Your Characters: What Do They Want?
Part Two: How to Use Characters' Goals to Move the Plot
From Last Month…
In last month’s column, we considered how characters’ different wants and
desires help define their personalities. The more unusual their desires are,
the more interesting are the characters. Their wants and desires can do much
more than define them: these goals drive the plot to breakneck pace and take
your story along twisted and unexpected paths.
Your hero’s main goal can drive the plot by itself; the more unusual the
desire, the more unusual the plot. But the plot thickens as wants and goals
of different characters conflict with each other, and as their natural
relationships are tested. Consider the following chart:
Case A: Allies with Compatible Wants
If you’re writing about a pair of friends with compatible goals, you have
no conflict and no tension, and very little place for the story to go. In
fact, this is how you want the story to end. For example, a romance in which
the hero and the heroine finally decide that they love each other, that they
plan to live happily ever after, that they have worked out their differences
– you recognize this as the end of the story, not the beginning, don’t you?
Case B: Allies with Different Wants
Your plot thickens when your characters are naturally friendly with each
other but have wants which conflict. Consider a mother and a daughter who
truly love each other. The mother, however, wants her daughter to stay and
marry a local boy, so that her daughter does not go far from home. The
daughter, on the other hand, wants to spread her wings and explore the
world. What will happen? The story can run in many different ways, usually
leading to some personal growth and insight. Many “coming-of-age” stories
have this set-up.
Case C: Enemies with Compatible Wants
A promising set-up is when the characters are natural enemies but are
forced to collaborate by having the same goal. Imagine two soldiers from
opposite sides of a war who are washed up on a desert island. They have a
common goal – survival – and perhaps they need each other. On the other
hand, they don’t trust each other, and perhaps one of them will be so swayed
by his loyalty to his army that he tries to kill the other – despite the
danger to himself.
Many stories use this technique. It is rich with possibility, and the
resolution can be complex, as loyalties and prejudices overlap and conflict.
Case D: Enemies with Different Wants
When you are writing about enemies with opposing goals, you often get the
typical good-guys versus bad-guys type plots. Often the bad guys are trying
to destroy the world, or kill the good guys, or do some other terrible thing
to the good guys. Car chase scenes, shoot-out scenes, and all sorts of other
action scenes are based on this set-up. They are very exciting – but they
don’t lead to much character development. Have you ever noticed how little
conversation takes place during these scenes? Partly it’s because the
characters are running and are too out of breath to say much, but it is also
because the depth of the conversation may be confined. If the good guys and
the bad guys are close enough to speak with each other, their talk may be
limited to shouted insults --which admittedly can be lots of fun to write!
Wants Move Scenes Along
Characters’ goals can do more than set up conflict. A character entering
a scene with a goal adds tension to that scene. If character Keith’s main
reason for arranging to talk to his boss is to ask for a raise, your readers
will watch eagerly to see if Keith summons his courage and how his boss will
react. Readers, along with character Keith, will “read” more into every word
Keith’s boss utters. Is the boss in a good mood? Is the boss in a bad mood?
We also read more into each time Keith opens his mouth. Will he ask for the
raise? Or will he chicken out? Or will something unexpected happen?
You don’t have to answer the question in your scene. You can leave the
reader hanging, by turning the plot in another direction. For example,
assume that you deflect Keith’s goal to get paid more by interjecting the
boss’s concerns and goals. What if the boss has something else on his mind?
He might be distracted by a sudden lawsuit, his discovery of his wife’s
affair, or the fact that he has just been diagnosed with cancer. Should
Keith ask for the raise or simply offer sympathy? If the boss turns him
down, how will he react? Unless you are near the end of your story, you had
better come up either a refusal or a plot twist, such as, “You can have a
raise if you donate me a kidney.”
Changing Characters’ Wants
What should happen to the characters and their wants as your story
progresses? Of course, the decision is up to you, the author, but here are a
Characters may sometimes change want they want – but this should only be
with reason. Either the character is going downhill, maturing, has new
information, new loyalties, whatever. But it should not be without reason.
In order to satisfy readers, generally characters in fiction have to be more
consistent than people in real life.
At the End
At the end of the story, your characters’ wants are generally resolved,
by one means or another. Not resolving them means leaving your readers
dangling. This may be intentional on your part; perhaps you want to write a
sequel. A very tricky but clever accomplishment is when you do both: give
readers a sense of satisfaction yet leave open the possibility for more.
Another point to consider is how you resolve your characters’
wants. If you reward the good – your heroes – your story will have a happy
end. If you punish the bad characters, you will give your readers the sense
that there is justice in your world (especially if you punish them in an
original manner which results from their own evil deeds and desires). If you
also resolve the wants of the lesser characters, your readers will close the
book with a sense that at least the fictional world is a well-ordered place,
where no one is forgotten.
Questions or comments? Please address them to me at grossackva at Yahoo
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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.