Friday, August 16, 2013

Characters with stories to tell

So how do you know if the voices in your head -- er, I mean a character will tell a story or not? (Previous post: Beware the character who ...)


The longer you write your character without her revealing a desire that she won't be sidetracked from, the more likely she's drawing you with false promises into an endless labyrinth of random episodic events.

A story-worthy character wants something. She has a hole in her life where something she longs for fits. The something may be concrete, home or her loyal companion for instance, or abstract, a place to belong or freedom from fear. It may be something she had that was taken away. Or something she loves that you will take away. Or something that resonates with her soul or lights her fire. She will work to get that something. She won't let obstacles get in her way. (Though in more literary or character driven works she may not head directly for it! She will, though, each time she's faced with an obstacle or decision in her life, make the choice that (subconsciously) moves her towards what she wants.)


This is the physical target of your character's desire. If the desire is the why, the goal is the what. The desire is the bow pulled back. The goal is the target. The goal is concrete evidence she's reached her desire.

Since the goal is concrete, the reader will know whether your character has achieved her goal or not. Even if you leave the ending ambiguous, your reader will know your character is poised at her goal.

As you begin your rough draft, it's okay if your character has a desire with a fuzzy goal, or a concrete goal with a generic desire (kill the bad guy, get the treasure). As you get to know your character's character, her backstory and her world, if she's story worthy both why and what will get clearer.

In your story's final form, at first your character may not head directly for the story-ending goal. She may be acting on desire. But you will know where she's being driven and will weave clues to the goal throughout the story so it won't pop up out of nowhere. For example, in Star Wars, Luke's desire was to fight the empire. He didn't know his goal was to blow up the Death Star until half way through the movie.

Drive and Passion

If you've written your character some more and she reacts only when life pushes her through the door that it opened for her, she isn't even leading you into the labyrinth. Random events bounce her about as you follow her.

A story-worthy character won't wait for life to give her a direction. When life throws curves at her, she makes choices that move her closer to what she needs in her life. She makes plans. She tackles problems that block her from progressing. No matter what crisis derails her, as soon as she can she returns to pursuing her desire.

When your book opens, your character may be stuck. But she's stuck with a desire ready to burst. The story isn't about her stuck time. It's about the time after a change opens a door that had been closed.

Or she may be stuck on a path that won't lead her to who she needs to be. The change can close a door she had depended on. Her desire will drive her through a door to a harder path she wouldn't have taken otherwise.

Obstacles and Opponents

It's not the character or the goal that keeps readers turning pages. It's the passion to push past anything that hinders getting what she wants with the constant threat that the obstacles, internal and external, are more than she can handle.

It opens up a whole realm of possibilities when you realize that not all opponents seek to stop your character. Some obstacles are a choice forward that would hurt those she cares about. Some are crises she can't ignore. Some are internal as one value pulls her one way and a second pulls another. Some are characters with their own agenda who take the resources your character counted on. (The beauty is that, godlike, you get to create the choices, the characters, the values. You get to challenge your character with hard choices that will lead her to a new understanding of how she must change to be who she needs to be.)


If the strongest opponent your character faces is the raging forest fire or the 100,000 strong swarm of giant people-eating insects it's frightening because the attack is impersonal. It's the ultimate evil villain because it's driven to survive and can't be made to care who or what it's destroying.

But if your character is targeted and it's opponent is vague like Society or The Church you can up the tension by creating an Antagonist with a personal need to prevent your character from getting what she's chasing.

Not all Antagonists will be villains! The one most staunchly blocking your character's way may be her best friend who believes the course your character is on is self destructive. The more you understand the rightness of both points of view, the more natural and greater the conflict will feel.

(I'm trying to keep these short and easy to absorb but 25 Things You Should Know About Antagonists covers a lot of useful territory on Antagonists.)

A need to change

If your character can have her flaw and her desire too then her "flaw" is a quirk. A quirk or three is good! But they're lace and ribbons. They're meaningless without the dress.

A character flaw is a persona your character has wrapped about herself. This persona has allowed her to survive and to get what she's wanted. Up until now. Now a shakeup in her life shoves something she values to top priority. But to get it she must step out of a life where she understands how to get things done. She must step into a life where who she's always been and what she values doesn't fit.

To get what she wants, she needs to change. But she's blocked by a desire to remain true to herself and to the ideals she's held since before the book began. If you're writing a character driven story, the desire and goal, the obstacles, the other characters all exist to drive the character until she finally realizes she must let go of the old her to embrace who she needs to be to get what she wants.

Ticking clock

If your character can diddle around for the next ten years without endangering her goal, after a while the reader won't wonder, "How will she get out of this pickle to get what she wants?"because they'll know the real questions are, "Where's the pickle? Where's the goal? Where's the passion?"

When there's a sense of time running out, each failure means your character is further from what she wants with even less time to get it before the opportunity is gone forever.


Some lead characters are catalysts. At the end they'll be much the same but will cause those around them to confront their inner demons. Forrest Gump and Robin Williams's character in Dead Poets Society are good examples. So even if your character doesn't fit the above, to be story worth the secondary characters she affects will.

Next: Wrangling your character into story-worthiness.

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