Monday, January 18, 2010

What Your Character Wants

This week I'll be thinking (and therefore posting) about characters. Today, I want to know: what does your character want?

If you can honestly answer that clearly and succinctly, then congratulations. You have overcome a huge hurdle in plotting. Once you know what your character(s) want, then you can prevent them from getting it and let mayhem ensue, which is what makes an interesting story. Many other bloggers have discussed what characters want and the importance of figuring that out (links at bottom). Here, I humbly present my method for figuring out what a character wants.

Digging deep into our characters to find out what they want is really tough work. Many of us don't do it. I generally struggle with my characters and continually ask what they want until I get a straight answer. Unfortunately, the answer starts off vaguely. In my novel set in Santorini, I asked what my character wanted and she said "To live in Santorini." Which was pretty damn vague. So I asked her why. And she said "because it is different." I asked why again.

"Because it is an escape from XYZ."

Ahhhh, now we're getting somewhere! Why do you want to escape, I asked?

"Because I messed something up very badly."

Ah ha. And she wants to fix that, doesn't she. Why did she mess it up?

On this, she was silent--she was embarrassed about the answer. I was forced to infer from her refusal to answer that she'd done something as a result of a past trait or behavior, and was ashamed of it now. And therein lies my plot: she has to solve that bad behavior before she'll feel better.

So I figure out what my characters want by incessantly asking why until I get a satisfactory answer, one that is painful to reach, and one that reflects the innermost conflict of my character. That takes deep digging. And that's the crux of the importance of what your character wants--what he or she really wants is the inner story problem--it's what makes a good story a great one. Let's look at popular examples. (You will forgive my use of the same popular ones as my same examples every time, but it's a sure bet that you'll know the plot details enough to relate.)

Wizard of Oz
Dorothy wants to return to Kansas--which represents love, home, and safety. So yes she wants to return home, but she really wants the love and safety of those who love her.

When Harry Met Sally
Both Harry and Sally want someone to love truly and wholly. Except they don't think it is each other. (But it is. It is!!)

Silence of the Lambs
Clarice Starling wants to find the killer...ah, but she really wants to silence the screaming of the lambs, doesn't she? Which is what will happen when she finds the killer.

What does your character want?

Nathan Bransford


T. Anne said...

I have to laugh because this very thing woke me up this morning. I've been ruminating over character motivation and I think I've come to the end of me.

Travener said...

Liberty and justice for all. On a small scale. Including himself.

Meredith Rae Morgan said...

My newest character wants to solve a mystery without destroying a local family.

Meghan Ward said...

I hate this question! It's so tough to answer, and so important. I'm struggling with it in my book right now. She wants adventure, validation, money, status maybe. Escape maybe.

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