Your Characters: What Do They Want?

Part Two: How to Use Characters' Goals to Move the Plot
Victoria Grossack

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.

Goal-Driven Plots

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 few suggestions.

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 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 Writing Historical Fiction workshop for Coffeehouse for Writers.