Who wants what? A character exercise

RamonaGravitarWhat 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?

Ha ha.

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!







7 thoughts on “Who wants what? A character exercise

  1. Nice formula. I would add that a character has many wants. For example, the character in my mystery wants to find a murderer. Conflict? Of course, the murderer doesn’t want to be found and there are all sorts of misdirections. Resolution: he finds the killer. But he also wants a woman to share his life and real love. Conflict? He doesn’t believe he’s able to hold up his end of the bargain or find a woman who will understand and support him. Resolution? Well, I haven’t gotten to that part – yet. 🙂


  2. Mary, your comment has given me next week’s topic–the story goal.

    For a series, each installment will have a specific goal or problem. In Harry Potter, he wants to destroy the Sorcerer’s Stone, to win the Goblet of Fire, to open the Chamber of Secrets, etc. All of those are situational conflicts that may influence what he really wants–a family–but attaining those individually does not give him what he wants–a family.

    So let me ask you to consider it this way–no right or wrong, just a different outlook. What I’m referring to is the big picture, what the character wants above all things. Of course your character wants to do his job, but is finding this particular murderer what he really wants out of his life? If this would be a standalone where he’s seeking justice for a particular, personal crime, perhaps. But if he’s doing his job, well, there will always be another murderer to find, another crime to solve. His real want is what will fulfill him as a person and make him content. From what you describe, that sounds like finding a companion to share his life. Part and parcel of that would be appreciating the importance of his job.

    It took HP 7 volumes to get his new family. Your guy may need that many steps, or more, to get his wish granted. Not so much fun for your guy, but good news for your readers!


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