Clark and I talked recently on the Writership Podcast and the Book Editor Show about how important it is to know what your characters want within a scene in the story overall. Desire is one critical element in writing compelling scenes and driving the plot of your story forward. Today, I have a fun exercise for you to try that should help you infuse your scenes with what your character wants. Before that, I want to talk a little about characters and desires generally.
We create characters by giving them thoughts to think, words to say, and actions to do. This does more for your story than a police description that tells us hair and eye color or how tall someone is. Don’t get me wrong. We need to be able to picture the person in our mind’s eye, so descriptions are important, but characters come alive when we observe what they do because of what they want—and from there, we can fill in our own details.
This doesn’t mean that your character should always make a wise or efficient choice based on what he wants. But it does mean that the things he does should be motivated by his desires. For this reason, I recommend taking some time to think about why your characters do what they do.
I love the Enneagram personality typing system for character creation because it identifies the basic fears and motivations of people, which can help you understand what it is a character wants. For example, a type three fears being worthless and has the basic desire to feel valuable and worthwhile, so they strive in different ways to distinguish themselves and impress others. Whether you believe there are nine basic personality types that describe all people, this system can help you understand what motivates them.
What’s interesting to me in both people and characters is that different people can perform the same action and be motivated by different things. Two siblings may offer to help their elderly parent: one does so in hopes of gaining a great inheritance, the other because she finds meaning in serving others. As a result, the way they care for the parent probably looks different. And what’s more, people can have the same motive, but go about achieving their aim through a wide range of means: I want to get my work done, so I wake up early in the morning to get started. My alter ego would rather burn the midnight oil. These are simplistic examples (I’m sure you could come up with something even better), but they illustrate the point that you have lots of fodder even when your character has a specific goal.
Can’t you have a character who doesn’t know what she wants or who has trouble deciding and changes her mind? We encounter people like that in real life. This is true, but we aren’t sitting in rapt attention waiting to hear more about characters who float along carried by life and choosing nothing. The people and characters we find most fascinating are those who are driven by strong desires, make decisions (right or wrong) based on what they want, and will stop at nothing to achieve their goals.
Your plot is dependent on motive or desire because it is a series of story events driven by actions the characters take in pursuit of what they want. When you throw obstacles between the character and what she wants, you get lots of conflict, and if you’ve added some juicy stakes to the mix, chances are you’ll have a rollicking good tale.
This is why it’s so important to know what your character truly wants. The character’s current position is point A, and her desire is point B, and the obstacles need to go in between so that she must pivot, sidestep, and backtrack—and be quite determined—to get reach her goal.
It’s paramount, of course, for the main character to have a strong desire, but your other characters should have apparent motivations as well. Flat characters won’t help your story, even if they appear for only a short while. Everyone wants something, and where those desires clash, you can create an engaging story.
Editing in Action:
Here’s an exercise to help you write a compelling scene by using your character’s desire as a driving force. Choose a character from one of your stories. I suggest the protagonist or antagonist, but you could also take a minor character.
What does he want more than anything? What’s the desire beneath that? What does he really want? Write for ten minutes exploring this topic.
Now write for ten more minutes to answer these questions: Why does he want it? What does he hope to gain? What does he hope to feel? Let your mind flow. This is play. No one need ever read what you write here.
Ten more minutes: What are the actions he could take to achieve his desire? Exhaust every possible option. Try not to judge them. Again, your job is to discover and record.
Next, for every means to obtain his desire, think of five to ten obstacles that could get in the way. Go for ten minutes.
Now, choose the three most compelling actions and write a scene where the character pursues his desire to the end of the line. Go for broke. Throw every obstacle you can think of at him until you bring him to his knees.
Then give him the thought, the tool, or the means—in a way that makes sense and fits—to succeed or fail.