Your Characters: What Do They Want?
Part One. Different Types of Desires and the Portrayal of Personality
All – well, nearly all – of your characters should want something. Their
goals and their motives help define their personalities and give your story
direction. These wants bring your characters and your story to life. All too
often I encounter students who have a setting or a time period which
fascinates them, but whose characters have nothing particular to do. Their
characters are uninteresting and their plots have nowhere to go.
It may be possible to write stories in which the characters don’t know
what they want. Some of them may even be well-written stories. But for me,
novels in which the characters are angst-filled and aimless are generally
annoying, although occasionally the writing is good enough to overlook this
Your characters’ wants help define and develop them as people, and they
also provide a means for moving your plot forward. Moreover, having wants
for your characters makes the stories easier to write. If your characters
have things that they desire desperately, your job of scripting their
efforts becomes much easier to imagine and put down on paper. Understanding
your characters’ wants is one of the best ways of overcoming writers’ block.
Different Types of Wants & Goals
What exactly does your main character want? The want may be defined at
the most basic level, such as survival. Many plots, especially
action-oriented movies, spend a lot of time with this. Frequently the stakes
are increased so that the survival pertains to more than just one person,
such as all the people on an airplane, or the entire world, or even the
Often the goal which kicks off the story is not survival, but something
less overwhelming, even mundane. For example, Heather may be trying to get
her son Greg to school so she can make it back home in time to meet with the
plumber – with whom she plans to end an affair. Soon other events crowd into
the story – perhaps Heather and the plumber are kidnapped by the mob – so
that Heather’s primary want becomes her survival.
By showing want Heather wants, and what she doesn’t want, what she is
planning, and what she is not planning, your readers learn about her and her
personality. Your readers’ reactions depend on how you, the author, present
and develop Heather’s goals and plans. Heather could be a woman who is
interested in her son but not in her husband – but who has decided to forego
her affair and work on her marriage for the sake of her son. Or, Heather
could be a single mom and the plumber could be married, and a voice-mail on
her answering machine makes her realize that his wife knows, and Heather now
thinks it’s better to break it off. All sorts of questions about Heather’s
strength of character, her consideration of others, even her sensuality, are
elaborated by the development of her wants and desires.
Characters’ wants can be expressed either positively or negatively. At
work: Bob may hope to get the promotion, while Adam fears he’s about to be
fired. In relationships: Kate wants Henry to fall in love with her, while
Cynthia wants to prevent her husband Charles from leaving her and the kids.
The negative expression of problems tends to introduce more tension into the
situation, because fear of loss can lead to panic in your characters, which
is then felt by your readers.
Perhaps a character is trying to fulfill someone else’s desire – for
example, a deathbed wish, which involves tracking down a long-lost relative.
In Moonstruck, Loretta – played by Cher – is asked by her new fiancé
to mediate a reconciliation between him and his brother. Then all sorts of
crazy things start to happen.
The more unusual the want, the more unusual your character, and the more
unusual the story. For example, in Noah Gordon’s The Physician, the
hero, Rob Cole, wants to study medicine. But in the book’s time period,
11th-century England, studying medicine was not so easy. Only the Persians
had any real skill, and they would not allow Christians to study with them.
Rob Cole knows he could not possibly pass himself off as a Muslim. He opts,
instead to pass himself off as a Jew, as the Persians occasionally admitted
Jews into their medical schools. Rob’s overarching ambition and the many
obstacles he needs to overcome in order to achieve it lead to a fascinating
plot, including the rare situation of a Christian pretending to be a Jew
rather than the other way around.
Goals Help Develop and Differentiate Characters
Your main character may have multiple, conflicting wants and desires. In
Jane Eyre, Jane is about to marry Mr. Rochester, when it revealed –
right at the altar – that Mr. Rochester has a wife still living, although she
is insane and locked away. Rochester urges Jane to live with him without the
benefit of marriage, and Jane, who loves him desperately, longs to do this.
But she also feels the urge of her conscience, that living without marriage
is living in sin, and this is something which she cannot do. Her struggle
with herself leads to one of the most moving passages of the book. It also
defines her character as strongly principled.
Note that not just your main character should want something, but all
of your characters should want something. The fact that their wants are
different from each other is what helps make your characters different from
each other. Their desires should also grow out of their different situations
and personalities. An uneducated old man may want to ease the pain in his
back while a rich society wife may want to regain the love of her husband.
Even a pair of sisters, with similar genetics and upbringing, may have very
different desires. For example, shy Sheila may want to stay in their small
town, marry and have children, while extroverted sister Emily plans to go to
Hollywood and become a movie actress.
Even if you write in first person, some of what other characters want
should filter through your writing. Don’t forget your villains should have
goals and desires, too. You can humanize a villain by giving him some
appealing goals, such as a man stealing in order to finance an operation in
order to save his daughter’s life.
Even lesser characters should have goals and desires. These don’t have to
be complex. Perhaps the cashier is only thinking about her feet, or the fact
that she wants to lose ten pounds by Friday, or maybe she’s worried that she
doesn’t have enough gas in her car to get home, or she is even more worried
because twenty dollars from her register is missing and she doesn’t know why
but she is concerned that she will be docked for it.
When you start giving your characters wants and desires, they begin to
have texture. If you find that Yvonne wants a candy-bar, give her a reason
why. Perhaps she is on a diet. Perhaps she is a diabetic with an insulin
reaction. Perhaps candy-bars remind her of Hallowe’en. Perhaps candy-bars
remind of her childhood, when she stole a candy-bar from the local drugstore
and was punished by her father and has simply never recovered from the
incident. The more interesting you can make the desires, the more
interesting and memorable your characters will be.
Perhaps your cashier has such a small role in your story that you don’t
need to do any development – or perhaps you do. Don’t make the mistake of
only developing one character’s wants and desires. Here’s a rule of thumb:
if a character is important enough for you to give it a name, then she is
usually important enough for you to know a little bit about her in terms of
wants and desires. Naming a character is a hint to the reader that this
character is sufficiently important to remember. Note that this is only a
rule of thumb; you may choose not to develop the personalities of some of
the characters you name, or to develop them with only a few attributes.
Remember: characters’ personalities are defined in part by what they
don’t want, what they fear most, and to what they are indifferent. If you
don’t know these things about your characters, you don’t really know your
characters. Your character’s wants are personality in action. They show,
instead of tell, the character of your characters.
Until Next Time…
The emphasis of this article has been on how what characters want help
define their personalities. In next month, we’ll look at how these wants can
help bring tension to your plots.
Questions or comments? Please
e-mail them to me at grossackva at Yahoo dot com.
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About the Writer:
Victoria Grossack is the author of Iokaste:
The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus. She is working on her own
series of novels, set in Bronze Age Greece. There’s exciting news about
Iokaste: even the Greeks want to read it! Learn more about
Iokaste and other books in the series at
Tapestry of Bronze.
Victoria was a moderator of a critique group
for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the
Historical Fiction workshop for Coffeehouse for Writers.