What does your character want? This is one of those helpful—or irritating—questions writers are asked at workshops or by editors. The question is meant to make you, the author, dig deeply into your character’s soul to discover what drives him/her to do all the crazy things they do in their fictional world.
You created this character, so answering “What does he/she want?” should be a snap, right?
Like the show-not-tell rule or advice to make your setting more active, “what your character wants” is easy at the conceptual level, but it can be a challenge to apply on paper.
Let’s examine this question by breaking it down into parts.
First, consider yourself, the author, as the genie of your story. You know your characters’ wishes, desires, yearnings—what they want. As the genie, you control how a character gets what s/he wants—resolution. Because you have hundreds of pages to fill and must entertain a reader, you use trouble and turmoil to fill those pages between the want and the goal—conflict.
ETA: I am adding a clarification to the original post. By what the character wants, I’m referring not to the story goal (catch the murderer, save the kidnapped child, find a better job, meet Mr. Right) but a broader desire. What one thing does your character want above all other things, because that one thing is what will make him/her feel happy, content, fulfilled?
What your character wants = wish + conflict + resolution
This is still concept. Let’s apply it to a character we all know.
What does Harry Potter want? A family. What creates conflict? His muggle family and wizard enemies. How is the want resolved? He adopts a new family.
Wish: what the character wants. Harry Potter wants a family.
Conflict: the obstacle/event between the character and what he wants. Evil forces—both magical and muggle–try to deny HP his wizarding heritage.
Resolution: realization of goal. HP saves the wizarding world and, in doing so, creates a new family for himself.
Let’s try a real world example, from a pretend story:
A woman in a bad marriage wants a more fulfilling relationship. (Wish: A happy marriage)
She decides to leave her husband. She prepares by putting aside money, packing her belongings, arranging for a place to stay. She waits for husband to come home so she can inform him she is leaving. When he arrives, however, he tells her shocking news. He has some terrible illness. Although she is unhappy, she can’t bring herself to desert him in this moment of crisis. (Conflict: She gets trapped in her unhappy marriage.)
As husband is treated, he becomes more thoughtful and appreciative. She recognizes her own flaws. Whether he lives or dies, the marriage is different. She grows content. She stays. (Resolution: She has the happy marriage she desired.)
In fiction, more conflict would come when the husband discovers she was going to leave him. Or if she had been in a relationship with another man. Or, said other man didn’t go away quietly when she told him she was not running off with him after all. The front story of the unhappy marriage can be bounced around with complications from all sides–the middle act shenanigans that entertain the reader while the author-genie makes the character work for her goal.
Now you do it. Wave your author-genie wand and break down the want concept.
~ What does your character want?
~ What stands in the way of that?
~ How is the want problem solved?
Feel free to fill in the formula in comments!