Monday, June 14, 2010

Do You Know What Your Characters Want?

I recently had the privilege of sitting in a writer's class taught by prolific suspense author, Brandilyn Collins. Much of the information contained in this post came, either directly from her class, or from conversations with other writers afterward.

It has often been said that conflict is the catalyst that keeps readers connected to a tale and flipping pages madly. But if there is no underlying foundation of character desire in your story, then there will be no conflict. Desire drives conflict.

You have to know what your character wants in order to create conflict in your plot. If your character has nothing that motivates him, there is nothing to prop up the conflict obstacles that appear along his path.

Let's take a look at an example:

The Pearl by John Steinbeck.

Kino is a poor diver who has a wife and son that he can barely provide for. At the beginning of the book, Kino's son is attacked by a scorpion. They rush the boy to the doctor, but because they are so poor the doctor won't treat him and he almost dies. Kino loves his family very much and this frustrates him most grievously. However, Kino finds a large pearl on one of his dives. The most valuable pearl in the whole world.

Thus arises Kino's driving desire throughout the book.

Kino wants to 1. sell his pearl 2. for its full value so that he can 3. provide for his wife and son.

Can you immediately see how that raises the potential for conflict? There are all kinds of ways we can prevent Kino from achieving what he wants now. We can stop him from selling it altogether. We can tantalize him with a sale and then only offer him part of what it is worth. We can make the wife and son unappreciative of what he's trying to do for them. And so on.

The more detailed your character's desire, the more potential there is for great conflict.

Don't just say, "Tracy wants to make lots of money." Answer the why at the heart of their desire. "Tracy wants to 1. become the best sales associate at her company so that she can 2. improve her lifestyle and 3. hopefully attract the attention of Johnny Begood."

You'll find that as you nail down your character's desire, a lot of other questions about them will get answered, as well. For instance, why isn't Tracy the top associate right now? And why is her self-esteem so low that she feels the need for more money in order to attract Johnny Begood? The closer you get to nailing down their wants, the better you will know your character. Be sure to think things through carefully and make sure you have it totally figured out. A character desire that is a little off of plumb can throw the whole story into the Leaning Tower of Fiction.

So with these thoughts in mind... Anyone care to share the desire that drives your character throughout your story?

On Wednesday we'll talk a little more about character desire and how to create super stories.
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  1. Great post! This "specification of desire" is something I just learned in this past year and it's been INVALUABLE! Exploring the depth of what my characters want has been a shock in many cases - and it makes them so much more complex!

  2. Hi Lynnette,
    What an interesting post. Thanks for putting up this helpful information.

  3. Nina, it gave me a lot to think about too. There have been times when I thought I knew what my character wanted, but was surprised to find out it was something altogether different.

    Gail, I'm glad you found it helpful! :)

  4. I've been pretty good at giving my main character a goal, something she really wants, but I've been lax with the secondary characters. I usually have to go back and beef them up--a horrible habit I hope to break someday!

  5. Once we figure out what the character wants, we often figure out what he needs to change - and thus we get the bonus of a built-in character and associated thematic arc. Love it!

  6. Great post, Lynnette. Thanks! One of my MC's kept changing her mind about what she wanted. I finally had to hold her down and force her to tell me the truth. ;)

  7. Great post! I've been really trying to pin down exactly what my characters goals are, why they can't have them and what they are doing to remedy that. This helps!

  8. I hadn't thought of it in quite this way. My character goals have often been too vague. Time to start a detailed list. Thanks!

  9. Linda, you can break that habit! :)

    Katie, yes. Figuring out character desire solves a lot of other potential issues that could crop up.

    Lorna, lol. I've had characters do that. In fact I'm dealing with one right now who is going through an editorial change! :)

    Cindy, I'm glad this helps. Sometimes pinning down those desires feels a little like the game Pin the Tail on the Donkey. :)

    Deb, Yes, detail is the key! You got it. Glad this helped. :)

  10. Great post! I'll have to take a look at my MS and see what's going on ;o)


  11. This is great! I was browsing through some of my really old post, and I saw a comment by you. At the time, I was no where near ready to write my own book. However, I have recently started... so all the help on this website is great! You got yourself another reader! :)

  12. I'm glad you are finding the site helpful. Thanks for dropping by!