What Else Does Your Character Want?

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I’ve written before, and emphatically, about the importance of knowing what your character wants. When you are writing novels—or short stories or whatever length you prefer, in whatever genre you prefer—you, as the writer, need to know what your main character wants, because it will shape the story as you go along. Your reader needs to know, too, clearly and early on in the tale, because it will shape their expectations as they go along. This “want” will drive the story in so many ways that I can’t imagine anyone trying to write fiction without knowing what it is.

And you know what? It’s not enough! Your character needs to want MORE.

Jokes about being greedy aside, what I’m actually after here is something that will give your character(s) depth. It will create that all-important “inner conflict” that people are always talking about. Inner conflict makes characters so much more interesting to read about, to tag along with through their adventures.

I’m not talking about that “woe is me” torment stuff. I’m talking about one character with two seemingly mutually exclusive “wants” that are both equally compelling and equally important to the character in question. I’m talking about two wants that are believable and logical to the reader, yet it’s impossible for the character to attain some level of one without sacrificing some level of the other.

This concept is a bit of a tangent off the fact that compelling quandaries are not derived from a character struggling between right and wrong—we expect our heroes and protagonists to know the difference between right and wrong—rather they’re derived from a character struggling to choose between the lesser of two evils, or the “righter” of two rights (knowing that the path not chosen will have unpleasant consequences for someone else).

To give a simple example, the YA fantasy I’m currently writing centers around a young girl named Kat Heartston. Her family is falling apart at the seams (in the opening chapter her mother has abandoned the family; Kat has no idea why, and her father’s not talking), and she desperately wants to know what’s going on. Over the course of the book she will take various approaches to trying to reunite her family, because that’s what kids want: for their family to be together and whole and happy.

Yet at the same time, she is a normal 14 year old girl who wants to assert her independence. For years her father has called her “Merry Kat” (her proper name is Mary Katherine) which she despises because as any normal kid would, she thinks the nickname is juvenile. She just wants to be called “Kat.” And as the story progresses, she will take every opportunity to get away from her father and the other people responsible for her care, so that she can do what she wants to do.

And it doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.

No reader is going to question a young girl who wants to see her family reunited, just as no one is going to question how normal it is for a teenager to want to assert her independence. At various points in the story Kat’s desire to feel loved and protected and safe, to feel like she is part of something bigger than herself, is going to be the biggest influence on her choices; at other times her need to assert her independence is going to be the biggest influence on those choices. At various times she’ll do something that puts her closer to achieving her first goal, but causes her to slip a little farther away from achieving the second one. She’ll recognize this and do something that gets her closer to her second goal and realize she just gave up the progress she made on the first. Back and forth like that she’ll go, until she finally comes to terms with the fact that she can’t have it all. Of course, being the horrible person that I am (that all writers need to be in order to write good fiction), once she’s made her choice, I’ll make sure that when she finally gets what she wants, she’ll get it in the most painful way possible (other people’s suffering is immensely compelling).

And this doesn’t just apply to your main protagonist. It would be ideal if you had some degree of this “inner conflict” going on with all of your major characters; it makes them more real, more believable, because that’s the way real people really are. You don’t need to make a big deal about it—in fact, the more melodramatic you get about it, the more unreal and soap-opera-ish it’s going to feel—but you as the writer should know what’s going on inside of all your character’s heads, and make sure you subtly guide your reader through all your character’s dimensions.

One final point, and then I’ll get to your assignment. This yin and yang, the back and forth, in Kat Heartston’s life (and in the life of your own WIP’s main characters) is NOT the primary plot of the story. It will influence the events in the story, it will color and shape them to be sure, but there has to be a whole lot more going on. This inner conflict I’m talking about is the undercurrent that keeps the waters treacherous; it is not the entire river. It’s the thing that causes the eddies that make the boats swirl and spin unexpectedly, the flood waters that unexpectedly wash a corpse up onto shore that had been submerged for the past six months, the drought that lowers the river enough to reveal exactly where the car ended up after it was pushed off of the bridge. It keeps things real, and real interesting, but it is NOT your primary plot.

Having said all that, I now want to make sure you’ve really stopped and thought about this, so I’m going to give you a pop-quiz. I’m going to ask everyone here today to look at one major character from their WIP,  clearly define two conflicting “wants” that this character has, and tell us how those wants impact your story.

And no peeking at your neighbor’s paper, now.

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24 comments to What Else Does Your Character Want?

  • Ooh! Great post! I’ll take the test. And look, no one’s paper to copy! 😀

    My character Mary in Hell Mary wants her normal life back. She did a horrible thing (murdered her sister in law, who was at least partly responsible for Mary’s brother’s suicide), but murder is murder and she feels the guilt acutely. Turned out sis-in-law was a demon and Mary got the demonic powers. No body (it was sucked back to hell) meant no crime, so she’s never been held accountable, and the guilt is still eating at her. She’s spent the past three years using hellfire to get rid of demons. It means no friends, no connection to her past life (’cause bad folks are looking for her), no one who really gets what she is going thought, no job as a professor which is what she is trained to do and loves, and certainly no romance. Plus, the fire threatens to get loose and is hard to control. It wants to burn down the world in the name of justice. So she wants the hellfire gone, she wants to stop fighting demons, all that. Normal life.

    She also desperately wants to do the right thing, and the demons she fights are after peoples’ souls. Stopping the fight means letting the demons take people to hell, without anyone to stop them. So, stopping fighting would only add to the desperate guilt.

    Internally, she’s got to cope with the guilt of her past, and she feels like her situation is a kind of penance. The other people in her life who know what she is tell her she’s got a great gift, and should use it well. She’s sure it is a curse and will eventually kill her. That it is at once both a punishment for what she’s done, and something she’s far too weak and evil a person to be entrusted with.

    (And this isn’t the plot. The plot is that the one guy–a nasty tv producer–she chose not to save from a demon, ’cause he told her not to, is now in the service of the demon/ ex-sister-in-law, and they are coming after her with the vengeance of Hell. Oh, yeah, and now he’s a vampire, too.)

  • I’ll play! (I admit I cheated and read Pea-Emily’s answer, tho. 🙂 )

    Jane Yellowrock: has a stubborn determination to finish the job, whatever it is, to not back away even if finishing the job is physically dangerous or emotionally painful, even if she dosen’t have enough info to protect herself while compleating the job. More than anything else, *finish the job* is who she is.

    Conflicting wants and needs:
    1. To find out her past: *what* she really is, to find out who her parents were and what happened to them, to discover what happend all the years while her Beast was alpha. And by book 3 to avenge her parents. But this is impossible because they are long dead.
    2. Deep down, Jane hates vampires and wants to see them all dead. Discovering that some seem to act civilized was a surprise and is still being woven into her personal world view. She has no idea why she originally disliked them so much.
    3. To heal the broken parts of herself, reweave the frayed and damaged strands back into one whole being. This includes her spiritual and religious self: Cherokee, skinwalker, and Christian, the strands of which all come from different color palattes and don’t match at all.
    4. Find a mate, someone who could / might accept her for who she is, and she knows he won’t likely be of her own species.

    Humph. I just leared a few things. Like what Jane really wants and why. Okay Edmund. This was valuable. Why I didn’t know some of this stuff until I wrote it down, I don’t know. Shesh. And I’m supposed to be a professional writer.
    Sigh….
    Thanks.

  • Emily – Excellent. Sounds like you’ve really got this concept nailed.

    Faith – I’ll properly chastise you for cheating later on in private. 😉 About the other thing: you ARE a pro, which is why you can write on instinct without having to set it down on paper beforehand. But now that it is on paper, it’s good, useful stuff, eh?

  • Very useful. And it changes how I’ll address certain specific problems in the WIP, *and* how I’ll address the rewrite of Raven Cursed. Knowing *why* Jane has always been so motivated to finish a job, is like this big revelation. It affects the … okay, it affects everything. And I knew, in the back of my mind, this big *why*, I even wrote the big scene of the *why* in Mercy Blade, but … but I never asked myself, never wrote it down, never addressed it consciously. Which can work for a standalone, one-off book, but not for series. The *why’s* matter so much more then because there is so much more word count and more plot arcs to explore.

    And — chastise me? In *private?* Really?!? Why Edmund. Shame on you…
    LOL

  • “…okay, it affects everything.” Don’t you just live for those glorious Ah ha! moments when the pieces click like that? I love it.

  • I really appreciate the distinction you made between the type of whiny “tortured” soul found in some books and characters having valid internal conflicts.

    Let’s see, in my WIP Harvey wants to raise her children as normal, ordinary, non-violent members of society so they can grow up successfully, or at least live long lives instead of dying young like their father did. However this conflicts with her natural instincts and abilities, as well as her upbringing as a Berserker. Plus, she has cut off all her former ties to the Berserker community to achieve her goal; her desire to have support and friendship is conflicting with her conviction that these people are a bad influence on her children. And she struggles with the memory of her dare-devil, high school sweetheart husband and father of her two kids because of her growing attraction to Carl, her husband’s former best friend. Carl loves her kids and is undeniably more mature than her husband ever was, but he’s also committed to being a Berserker – he sees it as a noble, almost mystical, calling and spends his nights hunting frost demons. So he’s both a better man than her husband was and exactly the sort of person she doesn’t want them to emulate, lest they end up dead like their father.

    The main PLOT of the story is that Harvey’s brother Heidrek, serving time for trying to beat Harvey to death, has become a warlock in prison and is using blood magic to hunt for the magic sword Tyrfing so he can kill Harvey and raise an army of Winter to rule the world.

  • I’m still in the process of tuning my main characters wants as part as total rewrite…er…revision #1, but I’m trying to use my WIPs primary theme to focus in. “That which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” or in the case of vampires and Obi-wan Kenobi, “That which does kill me makes me stronger.”

    Sam basically wants out of her dead end job, wants to quit wasting her education, wants to do something better with her life (sort of universal, I’m sure we can all relate.)

    She doesn’t want to be the center of attention, being a hard-core neurotic, and having a Mesopotamian demon, an incubus, the local vampire community and the local witches coven all on her back sorta makes that a bit difficult.

    By the end of this story, she gets over herself and grows a backbone. Getting constantly beat up by demons isn’t as pleasant as Prozac, but it gets the job done.

    Oh, and she also wants at least one sunny day in Seattle…and darnit, so do I (although it’s starting to look better out there)

    I do admit that this isn’t an uncommon set of wants for a story, but I’m hoping my execution is good, as that’s often what sells, IMHO.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you for this post! You’ve helped me realize why I’ve been having so much trouble making one of my characters interesting. If all she really wants is to run to somewhere safe and preferably fairly posh and cozy…that’s pretty boring. She develops other wants later in the story, but I now see that I need to introduce at least the SEED of those other wants much sooner to make her at all sympathetic and interesting. (otherwise it’s just whiny, ‘woe is me’ :-D)

    My other two characters are better. One wants to be a member of the resistance, but also really wants to fight rather than heal, as the resistance leadership has assigned her to do. This means she’s sometimes more of a monkey-wrench in the resistance’s plans than a help.

    The last is a soldier who really just wants to be a good guy (he’s sort of a goody-two-shoes) but, ultimately, the person in command, the Queen, is the defined BBU. He probably wouldn’t mind switching over to the side of the resistance, except that he sees their operations as just as destructive and immoral as the status quo, and more blatantly so. He still believes in honor and the law.

    Again, thanks for this post. Good things to think about!

  • Alan Kellogg

    Jones is a house husband, with three dogs, two cats, one basilisk, and a 4 year old to shepherd through life. At the moment he’d most like a pest control agent who knows the different between basilisks and cockatrices, and is aware that an anti-paralysis amulet good against one is not always good against the other.

    For that matter, he’d like to meet an agent who knows that cheap amulets are all too often ineffective against all but a particular species or two.

  • *raises hand* Mister Schuuubert, can the second thing be something that the character doesn’t realize s/he wants until partway or most of the way through?

    And does strongly *not* wanting something count?

    I’m not quite sure if this works, but here’s what I have:

    As a landmaiden, Janni wants to help people with her healing and related powers, to the point where she will help people who don’t deserve it. Janni also happens to be a princess who escaped a murder attempt by her uncle as a child, but is believed by most to be dead. As a result, she strongly does *not* want to be queen. Helping people is what she wants to do, but she has to also avoid discovery, and that becomes harder when she learns that the guy she’s travelling with *knows* the princess is alive and wants to find her and help overthrow her evil uncle. The (maybe?) third conflict is that she winds up falling for him.

    What I’m not sure about is where “wanting to just be a landmaiden” and “strongly does not want to be queen” blurs a bit. As for the romantic conflict, that becomes a stronger plot point in the second half of the book.

  • Sarah, Roxanne — I do believe you’ve got it.

    Hep — Glad it was helpful. You’re right about that first character needing more, but the other two sound like they’re good to go.

    Alan — Hate to say it, but I don’t see a second want. It sounds like he *is* one thing (house-husband) and *wants to be* something else (pest control agent). Am I missing something here or is Jones?

    Laura — Great question. YES, strongly *not* wanting something definitely counts. If you think about the movie Casablanca (one of the all-time great movies in cinematic history), the main character Rick Blaine desperately wants to *not* think or feel; he desperately wants to be left the hell alone so he can wallow in his misery. Of course, then Ilsa shows up and her very presence forces his misery right down his throat, which is one of the numerous things that makes it a great movie.

  • Drohan’s last murder victim resembled a younger version of his mother and even though he’s fought his way clear of the assassin’s life, he can’t rid himself of the guilt. He wants absolution, he wants to be loved, and he wants a normal life, free of killing. He’s lived in self-imposed exile for over a year, tying to sort things out, to no avail.

    Unable to forgive himself, he tries to repair the damage done to those he left behind, thinking if they forgive him, he can too. If he can show Talia that she is important and that he can live without killing, maybe she’ll forgive him. But she’s on a dangerous quest to keep the gates to the divine realms closed. In trying to help and protect her, Drohan may have to embrace the killer inside to protect the ones he loves with any hope of finding absolution.

    I struggled to write this because it kept coming out like a query letter. lol

    -NGD

  • Alan Kellogg

    Edmund,

    Don’t worry, more wants show up during the course of the account. I’m now serializing it at my blog.

  • Nothing wrong with sounding like a query letter, Dave. However, I will say that everything you’ve listed here (as interesting as it is) all seems to come back to Drohan trying to find his way past the experience of being a hired killer. Even embracing the “killer inside” to protect Talia feels more like a part of his quest for absolution than it does anything else. Is it possible to make some secret part of him enjoy the power that comes with taking a life? Or to make some part of him really enjoy some other aspect of an assassin’s life (does he make a lot of money doing it? maybe he likes the lifestyle that the money makes possible). Give Drohan (and by extension, the reader) a small piece of something that is the opposite of all that guilt he’s carrying around, and he’ll be much more interesting.

  • BillSmith

    Let me see. All of society rejects my MC for what he is, and even his own kind ostracize him due to a painful condition of his. This makes him feel alone and hated, thus he wants to get away from everyone, to simply be alone, so that there is no one to make him feel like this. This comes up in oppisition to his growing love for another character who he wants to be with, but is afraid to due to a fear that he would reject him if he ever found out what he is. The MC is also afraid of hurting him, which further fuels his desire to get away, and yet get closer so that he can be there to protect him.

  • AJ,
    I think I see what you’re talking about. Something that contrasts directly with his goals like reveling in the challenge of breaking into any home or business, or the rush of bloodlust once the fighting starts?

    Thanks,
    -NGD

  • Bill — Precisely.

    Dave — You’ve got the concept. (Ed) 😉

  • Thanks, Edmund! That’s a big relief. 🙂

  • Ha ha. Thanks, Ed. What’s with people messing your name lately? Sorry, man.

    Cheers,
    -NGD

  • I guess between being mistakenly called Edward or AJ, I’ll take AJ since he’s got that cool British accent. You can’t hear it when he types, but trust me, it’s a good one…

  • Edmund,

    I forgot to ask – will you have a copy of Dreaming Creek available for sale this weekend? I would very much like to buy one, but Amazon is only selling it directly through its US site, and the shipping costs are fairly horrendous.

  • To make this easier, I’m just going to post the current synopsis:

    Helena Martin is the first Hellhound born with magic, so when a battle with an enemy sorcerer destroys the spell binding the Hellhounds to their master, Gwydhain, she is the one who sounds the call for escape. Finally free of the insidious hold of Gwydhain’s magic, Helena believes she might actually have a chance to live without the violence and heartbreak she grew up with. But her pack has different ideas.

    Not only do they ditch Miami for the winter wasteland of Minnesota, enroll her in University, and saddle her with a stolen book of spells, they also expect her somehow to cut off the source of Gwydhain’s power by closing the gate to the demon realm. It’s hard enough to act normal around her new roommates without sprinkling salt around doors, blowing up her window, and terrifying the local dogs. But, as usual, Helena has little choice.

    The threat of Gwydhain seems far away, until she finds herself in the middle of a brawl between a sorcerer and bounty hunter, both trying to kill her, and realizes her old master is not the only one after the Hellhounds. His magic-wielding enemies still hate them, and desperately want the power to create and control Hellhounds – a power which is locked inside the book she now protects. Her pack begins to disappear one-by-one, and Helena realizes that both her hound family and her human friends are fair targets, because the sorcerers are out for power, Gwydhain is out for revenge, and neither are above murder.

    Helena has two conflicting desires throughout the book: A.) the desire to protect her pack from Gwydhain and his enemies; B.) the desire to live the happy, normal life she never got to have.

    These two desires often conflict, especially when she has to choose between spending time with her roommates – the first friends she’s ever had – and sneaking off to practice magic. There are almost always consequences, no matter what she chooses. If she chooses to spend time with her friends, a bounty-hunter attacks her at laser-tag, putting her roommates in danger. If she decides to practice magic, she loses track of time and her roommates get mad at her for walking by herself after dark on an unsafe campus.

    I’m really glad you posted this, Ed! It was one of those things I knew I knew about my character, but had never quite teased out in so many words. This will actually help me during the revisions I’m doing now, because I can look at these desires as a way to make Helena’s flaws and their consequences stand out a bit more. 😀

  • HOLY @$%^ that’s long. SORRY!

  • My characters want me to get back to writing about them! (Long couple of very busy weeks – writing has been neglected).