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.