, innovative, coming up with ideas)
- Economic security (having enough money)
- Excitement (experience a high degree of, or frequent excitement in your work)
- Family happiness (being able to spend quality time and develop relationships and family)
- Friendship (develop close personal relationships)
- Health (physical and psychological well-being)
- Help others (be involved in helping people in a direct way, individually or in a group)
- Help society (do something to contribute to improve the world)
- Inner harmony (being at peace with oneself)
- Integrity (sincerity and honesty)
- Intellectual status (be regarded as an expert in your field, thought of as smart
- Knowledge (understanding gained through study and experience)
- Leadership (influence over others, rather lead than follow)
- Leisure (have time for hobbies, sports, activities, and interests)
- Location (live somewhere that will fit your lifestyle and allow you to do the things you enjoy most)
- Loyalty (steadfastness and allegiance)
- Pleasure (enjoyment)
- Power (authority, control)
- Precision (work in situations where there is little tolerance for error)
- Responsibility (being accountable for results)
- Recognition (getting acknowledged for your contribution)
- Stability (work routine and have largely predictable duties, not likely to change over a long period of time)
- Spirituality (inner enlightenment, faith, connection with a sense of greater meaning)
- Time freedom (flexible work schedule, no specific work hours required)
- Wealth (profit, gain, make a lot of money)
- Wisdom (accumulation of knowledge)
And that’s it! Of course, there may be more core values than the ones listed. If you know there’s something truly near and dear to your character’s heart, but it’s not on this list, then go ahead and add yours as another core value.
This sort of guideline should lean your character’s choices one way or another. That said, it’s not at all meant to be seen as constraints for your characters. Core values can be a tremendous amount of stress to your character. Often, they’ll make your character seem paradoxical which is a good, realistic thing that adds complexity and depth to their personality. When a character has to choose between two of their values (either money OR love, responsibility OR time freedom, etc), it can push their limits and force them to grow and change.
Volia! Instant character development.
Consider this example scenario:
Two of your core values are “friendship” and “integrity.”
Your best friend is going to fail her math class if you don’t help her with the homework! And it’s more than just “helping.” She’s so far behind that she wants you to actually do her homework for her.
Helping her would fit your “friendship” value. But going the homework would also go against your “integrity” value. So how do you decide? How can you justify putting one value over another?
If you choose the friendship path and help her, you’ll get that knot in your stomach. You know it’s not right to cheat like this, and it stresses you out. On the other hand, if you choose the integrity path and refuse to help, same thing: you’ll feel terrible for not helping. Friends should always help each other, and you’re letting your own morals damage a friendship that you really value.
In this way, sometimes a character with integrity will make a choice that’s not exactly honest. Is it out of character? From a surface view, yes. But they haven’t abandoned their integrity. In fact, they’re feeling miserable about putting integrity on a back burner. And they’ll continue to feel miserable about it until they find a balance. Finding that balance and that peace between values (and accepting the values of their friends) is part of what makes it such a strong opportunity to improve character development.
Closing thought: Core values improve your character development by giving characters dimension and depth.
A character that values integrity and always, every time without fail chooses to follow the road of integrity is often flat and predictable. So make your character uncomfortable! Make them stress over their decisions. Make them miserable. Only then will they be miserably human like the rest of us.
What kinds of core values do you or your characters have? Can you think of any situations that would majorly stress them out?