What Does Your Character Want?
by Marg McAlister
"What does your character want?"
It seems like a simple question - yet it is one that can cause untold problems for some writers.
They fuss and fiddle about with all manner of MINOR things that the character wants, and totally miss the big
What is the MAIN THING that drives your character to reach his goal, no matter
What prompts your character to find reserves he didn't even know he had, in order to get
what he wants?
What causes your character to even risk breaking the law or becoming a social
You have to ask yourself these questions to find out what it is
that will propel your plot forward, through page after page; chapter after chapter. If you don't know what your
character wants, then you are going to have trouble keeping your story on track. It is WHAT WE WANT from life
that keeps us going.
Not convinced? Okay, sit back and consider your own life. Let me
ask you a few questions.
Why do you go to work day after day, perhaps to a job that you don't
particularly enjoy? [Answer: because you WANT something out of that job. It's probably the money
that you get paid for turning up each day - but if so, what do you want that money for? What is the big
Why did you choose to marry the person you did? [Answer: because you wanted
something out of the union. You wanted love, or companionship, or a home, or money, or to satisfy your
parents, or to do the right thing in the eyes of society.]
Why do you want to be a writer? [Answer: because you want to earn money doing
something you like, or you want to keep telling stories, or you want the kudos associated with having
published a book.] What are you prepared to do to satisfy that drive to be a writer?
And so it goes on. You can apply any one of a number of scenarios
to the question: "Why do you want to...????" and the answer will tell you what drives you.
Now take what you have discovered and apply it to your characters.
They don't do things in a vacuum. Your characters have to be motivated to do things for a good reason, or your
book lacks life and direction.
In a recent three-day workshop, Robert McKee (author of
STORY)said: "...most stories these days lack structure. To avoid this, the protagonist must WANT
SOMETHING. It's easier if it's tangible - the sparkling new office and promotion, the missing child, the golden
chalice, but intangibles work too - a sense of worth, revenge, a sense of belonging. So work out what you
protagonist wants! Once you've worked it out, you're well on the way to writing a great story. This goal drives
the final climax of the story."
Let's hear from someone else: Donald Maass, author of
FIRE IN FICTION. Don says "In many manuscripts the protagonist's motivation is shallow. We do not belive
that the protagonist is driven to action, and often the action to which the protagonist is driven is less than
it could be. Pump up the motivation. Pump up the response."
Some "What Does My Character Want?" Questions to
What does my character want more than anything else in the world? Is it possible
for him/her to get it? What would this person have to give up (sacrifice) in order to get it? What does
he/she have to do to get it? What WILL he/she do to get it?
What does my character want in all aspects of his/her life? (Financially?
Emotionally? Physically? Mentally?) Is it possible to have it all? If not, why not? If not, what is of
the most importance to your character?
What does my character NOT want to happen more than anything else? What bearing
can this have on my story?
If necessary, take a whole day to think about this. Take a week.
Take a month.
It's that important.
© copyright Marg McAlister