Writing Revelation: What do your characters want?

After my last post on how motivating deadlines could be, I discovered the other side of the coin. I burnt out. I spent most of Tuesday trying to writer Chapter 7 of That which is left is lost and failing dismally. Something was wrong with the scene I was trying to write, but I couldn’t figure out how to fix it. I started to get an inkling of what was wrong: it was an info-dump, a scene necessary only in the sense that it needed to pass on a particular piece of the past to my reader. As a result it was boring. Nothing really happened.

Then I came across this invaluable blog post by Janice Hardy. In it, she discusses how important it is to know the motivation behind every character’s story. It might not have to be in a lot of detail, but understanding what characters want in any given scene can give rise to better acknowledging the conflict that might be present. This, she points out, can add tension to any scene and therefore encourage a reader to continue reading with interest, instead of rolling their eyes at the obvious ploy to give them information outright.

character wantsSo, I spent my morning walk considering what my various characters really want. Holly – she want’s a baby. Betsy – she wants not to be the other woman. Cecelia – she wants to understand why she’s been lied to. Chris – really wants to be a father. From this I could then extrapolate the conflict between these characters. Holly and Chris both want the same thing, a baby, but they can’t conceive together and Chris can’t warm to the idea of adoption. Betsy and Chris want to give into their lustful urges, but Betsy doesn’t want to get involved with a married man and Chris won’t leave his wife. As for Cecelia, she wants answers but Chris can’t give them to her and he has to protect his dying patient from being forced to give them. 

Suddenly, my hard-to-write chapter fell into place. Not only did the scene now read with more excitement, I was able to add elements that will impact the conflict coming up in the follow chapter. I was able to boil the information I needed to provide right down to its bare essentials and revealed in a way that was fraught with tension, resulting in a high-panic moment that reasserted Chris’ originally motivation: to do the best for his patient.

What Janice Hardy made me realise is how important it is to really understand the motivations behind each scene not just from the point of view of a writer but also to know them on the characters’ behalf too. Even if your character is supporting your protagonist, that doesn’t mean they want the same thing or will always be able to do exactly as they ask. Even when your protagonist and your character do want the same thing, it doesn’t mean they can have it – which creates some fantastic tension between them.

And now, I’m off to write the next chapter, knowing a little bit more than I did before.



6 responses to “Writing Revelation: What do your characters want?

  1. It’s great when a little seed that pops into your mind grows into a forest of an idea! I have a note on my notice board that says: ‘Character Goals – What do the characters want? What do the characters need? What do the characters end up with?’ It helps me remember that I’m dealing with real people. They’re not my toys, they’re my reader’s characters. They’re the people who take my reader on a journey. That means they have to be normal. They have to be real. And if they’re not, then the reader won’t believe them, and if they don’t believe them they won’t love them, and they won’t remember them. So, whenever I feel stuck, I look at that little scrap of paper, and I ponder…

    • I’ve only just noticed this comment David – sorry for not responding when you posted originally!
      I like your note, perhaps I might also benefit from such a reminder. Especially considering that, as you point out, the reader might not believe nor like the characters if their motivations aren’t believable.
      Thanks for commenting, sorry it took me so long to see it! 😉
      Take Care,

  2. I love reading about how you get around your writing problems, Cat. I personally don’t have this problem as all my characters want to do is shoot aliens in the face (or, in the case of the aliens, not to be shot in the face). I always enjoy reading about your various solutions, even when they don’t apply to me – I know we’re all in this boat (or in my case, a leaky spaceship) together.

    • It is a great time to get the thinking cap on. What I enjoy most about my walks is that I have to have one in the morning before I start, for thinking things up, and then another at the end of the day to go through what I’ve done.
      The multiple benefits of having a dog I guess! 😉
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Take Care, Cat

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