Your character must always want something at the start of your story. We are told, time and
again, that this want must drive the character’s main goal – so it must be
something external and tangible. Let’s
play with some example ideas in different genres.
Family Drama: Grace
wants to plan the perfect family
party for her parents’ Golden Wedding Anniversary.
Romance: Joss is
divorced and quits her job as a magazine editor because she wants to be a travel blogger.
Crime: Trevor, a
father and sheriff, wants to find
the man who raped a young waitress in the small town where his family
Of course, the reader must understand an individual
character’s need to do these things.
And this is something internal. While it is intangible, it should relate to their
goal. The external and internal must line up or mesh as closely as possible.
- Grace feels she needs to do one thing right for her parents so that
they’ll finally forgive her. She didn’t stop her younger sister from
running away from home when they were teenagers. Her sister was never
- Joss feels she needs to get away from her desk-bound career so that
she will feel never feel dependent on any and be free of the city.
- Trevor feels he needs to restore his
family’s faith in him as a father and the town’s belief in him to bring
the rapist to book.
As soon as you link a want
to a need, you create a melded
sense of expectation in both the
character and the reader). This makes the character more real and emotionally
resonant. Keep in mind: this may be a misplaced sense of expectation or that
the character may not even be conscious of it until later on in the story.
To create a compelling story, Grace, Joss and Trevor cannot
get the thing they want desperately – at least not immediately. At the same as
you create hope, you must create a fear.
Fears should polarise the character’s
emotions. And you should create a villain or antagonism that embodies this fear.
- A bossy party planner tries to take over Grace’s
party’s arrangements; her brother is sent to drug re-hab days before the party.
Grace feels like an even bigger disappointment and even more guilty.
- A violent rainstorm complicates joss’s first
trip to an exotic island. She is shut in a run-down hotel with Seth – a sexy,
famous photojournalist. Joss feels trapped and has to rely on Seth.
- Trevor is horrified when he begins to suspect
that his teenage stepson he has raised since a young child may be behind the
rape. His family is pulled apart by doubt. When word gets out about his
stepson’s relationship to the dead girl, his superior doubts his ability to be
impartial in the matter.
As soon a character feels fear, they react in a way that
will either make them feel in control or try an irrational solution to avoid a
fearful emotion or situation. Their
behaviour may be unhealthy, their responses faulty or self-sabotaging. This is
what drives conflict in your story.
And finally a solution
This is the part writers often ignore, and yet, it’s often the
most important. To overcome their fears, characters must slowly (and painfully)
make the connection between their expectation
and their fears. This will control
their goal – to reinforce it with the same need, or abandon it with a hard-won
realisation. This provides the solution.
- Grace realises her parents
never held her responsible for her sister’s disappearance and she resented
her sister for running away–she has to forgive herself and her sister.
- Joss realises she can keep
her independence when a man as self-reliant as Seth can love her while
still allowing her freedom to be herself.
- Trevor is even more
committed to restoring his family when he believes his stepson’s innocence
and trusts his own love for the teen. He is driven to win back the faith
of the town by hunting down a homicidal drifter and the real rapist.
You can interpret the solutions in many different ways,
depending on the ending you want. However, you must deeply know what your
character wants, needs and fears to make sure they change and grow in a
credible and satisfying way for the reader.
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