Core Values

Part I:

What are core values, and how do you pick them for your characters?

A core value is a fundamental belief your character holds, one that is so obvious to them that they cannot explain it.

A character’s decisions will always be guided by their core values.

Some examples:

  • Integrity means a character will stick to their moral code; often links to the core values of Honesty, Trustworthiness, and Loyalty.
  • Justice means a character will seek to right wrongs, whether caused by someone else or themselves.
  • Autonomy means a character needs to guide their own path and not be told what to do by others.
  • Loyalty means a character will act in a way that will benefit those to whom they are loyal, whether that’s a family member, friend, or another individual (or organization) that has earned their loyalty.
  • Survival means a character will do whatever it takes to keep themselves alive.
  • Family means a character puts family above all else; strongly linked to Loyalty.
  • Personal gain means a character will do anything for wealth or other commodities.
  • Reputation means a character is concerned about how they appear to others and will do anything to make sure others see them as they wish to be seen.

How do you pick core values for your characters?

Core values are the root of all motivation, but there are a lot of ways to figure out what they are. The answer to the titular question depends on how you like to create your characters.

Some writers start with a basic character ‘picture,’ like “strong-willed airship pilot on an adventure for lost treasure”. Other writers start with a character-story hybrid, such as “grumpy, asocial wasteland survivalist who discovers what it means to be part of a found family.”

Still others might have an entirely different approach, but these are the two I’ll focus on today.

Building your character “values-first”

You may wish to decide your character’s core values first to figure out what situations to put them in. Choose 2 or 3 to start.

The “grumpy, asocial wasteland survivalist” character has values already baked into the concept. They value their Privacy/Autonomy and will prioritize Survival, but eventually, their Loyalty will prove more important.

Try this:Write a blurb for each value you’ve picked that explains how this value affects their life.

Discovering your character’s values as you write

On the other hand, you could start writing first and let the character tell you what they value based on their actions.

For instance, let’s say your strong-willed airship pilot just turned down a lucrative job because they want to be a trailblazer, not a follower. You didn’t know they were going to do that! Here, your character has just demonstrated that they value Autonomy above Personal gain.

Try this: Like in the above example, figure out why your character took a specific action, then translate that into a core value.

Add your answers for both exercises to your character bible for later reference.

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Part II:

How can you make sure your characters stay "in character?"

First, what’s the difference between “in character (IC)” and “out of character (OOC)?”

When a character acts IC, every action they take will align with one or more of their core values.

If your character does something that doesn’t agree with any of their values, then that character is acting OOC.

Note that sometimes their core values conflict with each other—more on that coming up in another post.

Let’s establish a picture of what ‘in-character’ looks like. Get ready for some legwork!

1. How to support your character’s values with your plot

A plot is, essentially, a series of choices and consequences. In order to define what IC even means for your character, you need to give them the opportunity to make choices that showcase their values.

Try this: When your character has to make a decision, ask yourself: What makes these options difficult for this character to choose between? What do each of the options represent about their values?

For more information on what core values are and how to choose them for your characters, see part i of this series.

2. How to prioritize your character’s conflicting values

Sometimes the options are difficult to choose between because they work toward the same value but in different ways.

However, sometimes the choices are difficult because they each represent differing core values.

Over the course of their arc, your character will have to decide which of their core values takes precedence.

Try this: With every decision they make, take note of which value your character prioritizes and why. You can refer to it later for the next point.

3. How to use core values to write consistent character growth

(This part is a little long, so I’m going to put a read-more).

Character growth occurs when they make a choice that shifts their priority from one value to another.

Every turning point in a story happens because of these shifting priorities.

To illustrate my points, I’ll use plot points from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (I know every other writing advice blog does it, but that’s because it just works so well, darn it!).

Here are three major turning points that coincide with Save the Cat beats “Theme stated”, “Catalyst” and “Debate”, “Midpoint turn”, and the “Finale” sub-beats “Dig Deep Down” and “Executing a New Plan”.

i. The decision to do something about the inciting incident. (Also known as the Catalyst and the Debate, also also known as “changing the status quo”.) Whatever value your character was prioritizing before, a different value has suddenly become more important.

This is that moment in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins when Katniss prioritizes her family’s welfare ahead of her instinct to survive by volunteering in the Reaping. (Further examples to follow, spoilers etc.)

ii. The decision to stop letting the plot happen to them and to start doing something about the plot instead. (Also known as the Midpoint Turn.)

(This is when Katniss realizes Peeta actually does care about her, and she prioritizes his welfare ahead of her own instinct to survive (hmm… sensing a theme here) and her desire to defy the Capitol by hamming up their ~star-crossed romance~ for the cameras.)

iii. The decision to learn the lesson as laid out in the “Theme Stated” story beat and act accordingly. (Also known as two Finale sub-beats “Dig Deep Down” and “Executing a New Plan”.)

(This is that moment when Katniss decides to stand by Peeta as they both eat the poison berries, prioritizing her defiance of the Capitol over her own survival, her family’s survival, and Peeta’s survival. This calls all the way back in the first chapter when Gale encouraged her to defy the Capitol by running away with him before the reaping.)

In summary, that’s Katniss:

  1. Prioritizing her survival and her family’s welfare over defiance of the capitol by refusing to run away with Gale, maintaining the “status quo” of her life.
  2. Prioritizing her sister’s welfare over her own survival by volunteering in the reaping.
  3. Prioritizing Peeta’s survival over her defiance of the Capitol by hamming up their ~romance~ for the cameras.
  4. Prioritizing defiance of the Capitol over Peeta’s, her family’s, and her own survival by standing with Peeta as they both (plan to) eat the poison berries.

So, even though your character’s choices might (and should) evolve as the story progresses, knowing what their core values are will help you make sure those choices make sense.

This doesn’t just apply to the bigger decisions they face.

Try this: When your character’s core values come into conflict with each other, think about how you want their character arc to look. How do their shifting priorities match their arc? If there are any decisions they make that don’t really make sense, see if you can identify which core value their decision is ultimately based on, and revise accordingly.

4. How to stay in character in between moments of growth

Along with your character’s core values, there are many other factors that will affect how they think, speak, and act in their day to day life.

Try this: If you haven’t already, create a character bible entry to help you keep track of the following traits for each character:

  • Tone of voice (humourous, dry, formal, etc.)
  • How they speak to someone they like
  • How they speak to someone they dislike
  • Their habits and routines (early riser, night owl, perpetually caffeinated, etc.)
  • Personality (reserved, outgoing, quiet but friendly, etc.)
  • How they face challenges (fight, flight, or freeze?)
  • How they act when nervous, confident, displaying bravado, afraid, upset, etc.
  • What embarrasses them
  • What makes them anxious
  • How they physically inhabit a space (sprawled limbs, keeping hands close to their body, etc.)
  • Note down any other traits that help identify your character when you write about them, such as mannerisms, 'catch phrases’, etc.

(As a separate exercise, write a short blurb demonstrating each trait and/or something from your character’s past that makes them think/speak/act this way.)

When revising, check over your character bible before reading through each of that character’s scenes. How do they hold up? Have they changed from what you’ve written in your character bible? If so, does it make more sense to adjust your prose, or to adjust their entry in the character bible?

To summarize:

1. Your plot must support your character’s core values by giving them an opportunity to make decisions based on said values.

2. When your character’s values conflict, they will have to choose which one to prioritize.

3. Every choice to prioritize one value over the other leads to consistent character growth and development.

4. Get to know your character better by understanding the way they think, speak, and act so they stay in character in between story beats.

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Part III:

How to create conflict based on your characters' core values

Every story needs conflict, whether internal, external, or both. It might seem easy to write about a rivalry, a war, or some other obvious conflict. But, how do you write a conflict that works for your character’s arc and the story you want to tell?

Why conflicts happen

When characters have goals that interfere with each other, conflict happens. Every goal has a reason behind it, aka the motivation. And, as I explained in Part I, core values are the root of all motivation.

These conflicts can occur internally or externally.

How can core values lead to internal conflict?

Internal conflicts arise when a character must prioritize one of their core values over the other values they hold.

For example, if your character values both loyalty and survival, what will they do if their survival hinges on betraying their loved ones?

This may play out as your character battling their own self-doubt, where their inner voice attempts to overpower their will to succeed. That inner voice often represents the core value that your character prioritized most at the beginning of the story. The will to succeed represents a different value, one that your character must eventually prioritize in order to experience growth. (See Part II for more on that.)

What effect do core values have on external conflicts?

When another character (or organization, or natural force, etc.) has a goal that interferes with your character’s plans to succeed, that is called an external conflict.

Sometimes, this takes the form of a rivalry: when opposing sides are working toward the same goal or prize, but success for one means failure for the other. This is the kind of mutually exclusive conflict that love triangles and underdog sports stories rely on. (And where that delicious “nemesis” dynamic comes from.)

Other times, external conflicts take the form of two or more forces working for different goals. This could look like one person achieving their goal which indirectly causes the other person to fail. This can be mutually exclusive, but it doesn’t have to be.

Example: Maybe Organization A’s successful plan to take over the west coast with their robot army means that Character B can’t go see their family in Los Angeles when they wanted to. Character B’s decision to go see them anyway has no effect on Organization A’s plans.

In this case, Character B’s conflict with Organization A is merely an obstacle to overcome rather than the main story goal. What it does do is put Character B’s core value of Perseverance at odds with Organization A’s core value of Personal Gain.

How to put core value conflicts into action

Stories naturally have many kinds of conflicts. In Part II, I stated that plot is essentially a series of choices and consequences. To expand on that, choices are necessary to overcome conflicts, which are usually the direct or indirect consequences of each choice.

Okay, great, now how do you apply that to your own writing? Here are a few ways to do it (under the cut).

1. Give your character’s allies an opposing goal, whether big or small. Will your character pursue their own goal, or will loyalty to their allies win out?


Your character wants to keep their head down and avoid drawing attention to themselves by silently going along with the status quo, but their best friend wants to protest and stand up against the current powers that be.

Your character just wants to get to their destination after a 10-hour drive? Their passenger wants to stop for a snack, come on, it’ll be quick, and maybe they can check out that roadside attraction while they’re at it…

2. Give your character a choice they absolutely have to make, even if they wish they didn’t. This works best when the stakes are high and every option has unfavourable repercussions.


Two (or more!) of your character’s companions are in danger, and your character only has the time/ability to save one. Will they make their choice based on logic, or emotion?

In order to succeed in their goal, your character must team up with someone they despise or risk a humiliating failure. Will they swallow their pride, or take the risk?

3. Give your character’s antagonist an equally strong desire to meet their goal at the expense of your character’s success. Now your character has to figure out their enemy’s plan while trying to enact their own!


Your private detective character wants to bring their nemesis to justice, but the nemesis wants to take your private detective out of the picture completely. Will they be victorious, or will their nemesis stay one step ahead?

Your character is playing in a high-stakes poker game, and both they and their rival have just bet more than they can each afford to lose. Who will outwit their opponent while making sure they don’t give away too much information?

In conclusion

Give your characters—including your antagonists—something to believe in with all their heart, then do everything you can to withhold it from them. Force them to make difficult decisions. Put their resolve to the test.

Now that makes for a spicy plot!

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