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Creating Credible Characters–What Do You Want?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

No matter how wonderfully complex and well-developed a character is, a reader isn’t going to care about them unless they can identify with what the character wants. There are many names for this: goals, motivations, objectives, desires. In Getting into Character, Brandilyn Collins wrote:

“What is your innermost Desire that will propel you through this story? . . . All of your main characters and important secondary characters should have a Desire. Conflicts between characters come into play when they are pursuing Desires that oppose one another.” (37)

In another series of posts, I have discussed conflict at length, and this is where Character and Conflict come into union with each other:
It’s Good to Be Conflicted
Conflict: Thematic vs. Actual
Conflict: Desires and Goals
Conflict: Move That Bus!

In Stein on Writing, Sol Stein describes plotting at its most basic as “putting the protagonist’s desire and the antagonist’s desire into sharp conflict . . . think of what would most thwart your protagonist’s want, then give the power to thwart that want to the antagonist” (83).

Before you can develop that conflict, you have to delve into what each character’s desire is. We have a tendency to define characters as “good guys” and “bad guys,” but when we start developing real, multi-dimensional characters, we have to move beyond these epithets into the knowledge that no one is “all good” or “all bad” (unless, of course, you’re writing fantasy or allegory with “evil” characters such as Sarumon and Orcs).

In The End of Harry Potter?, Hugo Award–winning author David Langford points out the problem with the idea of “bad guys who are just naturally bad because of their ancestry — or because they’ve been Sorted into Slytherin House” (11–12). Yes, it is easy to have characters who are just naturally bad with no redeeming qualities . . . and, frankly, sometimes that’s all the story calls for. But in the Harry Potter reference above, if everyone who is sorted into Slytherin house is naturally bad/evil, why would the house continue to exist? Why wouldn’t people sorted to that house be immediately expelled from the school because it’s a sign they’re going to turn out to be dark wizards? Later in the series, Rowling started to introduce characters who came out of Slytherin who did not turn out to be all bad (such as Horace Slughorn), but the example should serve as a warning that we must be careful about drawing characters in terms of absolutes. Perfect characters aren’t interesting. Evil characters with no redeeming qualities aren’t believable. We don’t want either of these in our writing.

Anyway, back to desires . . .

A character’s desire should be specific, but should also be universal. When we define our character’s desire/goal, it shouldn’t just be, “I need to get from point A to point B,” but the deeper, “I must get home and protect my family from those who seek to tear it apart” kind of goal that transcends time periods. (Keep asking “why?” until you get to the deepest level.) Give your character the kind of goal he is not going to give up on—the kind he will fight to the death to achieve. Reaching that goal becomes the motivating force behind everything the character thinks, says, and does. And knowing what this goal is specifically gives us the ability to set up obstacles—in the physical environment, in the character’s own inner psyche, in the antagonist—to thwart our character’s achieving that goal.

If the character meets no resistance on the path toward gaining what they most desire, there is no motivation, no story. Think about The Wizard of Oz. If Dorothy & Crew hadn’t constantly met with conflict—with the Wicked Witch trying to stop them, with the Wizard turning out not to be a wizard after all—it wouldn’t have been a very interesting story. The way I keep my characters movtivated is to make sure the character has a goal, then to set other characters and situations in opposition to that goal. If the character keeps coming up against a brick wall, or if someone or something keeps thwarting them from being able to reach their goal, the motivation to reach it grows stronger. Naturally, they cannot always fail in moving toward the desire—they must have some successes to show that this goal is ultimately achievable, if they will just persevere, hold on, keep going.

So we must ask the character:

  • What is her main goal/desire?
  • What will she do to attain it? (go deep here)
  • What will she do when she meets resistance?
  • How far will she go to achieve her goal/desire? (keep going deeper)
  • What internal hindrances does she have that could keep her from achieving her goal? (Dig deeper than just fear—what is the root cause of the fear? What happened in the past to give her this fear?)
  • What external hindrances could keep her from achieving her goal? (This can be the antagonist . . . or even the hero or other main character, family members, cultural restraints, geographic constraints, finances, etc.)
  • Is there anything that could happen that would make her relinquish her goal? (If so, then you need to start over at the beginning, because this goal isn’t the right one.)
  • Is this goal something she would sacrifice everything—her health, her wealth, her family, even her own life—to achieve? (Make her prove it by putting her in one or more of those situations.)
  1. Thursday, June 21, 2007 2:32 pm

    Kaye, did the author faeries inspire you to help me this week?

    These posts are really helping me to think through my story at a deeper level. I know about my characters than I did a few days ago, and as a result, I’ve almost outlined the entire plot.


  2. Thursday, June 21, 2007 8:48 pm

    Stein on Writing has arrived and I’m plowing through, but I have to say, your posts are both more interesting and more helpful to me at this point than even Sol Stein himself! Keep ’em coming!


  3. Wednesday, October 31, 2007 8:35 am

    Erica, your surname Vetsch is so close to mine (Veitch) that it’s got to have the same route. Do you know where yours comes from? Mine is from the Northumbrian / Scottish border region and derives from Vetch which is a cowherd. Sorry Kaye, I just had to ask.



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