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What Do Your Characters Want? (Part One)
by Victoria Grossack
Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
January 3, 2013
Different Types of Desires and the Portrayal of Personality
All -- well, nearly all -- of your characters should want something. Their goals and their motives help define their personalities and give your story direction. These wants bring your characters and your story to life. All too often I encounter students who have a setting or a time period that fascinates them, but whose characters have nothing particular to do. Their characters are uninteresting and their plots have nowhere to go.
It may be possible to write stories in which the characters don't know what they want. Some of these stories may even be well written. But for me, novels in which the characters are angst-filled and aimless are generally annoying, although occasionally the writing is good enough to overlook this factor.
Your characters' wants help define and develop them as people, and also provide a means for moving your plot forward. Moreover, having wants for your characters makes the stories easier to write. If your characters have things that they desire desperately, your job of scripting their efforts becomes much easier to imagine and put down on paper. Understanding your characters' wants is one of the best ways of overcoming writers' block.
Different Types of Wants & Goals
What exactly does your main character want? The want may be determined at the most fundamental level, such as survival. Many plots, especially action-oriented movies, spend a lot of time with this. Frequently the stakes are increased so that the survival pertains to more than just one person, such as all the people on an airplane, all of humanity, or even the entire universe.
Often the goal that kicks off the story is not survival, but something less overwhelming, even mundane. For example, Heather may be trying to get her son Greg to school so she can make it back home in time to meet with the plumber -- with whom she plans to end an affair. Soon other events crowd into the story -- perhaps Heather and the plumber are kidnapped by the mob -- so that Heather's primary want becomes her survival.
By showing what Heather wants, and what she doesn't want, what she is planning, and what she is not planning, your readers learn about her and her personality. Your readers' reactions depend on how you, the author, present and develop Heather's goals and plans. Heather could be a woman who is interested in her son but not in her husband -- but who has decided to forego her affair and work on her marriage for the sake of her son. Or, Heather could be a single mom and the plumber could be married, and a voice-mail on her answering machine makes her realize that his wife knows, and Heather now thinks it's better to break it off. All sorts of questions about Heather's strength of character, her consideration of others, even her sensuality, are elaborated by the development of her wants and desires.
Characters' wants can be expressed either positively or negatively. At work: Bob may hope to get the promotion, while Adam fears he's about to be fired. In relationships: Kate wants Henry to fall in love with her, while Cynthia wants to prevent her husband Charles from leaving her and the kids. The negative expression of problems tends to introduce more tension into the situation, because fear of loss can lead to panic in your characters, which is then felt by your readers.
Perhaps a character is trying to fulfill someone else's desire -- for example, a deathbed wish, which involves tracking down a long-lost relative. In the movie "Moonstruck," Loretta -- played by Cher -- is asked by her new fiancé to mediate a reconciliation between him and his brother. Then all sorts of crazy things start to happen.
The more unusual the want, the more unusual your character, and the more unusual the story. For example, in Noah Gordon's The Physician, the hero, Rob Cole, wants to study medicine. But in the book's time period, 11th-century England, studying medicine was not so easy. Only the Persians had any real skill, and they did not permit Christians to study with them. Rob Cole knows he could not possibly pass himself off as a Muslim. He opts, instead to pass himself off as a Jew, as the Persians occasionally admitted Jews into their medical schools. Rob's overarching ambition and the many obstacles he needs to overcome in order to achieve it lead to a fascinating plot, including the rare situation of a Christian pretending to be a Jew rather than the other way around.
Goals Help Develop and Differentiate Characters
Your main character may have multiple, conflicting wants and desires. In Jane Eyre, Jane is about to marry Mr. Rochester, when it revealed -- dramatically at the altar -- that Mr. Rochester has a wife still living, although she is insane and locked away. Rochester urges Jane to live with him without the benefit of marriage, and Jane, who loves him desperately, longs to do this. But she also feels the urge of her conscience that living without marriage is living in sin, and this is something she cannot do. Her struggle with herself leads to one of the most moving passages of the book. It also defines her character as strongly principled.
Note that not just your main character should want something; all of your characters should want something. The fact that their wants are different from each other is what helps make your characters different from each other. Their desires should also grow out of their different situations and personalities. An uneducated old man may want to ease the pain in his back while a rich society wife may want to regain the love of her husband. Even a pair of sisters, with similar genetics and upbringing, may have very different desires. For example, shy Sheila may want to stay in their small town, marry and have children, while extroverted sister Emily plans to go to Hollywood and become a movie actress.
Even if you write in first person, some of what other characters want should filter through your writing. Don't forget your villains have goals and desires, too. You can humanize a villain by giving him sympathetic goals, such as a man stealing in order to finance an operation in order to save his daughter's life.
Even lesser characters should have goals and desires. These don't have to be complex. Perhaps the cashier is only thinking about her feet, or the fact that she wants to lose ten pounds by Friday, or maybe she's worried that she doesn't have enough gas in her car to get home, or she is even more worried because twenty dollars from her register is missing and she doesn't know why but she is concerned that she will be docked for it.
When give your characters wants and desires, they begin to have texture. If you find that Yvonne wants a candy bar, give her a reason why. Perhaps she is on a diet. Perhaps she is a diabetic with an insulin reaction. Perhaps candy bars remind her of Halloween. Perhaps candy bars remind of her childhood, when she stole a candy bar from the local drugstore and was punished by her father and has never recovered from the incident. The more interesting you make the desires, the more interesting and memorable your characters will be.
Perhaps your cashier has such a small role in your story that you don't need to do any development. On the other hand, don't make the mistake of only developing one character's wants and desires. Here's a rule of thumb: if a character is important enough for you to give her a name, then she is usually important enough for you to know something about her in terms of wants and desires. Naming a character is a hint to the reader that this character is sufficiently important to remember. Note that this is only a rule of thumb; you may choose not to develop the personalities of some of the characters you name, or to develop them with only a few attributes.
Remember: characters' personalities are also defined in part by what they don't want, what they fear most, and to what they are indifferent. If you don't know these things about your characters, you don't really know your characters. Your character's wants are personality in action. They show, instead of tell, the character of your characters.
Until Next Time
The emphasis of this column has been on how what characters want help define their personalities. In the next one, we'll look at how these wants can help bring tension to your plots.
A version of this article appeared at the Coffeehouse for Writer's Fiction Fix.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.