Friday, August 30, 2013

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs for writers

Modeled after Unity image
Unmet needs drive your character's choices which drives the story. Which makes Maslow's neatly organized hierarchy of needs a useful tool.

Begin with a primary need. (Holly Lisle in Create A Character Clinic suggests throwing a dart at the chart until you find a need that fires your imagination. If you're fresh out of darts, you can click the randomizer below.) Add in some secondary needs. Use it for obstacles to throw in your character's path.

In many descriptions of Maslow's hierarch it's said until the needs of one level are met, a person can't move onto the next level. That doesn't mean perfectly met. It means met above some all-consuming worrisome level. It means she's comfortable enough to move that need down in priority and turn her thoughts to higher needs. People can pursue knowledge without friends, gather beauty amidst poverty, create art because of fears. And what that worrisome level looks like will depend on personality. An introvert may be fine with a couple of friends, while an extrovert may feel lonely with only half a dozen.

Your character may act on a need when the threat isn't even current. If your character was traumatized by unmet needs in the past -- abandonment, starvation, harsh criticism -- she can still carry that fear, channeling energy into protecting something that feels more vulnerable than it is. Her fear may blow minor threats out of proportion or be triggered by seemingly innocuous events. She can react as though the threat were real and imminent.

If your character's life has been stable and she's pursuing higher needs, rattle her confidence by endangering a lower level need. Thought, energy, time, resources get channeled away from the primary need to more basic needs. Or you can create an interesting conflict as the character debates whether to save her family or the plummeting cable car, her own life or the final copy of the Revised Codex of Mylar the Hermit.

The list of needs is probably enough to spark your imagination but I needed a push so I brainstormed some obstacles that might block the needs.

Need that's nagging at your character:

  • How much discomfort from other unmet needs can she put up with to work on this?
  • How much can you take from the needs lower than this before she stops pursuing this need?
  • Which other needs does she need most? Why? What would she do if you put one of the other needs in mortal danger?
  • Choose two needs. The higher need is what she wants from life. The lower is what life has thrown at her as an obstacle. How does she react?
  • Choose two needs. If she lacked one of these throughout her childhood, how does that affect how she views the world and pursues the other? What if it wasn't just lacking but denigrated? Does she want it more? Does she actively scorn it? Does she feel guilty for wanting it?

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Level 1: Physiological needs. What your body needs to keep functioning.

If lack of these threatens to shut your character's body down, she's functioning at Level 1. A character on this level is fighting for survival. Her thoughts will fixate either directly on getting some or on changing the situation so she can get some.

  • drowning
  • water filling a closed compartment
  • a leak sucking out air in a plane or space ship
  • being choked or smothered
  • snowbound
  • shipwrecked
  • vegan or herbivore in a place where only meat is available
  • lost in the wilderness
  • stuck in any isolated environment -- space ship, colony, research station -- where survival depends on periodic resupplies of food, water, air from outside
  • dumped into the desert
  • drought
  • river dammed upstream
  • lost at sea
  • imprisoned where jailers control water, food, air, sleep ...
  • well poisoned
  • noise from the neighbors
  • insomnia
  • being deliberately woken as torture
  • colicky baby
  • drugged
Homeostasis (keeping the body's temperature and chemistry at functioning levels)
  • trapped next to an erupting volcano
  • lost in a blizzard or the Arctic
  • ship falling into the sun
  • dropped into a vat of acid
  • trapped in a burning room
  • lack of shelter or clothing to protect from dangerous environments
  • drug addiction
  • poisoned
Excretion (being able to poop and pee :-)). A bad guy could give your character a disease that, um, plugs him up, but more reasonable for a story is getting to a place to go. England's Prince Philip ended up with a bladder infection after not taking a break during several hours of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebration.
  • unable to get privacy while disguised as the other sex
  • trapped in a social situation where leaving is rude or notable
  • following a person or staking out a location
  • unclean or unsafe toilets
  • under the control of an autocratic coach or trainer
Stimulation and Activity
  • solitary confinement
  • sensory deprivation tank
  • "lock them up for eternity" transdimensional prison super villains always escape from
  • old folks home
  • a weekend symposium on the dullest topic your character can imagine
Reproductive sex (Relationship building sex is Level 3.) More of a species need, but still a biological drive that can consume some people's thoughts in some situations.
  • No one to reproduce with
  • Bad gene pool

Level 2: Safety needs. Living free from threats. Safe, secure, protected.

If she feels her body isn't in imminent danger of ceasing to function ;-), she can direct her thoughts, energy and other resources to feeling safe.

Safety is having order, law, limits, stability. Safety makes meeting needs easier. The further your character lives to the right side on spectrums below, the less safe she'll feel. The more time she spent  and the more helpless she felt there, the more unsafe she'll feel even after the threat is gone.

If she grew up feeling unsafe, or had an experience that traumatized her sense of safety, how does that affect her current needs for safety? How does it affect her pursuit of higher level needs?

enough resources for everyone
not enough or unequal access to resources
responsive leadership
mob rule, tyranny, lack of leadership
secure family
dysfunctional family
fair peacekeeping and justice systems
corrupt or biased systems
peaceful environment
war-like environment
predictable natural environment
unpredictable natural environment
  • abusive family
  • slavery
  • unsafe work conditions
  • trapped in dangerous work (can't escape, pays too well, no other skills)
  • inadequate shelter or clothing
  • dangerous but beloved hobby or profession
  • lost in a land of predators
  • alone
  • famous fighter others seek to challenge themselves against
  • assassination target
  • a special and useful talent that also damages her body each time she uses it
  • an erratic boss or one who doesn't like her
  • not part of the guild that controls who gets work
  • her skills aren't up to what the job needs
  • her job is becoming obsolete
  • doing her job well would mean her job becomes obsolete
  • new employee just hired with better skills or better at sucking up
  • jealous co-worker
  • looming deadline
  • jobs are available only to those of a particular class, religion, race, sex
  • job based on a belief system she's questioning
  • a task violates her morals
Resources (basics, materials, money, time, etc.)
  • access to supplies or even basic necessities controlled by another
  • unexpected shortage and rationing
  • scarce, unavailable, dangerous to get or priced out of reach
  • not available where she is
  • debt or recurring medical bills that sucks up her income
  • spendthrift spouse
  • addiction, either hers or family member's
  • unstable money system
  • culture or religion forbids using certain resources
  • culture or religion forbids non-members from using certain resources
  • her own nature makes certain resources unusable
  • resources reserved only for the "pure"
  • caught between getting what's needed and doing the right thing
  • doing the right thing would take longer than time allows or endanger a loved one
  • government, religion, or community punish different beliefs
  • keeping position requires obeying orders that betray personal morals
  • fundamentalism on the rise
  • has betrayed morals so many times she feels it's hypocritical to follow them now
  • what's right, what's moral and what's required aren't the same thing
  • standing up for morals would draw dangerous attention
  • the end requires justifying the means
  • lesser evils creates a better chance to end a greater evil
  • local morals are different from personal morals
  • a choice between saving the one over the many
The family (What would harm family members. Being separated or not having a family is the next level.)
  • a job where her family could be threatened to gain her cooperation or to torture her
  • bickering parents
  • kidnapping
  • spouse who wants a divorce
  • parents dead and siblings in danger of being split up
  • a job or needs of one family member that requires family to live separated
  • religion that requires cutting ties with family members who disagree
  • a job that requires the family to live in dangerous conditions
  • a personal choice that would damage the reputation of the family
  • self-destructive choices
  • dangerous or secretive job that causes too much strain on the family
  • a decision that creates a rift in the family
  • chronic illness
  • polluted or toxic air, water, land
  • contaminated food
  • virus spreading through the community
  • survival requires more from her than she's capable of (harsh environment or she's weakened)
  • primitive medicine and incompetent doctors
  • unhealthy working conditions
  • health care is too expensive
  • committed to completing a task that few others can but that is harmful
  • beloved work that's damaging to health
  • war or natural disaster
  • valuables that would draw thieves
  • dangerous neighborhood
  • debt that threatens repossession and foreclosure
  • renter whose livelihood depends on being able to use the property someone else owns
  • police are corrupt
  • her presence draws the danger she's hiding from to her
  • monster or bad guy magnet
  • caretaker of others' property who then push it to the limits

Level 3: Love and belonging needs.

Once your character feels safe enough -- which another character might feel is not safe at all! (great for conflict and contrast) -- she has spare mental energy and resources for connecting.

If she grew up without love, feeling unloved, on the fringes of groups she could not join, lost what she loved, or had her friendship or affection betrayed, how does that affect her current needs for love and belonging? How does it affect her pursuit of higher needs?

If she grew up where love was doled out unequally, either she was privileged or deprived, how did that and does that affect her? How did she compensate or rationalize? How did it affect her view of those who got less or more love? If she grew up receiving love erratically -- a caretaker's mental illness, drug use, immaturity, instability -- how did that shape who she was and is? How does it affect her pursuit of love and belonging now?

  • lack of social skills
  • scary
  • afraid to trust
  • "wrong" race, class, sex, religion (all of which might have clothing, accent, manners, customs that make the differences more noticeable) to be accepted by the community
  • tainted by family's choices or own past
  • holding attitudes or (fringe) beliefs that aren't accepted
  • new in town or moving often
  • feels she needs to impress people to draw friends
  • shy or introverted or private
  • command position
  • famous
  • job that interferes with leisure time
  • fear of dependency
  • (over?) values her independence
  • feels unworthy of love
  • dull
  • lack of self-esteem that results in attention grabbing, seeking adulation of fans 
  • a dangerous job that might endanger those close to her
  • fears friendships would take too much time
  • holding secrets she doesn't want to chance revealing
Family (what prevents a family from forming, or separates one member)
  • acceptance in the family is contingent on conforming
  • orphaned
  • rift from differing political, religious or cultural beliefs
  • cut off by distance or war
  • dangerous or unpredictable job
  • fear of being tied down
  • fear she won't be able to commit
  • job that requires too much committment
  • lack of stable life
Sexual intimacy (in addition to what would get in the way of forming friendships)
  • vow of chastity
  • morals that put conditions on relationships
  • unusual needs
  • unattractive
  • asexual
  • associating sex with sinfulness and indecency
  • diseased
  • cursed
  • that much closeness might reveal secrets she's keeping
  • married and loyal to someone for whom intimate relations is dangerous

Level 4: Esteem needs.

Growing up in a cloud of negativity, feeling worthless, incapable, not old enough, not strong enough, not good enough will create truckloads of baggage for a character to work through.

If she grew up with her sense of worth to herself or to others under constant assault, how does that affect her now? Did she compensate in some way to hide her damaged esteem? Does she appear to not care? Did she put on a mask that gets her praise and acceptance?

Is the regard she has for herself worth more to her than having the regard of others? Does she need more of one than the other? Why?

  • self worth is tied to being needed by others
  • lacking the special skills needed to be useful in the family or culture
  • tainted by past choices
  • skills she has are no longer useful in society
  • can't support herself, dependent on others
  • can't find or keep a job
  • pariah whose family is now suffering too
  • condemned by the public when she reveals who she really is
  • made a bad decision that the public won't let her forget
  • artistic creations she puts her soul into are rejected by the public
  • age or disease is sapping talent
  • prevented (because of sex, culture, etc. or from over protective caretaker) from gaining experience
  • never had the opportunity for experience
  • has experienced too many failures
  • a past choice ended up causing a devastating loss
  • task requires skills well beyond anything she's been able to do or that she's repeatedly failed at
  • task requires dependence on unknown factors and people
  • what's at stake is huge
  • lost the mentor she depended on
  • lost the skills, senses or technology she's always depended on so only has her natural self
  • needs to remotely direct someone else to do something she could do easily
  • fear of failure
  • fear of success and the changes it might mean
  • fear of a potential she'll need to live up to or be locked into pursuing
  • fear of the responsibility that often comes with mastery
  • fear of the attention and regard that comes with mastery
  • requires special training she doesn't have access to (which needs time, money, freedom, being the right race, religion, etc.)
  • has reached mastery but lacks official recognition (which needs time, etc. as above)
Respect for others
  • jealousy
  • surrounded by incompetents
  • no one else has the same high standards
  • others have different goals
  • others have different morals
  • too self focused to even notice others' accomplishments
  • perfectionist
Recognition and Respect from others
  • hiding her true identity so doesn't want attention
  • shy so attention embarrasses her
  • doesn't feel what she does is special since it comes so easily to her  
  • feels what she does is fun but frivolous so doesn't deserve much attention
  • her fluff is recognized but her serious works are ignored
  • wants to do what she enjoys without the fuss of the responsibilities of a formal position or title
  • doesn't want others assuming the right to critique her if she's a public figure
  • doesn't want the accountability to others that's involved
  • doesn't want a reputation she needs to keep living up to
  • doesn't want the constraints that an official position would come with
  • wants her actions to reflect only on herself, not on others a status might require her to represent
  • doesn't want her family bothered by the choices she made that they disagreed with
  • her culture honors teamwork, not individual achievement which is seen as self-serving
  • fears being seen as arrogant or self-serving
  • desire for status based on believing being impressive will gain her friends
  • doesn't want others to depend on her
  • doesn't want to endanger others
  • can think clearer if she's the only one harmed by her choices
  • much easier to get things done alone
  • doesn't feel ready to make decisions for others
  • would take the fun out of it 
  • doesn't trust others as much as she does herself
  • doesn't feel it's her forte
  • enjoys the job but doesn't care enough about those who would depend on her

Level 5a: Knowledge and Understanding needs.

If she grew up where knowledge and understanding one's self were reviled, how does that affect her needs for understanding now? If knowledge she didn't want was pushed on her, how does that affect her  relationship with it now? How does her past experience with knowledge affect her pursuit of higher and lower needs?

  • lacks mentors
  • lacks access to knowledge (not available, lacks resources or freedom from responsibilities to pursue it)
  • knowledge is forbidden to her
  • knowledge she wants is forbidden to everyone
  • would need to make moral sacrifices in order to pursue the knowledge she wants
  • would take too long
  • doesn't see enough value in it for what she'd give up to get it
  • would need to set aside parts of her life that she values
  • would need to entrust what she values to others while she takes time off to study 
  • would need to leave her family and what's familiar
  • lacking self confidence in ability to learn and understand
  • overly dependent on experts, memorizing rather than thinking
  • religion or government requires obedience and acceptance, not understanding
  • a learn-by-the-seat-of-her-pantser in a land of book worshipers
  • brings back bad memories of punishment and feelings of inadequacy tied to forced education
  • more knowledge would make her different than the people she cares about and feels a part of
  • doesn't want to change who she is, who she identifies with
  • seen as elitist, etc. (See Aesthetics.)
  • lacks others who share what she values
  • doesn't like the meaning of her life that she's discovering
  • warring between the meaning of the life she was born into and the life she wants for herself
  • the meaning of the life she was born into or fell into is at odds with a new philosophy/religion she  is exploring (either an established one or an understanding that's unfolding to questions she's asking)
  • fears the life she should have she can't actually have; doesn't have the resources, doesn't have what it takes, has too many obligations, it feels too alien
  • doesn't like the self she's seen; which may be stronger, weaker, differently talented, suited to a life she doesn't approve of, a person she doesn't recognize
  • her heritage is different (and unwanted) than she always believed
  • her true heritage will pull her away from the family she loves
  • fears awareness of her weaknesses, especially those she can't change, will make her less confident
  • fears awareness of her strengths will lock her on a life path she doesn't want to be on (yet)
  • worked hard to suppress and compensate for her weaknesses so doesn't want them dragged into the light for examination
  • the strengths she's uncovering are considered weaknesses in her culture
  • fears the obligations and lack of choice if she pursues who she really is
  • culture emphasizes what connects the group rather than individual needs

Level 5b: Aesthetic needs.

If she grew up where aesthetics were reviled, how does that affect her current needs for aesthetics? Did it increase her need so that beauty is practically a necessity? Does she feel guilty for wanting it? How does it affect her pursuit of higher and lower needs?

Beauty, Balance, Form
  • seen as frivolous
  • seen as elitist, above one's station
  • seen as sinful
  • seen as degenerate in a society where equal is equated with same, where "better" is arrogant
  • seen as a betrayal of own culture
  • her taste judged as poor, unrefined
  • preferences formed in a very different culture

Level 5: Self-actualizaton needs.

A character working on this level is working towards her full potential. Her focus is no longer on soothing fears and filling holes in her psyche but working on ideals outside of herself like truth, justice, beauty, wholeness. Which doesn't mean some of the lower level needs won't pop up to nag at her, only that she's reached a level where's she's comfortable enough to put energy into realizing her potential.

Maslow believed humans were naturally driven to be the best us we can be. What gets in the way are unmet needs and the long-term damage they can cause, especially if it happens in childhood.

This and the Transcendence level were what everyone on Earth (supposedly) operated at in the Star Trek universe.
The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force of our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity. -- Captain Jean-Luc Picard
There's still room for conflict! The rest of the world won't drop their needs to get out of your character's way. The universe won't speed up or slow down. Sometimes she'll need to choose between two paths that won't work together.
A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be.  This need we may call self-actualization. -- Abraham Maslow 
Which says more about the human drive to become better than that the drive is limited to Self-actualizers. Often artists make art even when -- and sometimes because -- lower needs aren't met. For some art is a response to and an outlet for the pain of unmet needs.

Can you create a character working on this level without turning her into a Mary Sue? (Star Trek had Wesley Crusher!) At what level of discomfort can your character work with to still focus on being the best her she can be?

One of the criticisms of Maslow's list is that it's very western-culture-centric. Cultures that value group harmony over personal achievement won't think much of putting autonomy and self-fulfillment so high in the hierarchy!

  • her culture requires choices that go against her personal code
  • the nature of her species pulls her one way while the society she's growing up in pulls a different way
  • pulled by morals she grew up with even though they don't work in her new life
  • wrestling with morals that keep tradition alive but don't make sense in current times
  • confused by doing the right thing and the moral thing
  • wrestling with how far loyalty should stretch
  • has done so many bad things she's not sure what the right thing is any more
  • society rewards those who don't stick out too much
  • government punishes free expression
  • culture finds tradition comforting and connecting to each other and the past
  • fear of doing anything unplanned
  • fear of failure so needs to plan
  • culturally conditioned to believe that anything based on feelings rather than thought consideration can't have value
Problem solving
  • since she's used to having the "right" answer handed to her, lacks experience in tackling problems
  • problems aren't puzzles to tackle; problems are something to be avoided
  • society discourages questioning
  • culture encourages harmony and not making waves that would disrupt others' peace
Lack of prejudice
  • prejudicial attitudes are so ingrained and automatic she doesn't realize
  • has never met the people she's prejudging and doesn't realize how much of her knowledge comes only from opinions of others
Realistic, embracing facts
  • facts aren't as comforting as what feels right
  • facts are overwhelming and experts say contradictory things
Personal growth & Self-fulfillment
  • selfish to put to put that much time and energy into one's self
  • with her time taken up by obligations, she's lost sight of what she personally finds valuable
  • elitist since it isn't productive
Autonomy & Independence
  • In a culture based around extended families, autonomy is less evolved than knowing how to work with others

Level 6: Transcendence needs.
This is the mentor level.

Helping others to self-actualize
  • not having anyone who wants her help
  • government is repressive of experts
  • only the elite can have access to your character

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Inspired by observation

Here's the first photo:


Now, go here to see photographs of the same 4 women photographed over 36 years.

Look at their body language in each picture. Who is tilted towards who? Who is touching who? What do their stances say? What do their expressions say about who they are and what they're feeling? What are their feelings towards each other?

How do the language and relationships evolve over the years? What might have been going on in their lives between each picture to cause these changes?

A brief description is below and at the link. Feel free to change the setting, time and reality.


From Nicholas Nixon: The Brown Sisters. Thirty-Three Years. Nicholas Nixon photographed his wife and her 3 sisters each year for 36 years. They were always in the same order: Heather, Mimi, Bebe and Laurie, ranging in age from 15 to 25 in the first photo.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Wrangling your character into story worthiness

(Previous post: Characters with stories to tell.)

Whether you have a character or want one the best thing is down below the outhouse: Holly Lisle's Create a Character Clinic.

The only advantage I can offer is sympathy and understanding if you have people camping in your head demanding you write about them. ;-) If the exercise in this post helps, cool! If not, the Clinic will still be waiting for you. (BTW, if you need a character, there are links to posts at the bottom that might be helpful.)

What you want to know is: Does your character have what it takes to be the focus of a story?

So what does he have a "desperate, yearning, aching desire to have, to do, to be or to avoid"? If you have an idea, you're half way there!

The best thing you can do for your character: Holly Lisle's Create A Character Clinic: A Step-By Step Course in Creating Deeper, Better Fictional People.

It's sound practical advice and exercises to get your characters more story worthy. She gets you asking the Why questions that dig beneath who your character is to find "one human being's desperate, yearning, aching desire to have, to do, to be or to avoid something," and then build a more complete-feeling person from there. It's available for the Kindle and Kindle apps.
If you don't know, that's why he's not getting anywhere. Perhaps his life is bearable. It may be happy or dull but he could continue as he is. If he wants something, he's not sure what it is.

Some people are like that. They spend years waiting for their heart's desire to reveal itself. For some it never happens. Presumably you don't want to spend your whole life waiting for your character to find meaning!

So speed up the process. Dig to find out why he is as he is.

Make a list. Write down what you know about your character. If you know a lot, limit yourself to what feels most central to who he is. If you don't know much, that's okay.

Got your list? For each item ask why. Why did he choose this rather than something else? Was it a free choice or did he feel pressure?

For each, browse Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs for writers. What level was this choice in response to? What did he want to have? What did he fear to lose? Why was that important to him?

For characteristics that weren't his choice, ask why that felt right for him. Why does he feel like a middle child rather than oldest or youngest or an only? Why does he feel like an introvert rather than an extrovert? How did that affect who he is? If he'd been something else, how would his life be different? Why?

As you're digging, you're searching for what's important to him, what he'll fight to keep, to get back, to have. Look at needs lower on Maslow's Hierarchy. What can you take away or threaten? Find what would make his life unbearable enough to push him to take action. You're also looking for what else he values. If you took that away would he still pursue his desire? Why or why not? Is there some part of his life that makes the desire meaningful? How much can you strip from his life before you reach what he'd risk his life to keep?

You won't need to know everything. It's better that you don't! He should remain flexible to adapt to changes the story needs. He should retain surprises so he's fun to write.
"The compelling need is the desire that gets your character out of bed in the morning, that pulls him through the day, that makes him take risks, or that drives him to challenge others." Holly Lisle.
When you're done you should have some idea of who your character is and why. Next, play around with Strong flaws and flawed strengths to help him be imperfect.

If you don't have a character, this is an exercise we did at a pre-NaNoWriMo meeting to create a character from scratch:

A character's random beginning

Also Cattell's 16 Personality Factors lets you randomly generate 16 different aspects of personality.

I'm sure there are creative and great things out on the internet. I search periodically but can't recall stumbling across anything that made me jump up. But these were handy and might be useful:

Fear and loathing
Why are you? (At the bottom is also a link to Creating Characters from Scratch)
Create a Character (With several links to Typing Chimp articles on character creation.)

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Love cursed

"After Volga Adams, a psychic, pleaded guilty to larceny for stealing over $100,000, she put a curse on the prosecutor, saying no woman would ever love him."*

As Volga is led off, the prosecutor Jendar Forthwright poorly suppresses his eye roll. Yet when he arrives home that evening, his wife is gone, his daughter is in a funk not speaking to him and his son is quite confused.

He's a logical person. It can't be the psychic.

And yet it is. But not the way it seems. There's a web of deceit that's been woven.

Use it as inspiration for a piece. Or brainstorm a slew of possibilities for how and why the wife and daughter's reactions are tied to the psychic.

* From an article in the New York Times, Devil's Head, Dead Chicken and a Swindle.

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.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A is for potato chip

Europe has some weird ass potato chip flavors. My favorite name was Tingly Prawn Cocktail. (I didn't try them but I think in American English it would be Tingly Shrimp Cocktail Sauce flavor.)

(The picture to the right is actually American. It was one of 3 flavors suggested by fans of Lay's in a contest last summer.)

So, for each letter of the alphabet, come up with a potato chip flavor. They can be single words and phrases.

When you're done, here's Lay's weird ass potato chip flavors from all over the world. There's also the Strange Chips blog that goes beyond just potato chips.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Beware the character who ...

Beware the character who becomes so real you feel they've trusted you to be their scribe.

Does that describe any of the characters you're bringing to life now or have languishing on your hard drive?

I've been reading a lot of writing books recently. What I've discovered is this is my particular stumbling block: writing about a character rather than writing a story about a character.

Such characters can be fun to write for. They can be fun to share brain space with. But their story won't be compelling unless the reader is continually wondering, "How will they get out of this pickle? And how will they master all these obstacles to get what they really want?"

A story is a vehicle for the Lead character. And the Lead is a vehicle for the story. Each will push the other to become the vehicle they need. If the Lead is the Queen's wizard but the story can be told more effectively by a girl who scrubs the castle floors that's who the Lead will become. If the story goal is to defeat the Queen's enemy but the Lead can grow most by slowly realizing the Queen isn't who the Lead wants her to be, the story can change to make that happen.

Which is all obvious until a character sets up camp in your brain and whispers, "You love me. I'm a great character. You need to tell my story. I promise. You'll love it."

You want to believe them! You do love them. But often, despite their promises, such characters only react to what life throws at them. They're buffeted in a boat by currents, rocks, other boaters, reacting to stay in the boat, but no sense of progress since they don't know what they want. This "story" could go on forever. Or until you abandon it because it's not going anywhere.

What a story needs is a water-phobic scholar feverishly rowing towards the derelict ship where her arrogant brother is trapped with a ticking bomb as sharks, ninja pirate assassins and her once-best friend tries to stop her.

Or not. But even a character driven story will have passion driving your character towards a destination.

Write-me! characters can be great fun to write for. If one is nagging you, go ahead and write. There's loads of writing craft to polish while writing for them. It can be satisfying. As long as you don't expect a story to come of it.

So how can you tell if a character will tell a great story? (Next: Characters with stories to tell.)