Monday, 29 July 2013

What A Character Wants Is Only Step One

First you need a character who wants something, even if (as Kurt Vonnegut said) it’s only a glass of water.

This simple dynamic is at the heart of ever plot. If you find plots difficult to write, this is where to start. Whether it’s wanting to stop the alien invasion or wanting the dog next door to shut up, as soon as a goal is identified you can start building a narrative.

You build this narrative by deciding what the character is going to do. You know what they want, so how are they going to get it?

The journey from not having what they want to having it, whether in a scene or a chapter or over the course of a novel will be what the reader follows and hopefully they’ll get into the momentum and flow of it.

But as well as providing a narrative, what the character does in pursuit of his goal also serves two very important additional roles.

First, it gives an idea of how much the goal means to the character.

You don’t always have to have everything be desperately needed and a matter of life and death, but the stronger the desire the more compelling the journey. Knowing this and being able to tweak it when necessary is a good technique to have at your disposal when things are feeling a bit slow and meandering.

For example, let’s say Jake wants to ask Phyllis out for a date and these are the options:

1. Wait until he happens to one day be alone with her and feels confident enough to ask her.

2. Blurt it out in a crowded room.

3. Secretly follow her around until he knows her schedule and then fake bumping into her.

Number one isn’t very compelling. Even if he’s shy and finds it difficult to talk to girls, just accepting this difficulty and waiting for the universe to do him a favour isn’t very impressive. Not that unimpressive people can’t have stories told about them, but the world is full of people who never get round to acting on their desires and mainly because they didn’t want it enough.

Number three, on the other hand, suggests a restraining order might be called for.

My point is you can give the reader a strong idea of how committed the character is through their approach. People who would like something but are willing to wait are not going to have the same kind of effect on the reader as someone who will risk everything.

It’s also important the reader understands why the character is willing to go to whatever lengths they’re willing to go to. In fact explaining this is part of the plot’s job.

Jake wants to date Phyllis. He wants it so much he’s willing to make a fool of himself for the chance. The reason he’s willing to do this is because...

You don’t have to explain immediately or even fully, but it’s something the reader will want to know, and that the writer should be aware of and be able to answer for themselves. And in doing so gain a much better understanding of their character.

And this leads into the second role the character’s actions play, and that is to tell the reader the kind of person they’re reading about.

How they go about getting what they want shouldn’t just follow the normal route anyone would follow in similar circumstances. They can try but they should find obstacles preventing them from taking the standard, sensible path.

The reason for this isn’t only to facilitate a more interesting story (although it certainly achieves that also) but to allow the character to reveal themselves to the reader.

If the character is allowed to ask the girl out and then go on a date, that moves the story forward but it could be anyone’s story. The reader still has to wait for this particular character’s story to start.

If you put a barrier between the character and the easy route, then how they react will be more likely to be representative of them as an individual. This process can take some time as you whittle away all the predictable and preferred ways and then see what the character comes up with.

 If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Use obstacles to reveal the character - check!

Michael Di Gesu said...

Good advice, Mood...

Writing is like one big puzzle, we just need to fit the pieces together to create the perfect picture!

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Good insights. I especially like the suggestion that how a character goes about obtaining what he/she wants should be out of the ordinary and not predictable.

mooderino said...

@Alex - got it.

@Michael - definitely.

@Elizabeth - cheers.

Unknown said...

Character goals, motivation and conflict are crucial. In fact, because of readers' short attention spans, they're all expected to be presented in the first chapter now...along with stakes, tension, "swoon-worthy" prose, and an knock-your-socks-off first line...all while riding a unicycle in your birthday suit and playing "Dixie" on the harmonica. What's a poor little writer to do? lol

Lydia Kang said...

Can't make it easy on them, I agree!

mooderino said...

@Lexa - i knew i should have signed up for those unicycle lessons at school.

@Lydia - cue evil laugh...

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

And here I thought the only thing one needed was for the reader to want something in the character. That's why I stare at bare-chested pictures of men with ripped chests on romance books. It's not that I haven't seen that before. It's that I imagine wanting that and start turning pages....

mooderino said...

@Mike - What a person wants compared to what they've actually got is the start of many a story (and failed relationship).

nutschell said...

I agree! Most of the books i enjoy reading have the character's main goal clearly stated within the first few pages.

mooderino said...

@nutschell - it doesn't have to be what they get at the end, but having an idea of what the goal is helps a lot, I think.

Bluescreen94 said...

I thank you for writing this. It has gave me more insight on how to make an interesting and attractive character, as well as inspiring new ideas on developing a story.

cleemckenzie said...

A character with obstacles between him and his goal is definitely the heart of any story worth reading. I keep wanting to help my poor guys out all the time, so I have to force myself to be the cruel writer goddess, pulling the strings so those goals are out of reach for just the right length of time.

As always, an excellent post to note.

mooderino said...

@Freddy - you're very welcome.

@lee - cheers.

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