The Importance of Wanting in Fiction

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There’s really not much news to report right now about the MW How-To book or the anthology, and since I don’t know how much interest there is in the behind the scenes workings of a business magazine (which is where I spent most of my time this week), I’m going to talk instead about something I’ve thought about quite a lot recently (as both a regular reader and as a fiction editor). It is this: if I find your story to be wanting, it is often because I find your main character wants for nothing.

Let me elaborate.

It may sound odd, but I’ve learned a lot from my IGMS slush pile. Having the advantage of reading a lot of awful, bad, mediocre, and not-quite-right stories on a regular basis is always educational because there is so much to be learned from fiction that’s less than stellar. It’s the number one reason why I always tell people that if they get a chance to read slush for any magazine, volunteer without hesitation. The education will be well worth the time.

Now, the really bad stuff is as obvious as the really good stuff, and doesn’t require much thought. It’s the stuff in between – especially at the upper-end of the not-quite-right spectrum – that I study and learn from. It was close, but not quite right. Why? It was interesting and well-written, but not compelling. Again: why? The reasons for near-misses can often be hard to nail down, but when you do, it’s like finding a small treasure.

One of the things that has become more and more clear to me lately is the power of Vonnegut’s third rule of writing (you can Google “Vonnegut’s Eight Rules of Writing” if you want to see his complete list, which I highly recommend). You may have heard of this third rule before, but if you haven’t it reads thus: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” It almost sounds silly, but then, that was always one of Vonnegut’s special skills; making important things sound silly (and vice versa).

The only thing I’ll disagree with Vonnegut about is that I think this should be Rule #1, not 3. Wanting something is the most powerful thing an author can give to a character, and serves so many purposes. And it’s usually most effective when it is something simple. It’s very hard to relate to someone who wants to save the world; how many of us have ever been in, or ever expect to be in, that situation? But two people who are in love and want to be together? You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t been in that position at some point.

That makes not just the situation relatable, but renders the characters relatable, too. When the main character wants something, we usually immediately start wondering how they’re going to get it and rooting for them to succeed. Often the rooting is unconscious, but it happens just the same. Which means you’ve hooked your reader into siding with your character. It takes more than that to get readers to like the character, but frankly I consider hooking readers to be more important.

Two characters who want something – to be together, for instance — is a simple premise, but one that is behind some of the most beloved stories of all time. Take, for instance, one of my own favorite movies (and a great book, too): The Princess Bride. What is that story about? At it’s core, it’s about nothing more than a man and a woman who fall in love and want to be together. Everything else is details about how they accomplish their goal. Kidnapping, torture, revenge; giants and screaming eels and Rodents of Unusual Size; the albino, his cart, and the holocaust cloak: they’re all rich, fun details, but they’re still just details. The story is about two people who want to be together.

Having your characters want something is, for a number of reasons, also an effective tool for constructing a story. First, it makes it easy to identify your antagonists. Antagonists don’t have to be mean, horrible people. In fact, mean, horrible people are boring. But a nice, well-intentioned character who wants the exact opposite of what your main character wants? Now you’ve got a believable antagonist you can work with, who can do some real damage without being reduced to a cliché.

Second, knowing what your main character wants is useful because it makes it clear what the ending has to be. Not ‘ought’ to be, or ‘might’ be; what it has to be. Make the character’s wants or needs as difficult to attain as you like (the more difficult, the better), and the number and severity of the obstacles will go a long way toward determining the length of your story, but once the character gets what they want, the story is over. Period. There might be an epilogue of sorts to tie up a few loose ends, but your story is over.

Third, knowing where your story ends is one of the most valuable things a writer can have because it gives you a target to aim at. The difference between knowing your ending and not knowing your ending is the difference between getting in your car and driving from New York to California, vs. simply getting in your car and driving. You might visit some interesting places if you simply drive around, but how do you know when you’ve arrived if there’s no destination?

Finally, knowing what your character wants (and focusing on it) goes a long way to keeping your story character-driven instead of event driven. I like stories where things happen – in fact, I vastly prefer action over characters who sit around contemplating the meaning of the universe – but fiction that resonates with readers is about people first. Action is the best way to reveal character, but if the cool ‘stuff’ that happens in your story is the main focus, you are not going to connect with nearly as many readers as you will if the people are the heart of your work.

Part of the reason I’m bringing this up now is that I’ve read a slew of stories lately (everything from novels to short stories) where the author starts with a bit of a mystery or a bit of action (or even a lot of action), but the minute the action or the mystery eases up, my interest in the story dwindles, frequently to next-to-nothing. Even when the writing is professional-level, the voice resonates, the setting is interesting, and the characters rich and alive, when it hits me that there’s nothing that the main character really wants, I lose interest. The character has no goal, no objective, no unmet need. They simply got swept up in events around them; nothing more.

Even if  the situation that the writer puts the character in remains hazardous,  I can only stay interested in a leaf that’s blowing in the wind but for so long. That leaf might be blowing inside a hurricane or a tornado, but it’s still an inert object. And inert is just another word for lifeless.

There’s a saying: “Where there is life, there is hope,” and that saying applies to this situation in so many ways. The bottom line, however, is this: If you want editors to buy your stories, make sure there is life. Make sure your characters – protagonists and antagonists alike – wants something.

Even if it’s just a glass of water.



*I’ll be on the road for part of Saturday, but I’ll be back late afternoon and will reply to any and all comments as soon as I’m home.*

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34 comments to The Importance of Wanting in Fiction

  • R.O. Kashmir

    Outstanding! This post nailed exactly what has been bothering me about one concept I’ve never been able to get anywhere with. Thank you.

    You made me think about those people who appear to have no desires or goals. What do they want?
    They want to be left alone. To stumble aimlessly down the easiest route through life that they can find. A concept I call the Path of Least Resistance. I always expect that given choices people will follow the path that is easiest for them. Which as a supervisor leads me to look at how do I change the path more than how do I force people down a path they don’t want to follow. But in the end even the biggest dead-head slacker still wants something. We just need to figure it out.

  • Interesting real-world application, R.O. And you’re absolutely right about people naturally taking the path of least resistance. They always do, unless they have a particularly strong reason to do otherwise. You’ve got real insight into human nature.

  • Great point, Ed. As Stuart will, I’m sure, agree (as my fellow MW writer with a foot in the theatre) this is one of those notes which overlaps literary and perfromance arts. Stanislavski is great on this for actors: characters always want something, large scale “super objectives” and moment to moment wants (which might conceal less conscious “needs”: the stuff of the much ridiculed but essential “motivation” which is the core of how good actors function on stage and screen. Just as crucial to writing as well. Great post.

  • Tom Berrisford

    A very timely post! When I read this, I quickly thought through all the characters in my current story, no matter how minor, to make sure I know what they want. Even “Spear Carrier” characters want something, though it likely never makes it onto the page.

    I hadn’t heard of Vonnegut’s rules before so thanks for that! I’m going to print them out and keep them visible in my writing space.

    And now for a nerd moment. This tickled a memory of a line from a Star Trek episode. I couldn’t remember it exactly, so I googled and found it at http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/WantingIsBetterThanHaving. (I hope I got that link code right.)

    Spock to Stonn in the Star Trek episode “Amok Time”, regarding the conniving T’Pring: “After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical… but it is often true.”

    A character’s wants can shift either during or at the end of a story. Whether the character gets what they want or not, there’s always another want lurking around the corner, waiting for that next story.

  • Ditto to AJ
    Also, in addition to Vonnegut's rules, I recommend Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules.  These are some of my favorites.

  • Thank you for this post!  This really helped me redirect my MC in my WIP.  Especially the "know when you've arrived" thing.

  • I've noticed this in my own writing.  When I've had problems, it's often because I haven't kept the character's needs and wants in mind and I've veered off on some (sometimes cool, but usually unnecessary) tangent.  
    Thanks for the heads-up on Vonnegut's rules.  I'll go check them out now.

  • Great advice, Edmund. You pinpointed what I couldn't put my finger on. As usual with MW, I ran the advice against my WIP. Another thing I've found to make the story more interesting (but I couldn't put it into words until you did) is when the wants of the "good guys" conflict with each other almost as much as the wants of the protagonist and antagonist. Now I know why I'm having so much fun with my WIP.
    But it also got me thinking about *why* other stories I've written didn't quite work out, including the one I've been working on since I was twelve. A lot of things just *happen* to the characters, and the knowledge that "they're supposed to save the world" isn't enough, even when some of them really come to believe in their cause. Now that I think about it some more, my favorite parts of that story were the ones that involved the conflict around what they all want that have nothing to do with saving the world at all. Thanks! 

  • Bill Hause

    Ed, this was great.  I am saving this list as well as Elmore Leonard's.  (Thanks Stuart)  I have looked through my characters to make sure that I am helping them move towards what they want.  THis seems so simple and obvious…
     
    By the way, Ed…We have always lived in the castle is like nothing else I have read…her pov is unique and and jackson doesn't mess it up through out the story…wow and weird…

  • Edmund. Never has a dinner brought so much to so many. You are a huge benefit to this group and to me personally. (Note to self: What does a vampire overlord want that he can't get on his own?)

  • Faith: for someone to truly love him without judging him, of course. 😉

  • Chase

    Well done! Thanks for the wisdom, it will help me stay on top of my stories.
    I do have to disagree with one thing, which is knowing how a writer will end the story. Some of us are discovery writers, you know. Some of us can't work that way. The perfect ending for some of my stories couldn't have come along until I had written half way through and discovered more aspects of my characters I didn't know before. 
    Maybe when you drive a car, you have to use a map. That's just the kind of person you are. I can use a map for a while, but it bores me to tears. I have to put it away, and drive the direction that appears to promise a destination I can't possibly imagine at the current moment. The assumption is that if I don't know where the destination is, it can't possibly be a good one, but I obviously disagree.
    But I mean no disrespect. Great post! I will check out Vonnegut's Rules.

  • Sarah

    I think we have another one of those moments when the conversation confuses process and product. Ed's point is fundamentally right when it comes to a written product. It has to go somewhere.  Outer Mongolia, McDonalds, whatever. But it has to go somewhere. And the character, in the finished product, has to be actively protagging (yes, terribly ugly word) or they will come across as, at best, a soppy personality void and, at worst a whiny, passive person that you want to see fail because they don't deserve the ending.
    What Ed said about direction and wanting doesn't in any way cancel out the idea of writing for discovery or writing as discovery. It doesn't require that one become a plotter rather than a pantser. I would argue that good writing always does  require that the writer be disciplined (as Jagi mentioned on the MW Beta readers group). But one can be a disciplined planner or a disciplined seat of the pants writer.  Discipline means effort and conscientious thought applied to the craft. I'm mostly a pantser myself. But I think a lot about my writing. And the more I think, the more likely those "muse" moments are to happen. More importantly, the more likely my work is to be well crafted and therefore readable.
    In other words, whatever process you use to arrive at a good product is fine. On the other hand, if your process produces directionless rambling with a passionless or passive MC then you have a problem.  And I say that as someone who has written A LOT of exactly that. I just cringe at how blank and un-proactive many of my early MCs are. In my own process, I had to learn that one of the things I was writing to discover was my direction. If I couldn't come up with an end goal (Find the princess, destroy the ring, save Smurf village, whatever) by about 10,000 words, the project wasn't going to develop a direction and I should move on to something else. Even if I find that I have a new or more complex direction to write in  as I write toward the original direction, I have to have a direction, a goal that the MC wants to achieve. If I can't articulate it to myself, the story isn't going to work. Directionless situations make lovely daydreams. Really – I'm not being sarcastic about that. But they don't make novels, or even complete short stories. A story goes somewhere and it's driven by something. If there's no direction and no drive (no wanting, as Ed called it) there's no story.  

  • Excellent post and something that's always great to be reminded of!  Recently I was listening to a lecture on craft where they distinguished between what the MC thinks s/he wants and what s/he really wants/needs.  Their idea was that you should give the character what he most wants in the beginning of the book and force them to face the "oh, now what?" because they then face the real possibility that they were wrong about what they wanted or needed. 

    The lecture went on from there and made the issue more complex, but it's always something I've kept tucked away in the back of my mind.  Of course, I'm also someone who rarely figures out what the characters want or need until the end of the first draft (if then) so that's always a big part of my revising.

    Thanks for a great post!

  • Mikaela

    Thank you!  While reading this post I realised what my MC wanted.    And, what the antagonist want too. ( One want to support the treaty, the other wants to break it). 

    I'll spend the afternoon at the beach ( It is HOT!), but I'll think on it and see if I can make the wanting more complex.

  • Adding my voice to the chorus.   Wonderful piece, Edmund, and one I hope and expect to see in our How-To book.  With this post, and also with A.J.'s from Friday, I'm reminded that the best advice is often the simplest.  Thanks for this.

  • Got back much later than expected on Saturday, only to find computer problems waiting for me when I arrived. I'll be replying to everyone individually, as best I can.

  • A.J. – The similarities between acting and writing never fail to fascinate me. I know a few writers who've taken an acting class or two to help them gain additional perspective. Do you think it helps?

  • Tom — Cool Trekie moment. I love it. And you're absolutely right; a character's shifting wants and needs and add a lot a story, or provide fodder for the next one.
    P.S. Thanks for the link. Works fine.

  • Stuart – thanks for the link to Lenard's 10 rules. I think #10 (Leave out the parts that readers tend to skip) is the best known and hardest to implement. Otherwise we'd all be writing best-sellers every time.

  • Pea Faeire and ekcarmel (still learning some of your real names) — Glad it was helpful.

  • Moira — Absolutely; when 'good guys' wants and needs conflict with each other, it bring another great layer of tension to any piece of fiction. Excellent point.

  • Bill — Glad to hear that you found and read and enjoyed Shirley Jackson's "We Have Always Lived In The Castle." She's an extraordinary and often overlooked writer.

  • Faith — You are too kind. Far too kind.

  • Chase — No disrespect taken. I have always marveled at 'discovery' writers. There is some discovery in every writer's process; the difference is when and where and much. But it's alien to me to set out on a journey with no idea where I'm going, which renders me incapable of talking about it intelligently. I suspect though that even a pure discovery writer needs to know what the character wants, or at least figure out what they want along the way.

  • Sarah — Agreed. See above. There is no way to teach 'process.' All anyone can really say is "This works for me, see if some form of it works for you…" On the other hand, yes, finished product needs to meet certain basics if it's going to have a chance of selling and being read by the public. How you get there is entirely up to you. (I suspected when I wrote this piece that I'd hear form a few 'discovery' writers and I'm glad to see you all speaking up.

  • Carrie — You've reminded me of a lecture I was at a few years ago by a writer who ran/judged a large contest and the point she made that stuck with me most was that she loved to see stories where the main character got what he or she wanted, only to find out it wasn't really what they wanted after all. It worked for her whether it was the ending, or a turning point in the story. Thanks for jogging that memory.

  • Mikaela — Yup, don't forget the antagonist.

    (I hope you didn't get sunburned.)

  • Thanks, David. I hope you know you can always count on me to be simple-minded. It is my greatest strength.

  • Edmund — Yeah, likely excuse…
     
    Oh, wait a minute; I'm replying to myself now. I guess I must finally be done.  😉

  • R.O. Kashmir

    Hey, now I can reply to Edmund. *G* Seems like I'm not the only one who's had a long couple of days.
    Yeah, I've found that the insight I gained from my liberal arts history undergrad rich in sociology, psychology, and of course lots of writing has served me well when lack of money for grad school sent me off to a 25 year and still going career in logistics engineering. And the lessons here at MW apply in the business world too.

  • Chase

    I'd like to say thanks to both Sarah and Edmund for your comment-comments.  You guys really hit the dart on the target! Well done!
     
    Extra tidbit: I read that Stephen King often can't know what is going to come next when he's writing compact thrillers, because that's the only way the reader won't know. He did this with Misery, (I read it in his book On Writing) but you guys very successfully made a point that I should have made myself, which is that the author should be aware of the promises he's making early on. I suspect that even with purely shrouded writing, the ending is pondered heavily.
     
    Thanks again for the wonderful post and the well scribe replies!

  • R.O. — You're frightening me. You're too smart.
     
    Chase — Yup, it's always the back and forth that digs down to the next level and gets the whole story. Thanks to you and Sarah for pursuing the topic.

  • […] and he does so by analogy to photography.  Great stuff! ♣ Edmund Schubert discusses the importance of wanting in fiction. ♣ Faith Hunter explains how a single paragraph can sabotage a […]