What Does your Character Want?
by Willy Doehring, River co-editor
The “Writer’s Workshop” blog posts are meant to be a collage of writer’s tips, tricks, and strategies, including the first steps to publishing, writing prompts, strategies for writer’s block, and a general jumble of ideas to help you in your quest to create and publish.
At the center of almost all great stories are great characters. Whether they’re facing down some external antagonist or struggling with their own internal conflicts, these characters drive the plot of their stories forward and evoke powerful emotional responses from readers. And at the center of these great characters is one simple, driving force: their motivation.
Every character has something that they want. This could be anything from wanting a promotion to wanting the respect of their parents to wanting to save the world; the stakes will depend on what kind of story is being told and who the character is, but there will always be something that they are working towards (whether they know it or not— it’s totally possible for a character to not know what they truly want, but the author should always know).
As a writer, one of the first questions you might ask when developing a character is: what does this character want? Oftentimes this will be fairly simple, especially if you already have a good idea of where you want to take the story. If you aren’t sure exactly what your character wants, however, try going back to the absolute basics of who your character is. What kind of personality do they have? Where do they live, and how does that affect them? What kind of life do they have? These are just a few examples, but more often than not I’ve found that these questions will lead to the question of your character’s motivation even if you’re not consciously searching for it.
Another great way to work on understanding character motivation is to try and identify what is driving the characters in stories you read or movies and shows that you watch. This often comes with simply being invested in a story; I’ll bet if you asked anyone what the main character of their favorite book or movie wanted, they could tell you without much thought. Still, it’s always good to be aware of what is motivating characters in stories you read— always be an active reader and be on the lookout for anything that can help you develop your own writing!
Once you’ve identified your character’s primary motivation, the next question to ask is: why does your character want what they want? This is where the magic really begins to happen— by asking this question, you inherently connect your character into the plot and setting of the story. Is there an aspect of the setting in which the character lives that is the source of their motivation? Perhaps they live in a very poor town and they want to escape and be successful. If they want a promotion, consider what that character’s job means to them and why this promotion matters. Do they need the money? Do they want to feel validated? Is this their dream job? This question of why allows you to really flesh out your character while keeping a focus on their central motivation.
Finally, ask yourself: how does my character get what they want? The answer to this question can be relatively simple, but most great stories don’t involve characters who can easily get what they want and move on with their lives. Usually there’s something in the way— this is where your story’s central conflict comes in! Regardless of who or what is stopping your character from getting what they want, you already know that their motivation is going to drive them to try and overcome these obstacles. Now all that’s left for you is to figure out how your character will go about this, and whether or not they get what they want in the end.
One last thing to remember, especially if you get stuck— character motivations can change! Maybe your character finds what they wanted and realizes that it wasn’t what they were after all along, or maybe something happens to them that forces them to re-evaluate their priorities. Remember how important character motivation is in defining your character and story, but don’t let it trap you (or your character) if you find that it no longer fits the story you are trying to tell.
So, next time you’re writing a character, ask yourself these questions and see where it takes you; I can only speak for myself, but you may be surprised where it takes your character and your story. Until next time, happy writing!