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Get Set: Figuring Out Your Characters’ Desires, Goals, and Motivations #ReadySetWrite

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

#ReadySetWrite: Get Set--Figuring Out Your Characters' Desires, Goals, and Motivations | KayeDacus.comThere are a couple of things lurking in the work you’ve already done up to this point which will be important to dig out and define at this point: your main characters’ goals and motivations.

Your Characters’ Desires

You can’t read a craft-of-writing book without reading about making sure that your characters want something, right from the first page—even if that desire is simply to get a glass of water, according to Kurt Vonnegut.

As you look back through your story premise and the work you did in determining who your viewpoint characters would be, your main characters’ desires—what they want in the story—should start becoming clear.

#ReadySetWrite: Get Set--Figuring Out Your Characters' Desires, Goals, and Motivations | KayeDacus.comIt’s not interesting to read about someone who doesn’t want anything, who has no desires. The greater the desire, the more opportunities for that desire to be thwarted (conflict); therefore, the more interesting the story. Think about The Wizard of Oz. In the opening (B&W) part of the movie, Dorothy’s desire is to leave the drudgery of life in a Kansas farmhouse and go “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Almost immediately, the fulfillment of this desire is thrust upon her in a somewhat violent and traumatic manner. Desire met. Story over, right?

Of course not! Once Dorothy arrives in Oz, the driving force of the story is her desire to go home to Kansas. If she attained that desire as quickly as her initial desire was fulfilled, if she followed the yellow-brick road all the way to the Emerald City with no one to stop her—even if she did meet the same quirky folks along the way—it would not be a very interesting story (nor take very long to tell!).

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).

Along her journey, in Dorothy’s quest to fulfill her desire, she meets with one conflict after another brought upon her by the main antagonist of the story, the Wicked Witch of the West. But the witch wasn’t thwarting her just to thwart her. She had a desire as well: to retrieve the magical ruby slippers which were on Dorothy’s feet and held the key for Dorothy’s return home.

Dorothy’s desire (home) is one that everyone can understand; it’s what Stein calls universal: “The wants that interest a majority of readers include gaining or losing a love, achieving a lifetime ambition, seeing that justice is done, saving a life, seeking revenge, and accomplishing a task that at first seemed impossible” (84).

In my genre, this universal desire is built in: gaining a love. Love, money, and power, according to Stein, are the three themes which create the greatest conflict, which is perhaps why the romance genre makes up more than half of all popular fiction sold. However, “falling in love” is not usually the main desire of the main characters of a romance novel.

In my contemporary romance, Stand-In Groom, Anne’s desire is to run a successful business, remain independent, and perhaps, after ten years of living with the regrets and bitterness of a broken engagement, “create her own happy ending.” So what antagonist comes up against this desire to create conflict? Why, that would be the hero, George Laurence, who comes to town desiring nothing more than to fulfill his contractual agreement to his employer to (a) plan his famous employer’s wedding and (b) keep the media from learning that his employer is getting married. Why do these two desires come into conflict? Because Anne and George are attracted to each other, and Anne believes that falling in love with the “groom” of the biggest wedding she’s ever planned will ruin her business.

Now, as we discussed in the Goals vs. Dreams series, it’s all well and good to have desires (dreams), but in order to fulfill those desires, one must set and achieve goals.

Your Characters’ Goals

Just like with writing, once we know our characters’ desires (dreams), we must set actionable, personally achievable goals to set the characters on their paths as the story moves along.

#ReadySetWrite: Get Set--Figuring Out Your Characters' Desires, Goals, and Motivations | KayeDacus.comLet’s go back to The Wizard of Oz for a moment. While getting home to Kansas is Dorothy’s driving desire, her specific, personally attainable goal for the purpose of the active plot is to make it from Munchkinland to Emerald City to seek help from the Wizard of Oz. Because there are multiple other characters with their own desires and, thus, goals, Dorothy’s road to fulfilling her desire by working toward a specific goal is filled with conflicts. These conflicts seem like they might keep her from achieving her goal; but she finally reaches Emerald City and meets the wizard. But rather than fulfilling her desire, the wizard gives her a new goal: to get the Wicked Witch’s broom stick and return it to the Wizard. She accomplishes this goal (“I’m melting. . . .”) and just when it seems like she’ll get to go home, after teary goodbyes, her desire is once again thwarted by the balloon taking off without her in it—she has achieved her goals, big and small, but not her overall desire. Enter Glenda the Good Witch who explains that the means to gain her desire was always within Dorothy’s reach—the ruby slippers. #ReadySetWrite: Get Set--Figuring Out Your Characters' Desires, Goals, and Motivations | KayeDacus.comOnce Dorothy learns that “there’s no place like home,” the story comes to its (somewhat) satisfying conclusion. (Am I the only one who ships Dorothy and the Scarecrow?)

Your character’s main desire shapes his or her goals for your story.

In Stand-In Groom, Anne’s primary goal for the first part of the novel is to plan a wedding with a limitless budget, thus ensuring the future of her business, while her secondary goal is to fight her attraction to the man she thinks is the groom. When she discovers he isn’t the groom, her secondary goal changes to trying to trust him again (while continuing with the main goal of planning the wedding); after all, George has been dishonest with her about his identity for several weeks. Then, when she discovers the true identity of the groom, her secondary goal changes again. And, along the way, her desire changes to focus on putting happiness in her personal life first and her business second. While the hero and the man he works for (the groom) aren’t necessarily antagonists, it is through their actions—the hidden identities and goals of their own—that Anne’s desires and goals seem to be thwarted.

Your characters’ desires and goals are all well and good, but if they have no motivation to follow-through and overcome the conflicts that arise, you have no story.

Your Characters’ Motivations

Go back through all of your prep work that you did in developing your characters, as well as your work on your characters’ backstories. Up to this point, you’ve identified your main characters desires and goals. But now is the time to ask why. Why does your character want what she wants? Why does she set the goals she sets, and not other goals, in order to reach those desires?

There are several aspects of your characters you need to work on and identify in order to determine what their motivations are (and this is the time to release your inner four-year-old and constantly ask “why?”).

    ##ReadySetWrite: Get Set--Figuring Out Your Characters' Desires, Goals, and Motivations |

  • What is your character’s spirituality? This isn’t about religion. This is something important for all writers to know about all of your main characters, because the characters’ morals and values, and thus their actions, reactions, and decision making, will hinge on what they believe about life and the afterlife and the value of both.
  • What is your character’s heart? What is your character passionate about? Beyond the scope of the story, what are his desires? Her goals? What does she want to do with her life? What does he want to accomplish by the time he’s 30, 50, 70?
  • What are your character’s abilities? This goes beyond their physical abilities (walk, run, talk, etc.). What have they learned to do? Is she a Victorian girl who’s learned to use a typewriter in hopes of getting a job to support herself instead of marrying someone she doesn’t love? Has he learned to train guard dogs and police canines? But then, what are their inborn talents? Those things with which we would say he or she is “gifted”?
  • What is your character’s personality type? While not everyone believes in personality typing, when developing characters, going through a personality-type questionnaire and answering the questions as your character can give you great insight into how your character’s mind works. Introverts and Extroverts “recharge” differently and react differently in public and private settings. Thinkers and Feelers come to decisions in totally different ways. And so on. Make your character more dimensional by giving him or her a complete personality.
  • What are your character’s life experiences? What has your character been through in her life to make her who she is when she steps onto Page 1 of your story? This is the bulk of the backstory, which everything else plays off of and is affected by. This can include:
      – Family makeup/background. What size family does he come from? How many siblings? Were both parents present? Did she have a good relationship with them? What was his relationship with his siblings like? Did she love her family or could she not wait to escape? And so on.

      – Education. Whether formal or self-taught, one’s education is crucial to who they are as a person. Did they have all the benefits of an upper-class private/Ivy League education? The scrappier, American-dream public school education? Or maybe she had to drop out in eighth grade and go to work to support the family. And even if someone went to school and got a college degree, that doesn’t make them “intelligent” or “learned.” That just means that they have a couple of pieces of paper. How intellectual is your character? How smart? How street-smart? How wise? How knowledgeable? How does this compare to the people around him/her?

      – Favorites. Color, food, music, entertainment, etc. What are the things that give your character a good quality of life? (Or would if they had access to them.) Get creative and have fun with these.

Once you have all of this down you should have a good understanding of who your character is. The reason I try to figure as much of this out before writing is that it saves me time in revision after finishing the first draft if I don’t have to go back and edit out long stream-of-consciousness scenes in which I’m inside the character’s head digging into backstory I didn’t know before I started writing. But no matter how detailed I get with this, I always have a few revelations about my characters—things I never would have known about them until they were faced with a crisis and forced to own up to something from the past they kept deeply hidden, even from me—whether it’s a desire the character kept hidden from me, or the character telling me there’s a better way to structure his goals in order to achieve his desires because of something in his personality type or an ability or experience I don’t learn about until halfway through the draft.

##ReadySetWrite: Get Set--Figuring Out Your Characters' Desires, Goals, and Motivations |

Works Cited:

Stein, Sol. Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Print.

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