At the heart of any dramatic story is someone who want something.
Makes no difference if it’s a big action thriller, or a slice of life literary piece, somebody somewhere needs to be jonesing for what they haven’t got.
The actual thing they want doesn’t have to be of a particular size or type, but generally speaking, the more they want it, the better.
But wanting isn’t enough. You have to take into account why they want it, and what they’re prepared to do about it.
There are some things that we have a very primal understanding of. Parents want their kidnapped child back, man in desert want a drink, passengers in falling plane don’t want to die etc. Other things aren’t that self-explanatory.
Jane really wants to be a doctor, always has, ever since she was a kid. So what? A personal preference doesn’t carry the same weight with other people as it does with the person whose preference it is. You need a reason and you need an interesting one if you hope to grab people’s attention.
Again, the specific reason they have for wanting what they want doesn’t have to be of the primal type. It can be, but it can also be something small and personal. It just has to be convincing.
Even if you have somebody with a really good, driven reason for wanting whatever they want, how they go about getting it is also of paramount importance.
If they get it really easily, if it’s handed to them without much fuss, if they apply themselves but everything goes according to plan, none of that makes for a good drama. Effort, sweat, perseverance, are all good qualities to have in life, but in fiction those aren’t very entertaining traits. Anyone can swing an axe at a tree until it falls down. Carving a piece of wood into a rocking horse requires a little more skill.
The character who just turns up and does what he’s told, and at the end gets what he was promised, is not an interesting character.
On the other hand, a character who wants something really hard to come by (like being an astronaut) and does nothing but think about it, is also not a very interesting character. No drama there, either. Anyone can dream about having what they want, it’s the people who get up and have a go (even if they fail) who stand out.
So, you have a character, they want something, they have good reason for wanting it (and by good I mean interesting), and even though it’s a tricky ask, they’re battling against the odds to get it.
That’s all good fodder for drama, right?
Often the problem then becomes that even in a complicated world like ours, what people do in any given circumstance is usually pretty straightforward. If Jane wants to be a doctor, there are set ways to achieve that. But how do you it that into a fresh and engaging story?
Obviously there are lots of ways. You have to use your imagination and work something out. And if you do that, it will be a great dramatic story.
However. What can happen is in order to stop the story becoming obvious and predictable, new elements are brought in, shit happens, worlds collide. Problem is, readers follow a story. And if the story is going off in all directions at once, how do you follow that?
Jane struggles to make it to medical school, she doesn’t really fit in, but her desire to be a doctor keeps her going. Then she meets a fellow med student, they fall in love. But his family is rich and powerful and they don’t approve... now, where is this story going?
There’s nothing wrong with a story about star-crossed lovers, but in this case what has it got to do with what she wants? That shift away from one storyline onto another is very jarring. Even if she ends up as a doctor with a broken heart and a lesson learned, there’s no unifying theme. It’s just a bunch of stuff that happened.
What you need to do is look at the underlying themes and reasons behind what a character wants, why Jane wants be a doctor, and make sure that whatever happens in the story you stay true to that impulse.
So, for example, if Jane wants to be a doctor because her father was denied medical attention and died, and her aim is to be provide health care to those who can’t afford it, and she falls for a guy whose family only care about money, then you can see how those two things are going to clash (although hopefully given a little time and thought I could come up with something slightly less melodramatic).
Because every story is about someone who wants something, and behind that desire is who they really are and what they’re really about. And that’s what makes a story lift off the page, when you suddenly see the truth of who someone is.
Now, what does your main character want?
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