I don’t have anything in our little series of contemplating the wonders of language, but if you have any ideas, please post them, and I’ll keep thinking. I’ve loved reading your favorites, least favorites, and needed synonyms.
On June 29, 2016, Lady Laisa wrote, How do you figure out what your characters want? I mean everyone says to “make your character want something” etc., etc. But how do you give them something to want that isn’t overly vague (world peace) or overly trivial (sparkly shoelaces)? Does anyone have any suggestions? How do you give each character a separate agenda while still fighting for the same cause as the other characters?
Christie V Powell contributed this: Usually when I think of this kind of motivation, it’s something internal, like acceptance or to be appreciated or to feel loved or to feel safe. Then for a major character those internal needs often turn into a goal: to find my missing brother or get so-and-so’s attention or be popular.
In my book, I have two pairs of characters who have the same motivation. The second two both want safety. One seeks it by searching for her brother, who always protected her (in the second book she seeks it by becoming more independent and learning to protect herself), while the other tries to defend people and face the villain to make the world safer for everyone. The second two both crave acceptance, but in opposite ways: one wants to fit in socially, one wants to be accepted for who she is.
These are great examples!
Let’s mix it up a little, because complex characters can have complex and sometimes conflicting desires, and let’s start with a book most of us know: Pride and Prejudice. I can think of more than one pretty big thing that Elizabeth Bennett wants: love–but she’s self-respecting and wants a partner she can also respect; financial security; respectability for herself and her family; and–which is why she’s so beloved, I think–humor/fun.
In her early nineteenth century world, she doesn’t have nearly as much agency as women do today. She can’t get a job in London and find love prospects online. She can only stay put, like a spider stuck in its own web and travel when her aunt and uncle take her or when her friend Charlotte invites her, and even then, presumably, she can’t travel alone. We see her two goals in conflict after her friend Charlotte Lucas warns her not to offend rich Mr. Darcy when he seems interested. We see her use her limited agency when she refuses Mr. Collins’s proposal and Mr. Darcy’s first proposal. We see her wringing her hands helplessly when her sister Lydia seems lost to that era’s proper society, when Lydia’s actions threaten the prospects of the entire Bennett family. So Austen has to do some of the work for Elizabeth, has to shlep the action to her, by making Mr. Bingley take up residence near Longbourn, by having Charlotte marry the curate of Mr. Darcy’s aunt, by giving Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle a yen for travel. Elizabeth winds up speaking more than doing. It’s the charm of her personality that draws people in, especially Mr. Darcy.
The subordinate characters have simpler wants. We don’t have to go to town with all our characters. Mrs. Bennett wants her daughters well married or, if not well married, married. Mr. Bennett wants to endure his life with his silly wife as pleasantly as possible. Jane wants to love and be loved. Lydia and Kitty want to flirt and be admired. Mary wants to be taken seriously. Mr. Collins wants to cozy up to important people. Wickham wants money.
Of course, you can disagree with me about any or all of these (except Lydia!). Readers have different takes, often different from what the author has in mind–and we’re entitled!
This wanting business is a dance between character and situation. Many writers start with a character who wants something, which can be something internal or something external. Once they’ve decided what it is, they bring in situation to frustrate success. Other writers (like me) start with situation then jig over to the MC to discover what she wants in light of the situation.
If we create an awful situation, what our MC wants will usually pop out at us. He’s in a burning building. What does he want? We list possibilities and remember that nothing is stupid on a list. He wants to save himself, to save his new kitten, to make sure some top-secret papers catch fire, to toast marshmallows, to get a tan, to ensure that the arsonist who set the fire is revealed. We pick one and pile on the obstacles.
To start with character, let’s suppose our MC does want world peace. When we move on to situation, there can’t already be world peace. So we have war. Do we want her to succeed? If yes, world peace has to be attainable. Maybe in this world there are only two or three warring nations. How can we position her to be able to bring peace about? Maybe she works in this world’s equivalent of the UN. Maybe she’s the coffee shop barrista and meets everyone. How can we make attainment hard? What’s she like? What qualities does she have that help her reach her goal? Which qualities get in her way? Who opposes her? What goal can we give this opponent? What qualities?
Back to Elizabeth Bennett. Let’s focus on her desire for love and marriage. What stands in her way? The backwater she lives in. The family’s relative poverty because of the entailment of Mr. Bennett’s estate. The foolishness of her mothers and her three youngest sisters. Maybe her own sardonic eye and overnice tastes. Maybe her impolitic way of talking.
Suppose our MC wants sparkly shoes. No judgment. She’s entitled to want what she wants. Why does she want them? We can have fun with that! She saw the same shoes in a magazine on the feet of someone who, in her eyes, has everything. They symbolize success for her. Or, maybe the shoes are a one-off and no one else has them, and they’re worth a jillion dollars. Maybe they’re guarded when they’re not on their owner’s feet. There are lots of possibilities. Lists will be helpful. How does she generally go about getting or failing to get what she wants? What is her situation in life? Does someone always give her whatever she wants, except this one thing? Or does she live a life of deprivation, never getting what she wants?
To put this all together, like so many things in writing, it’s all in the execution. Our characters can want anything. If it’s a big, abstract goal, we have to make it concrete. If it seems tiny, we have to create its significance, in reality or in the psyche of our MC.
Here are four prompts:
∙ An earthquake strikes, a big one. List possibilities for what your MC wants. Pick one. Write the earthquake scene and the scene that follows.
∙ Pick a different desire from your list in the earthquake situation. Write the scenes again.
∙ Write the first scene in the story of the character who wants world peace. She–or he–doesn’t have to be a barrista. If you like, keep writing.
∙ Write the first scene in the story of the character who wants the sparkly shoes. If you like, keep writing.
Have fun, and save what you write!