Characterization Exercise: What is Power to You?

Power: along with sex, money, and occasionally elephants, it’s a common motivation for characters. But while it may take five letters to write, it takes a lot more work to define precisely; even characters who agree that they want power won’t necessarily agree what power is, let alone what (if anything) they want it for. As a result, figuring out exactly what power is to a character can be an important element to understanding that character.

First, what constitutes power? For some people, it’s the sheer ability to bodily overwhelm an opponent—raw physical power. Others look at it in terms of how much magic, or how many neat abilities, they have at their disposal—metaphysical power, you could say. There are some who see it in terms of how many, and what kind of people, they can give orders to, and what kinds of orders they can give; but then there are those who see it as how much change they can affect in an organization, or what lengths they can go to to have an effect through that organization. (Then there’s what I refer to as Department Secretary Power, which is essentially the ability to affect things through knowing procedures, secrets, and shortcuts in an organization despite having little apparent social or political power. People with this kind of power are dangerous.) Many people understand that all of these are power, and take all of them into account, but often will give one more weight than others when determining how much power they or others have.

Second, how much do they want it, and if so what kind? Among characters who sought it out, I’ve seen characters who eschewed everything but physical and metaphysical power, and ones who focused entirely on more social sorts of power. Some placed the search for power above all other goals; for others, it was incidental, a key to something else they were attempting (though there are those among the latter who end up among the former). Others didn’t really look for it, but had it happen to them; some of those even tried to reject it once they had it.

Third, look at the answer to the prior question, and then ask why. Why does this character want power, or want so desperately to get rid of it? As I mentioned in the prior paragraph, for some people power is a means to an end, and what matters is the end. There are others for whom power is the end in itself, though that still might hold a reason: for many of these, power is something of a symbol, something they lacked once and felt that if they’d had it, things would have been Different. Some use it, or at least some form of it, as a way of comparing themselves to others, and just want to come out on top. Then there are those who are afraid to have it because of how they might use it, or of not knowing how to use it; because it sets them apart, or because it brings them close to people they’d rather not identify with.

So what is power to your characters?

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