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How-to Tuesday

How to Bring Your Characters to Life: Part 2 – Deciding What Your Character Wants

Every week, we update our how-to series about creating realistic characters, entitled “How to Bring Your Characters to Life,” providing a handy activity to help you turn your characters into realistic “people.” Last week’s post was about how to discover the perfect name for your character. This week, we will delve deeper into your character’s persona by figuring out what he or she wants, which is an essential part of any story.

Deciding What Your Character Wants:

All of us have at least one or two important goals in life. Some of us yearn for marriage and having a family of our own, some of us dream about getting our dream career and making lots of money, and others want to “make a difference” in the world through outreach or public service, just to name a few examples.

Just like real people, every character in a story wants at least one important thing too. The “need” or “want” of a character is what keeps them going and moves your story forward. For instance, if your story is about a soccer player, her goal might be to win the season championship or to improve her game so that she can score the next game-winning goal. In a different story, maybe the main character is trying to get the attention of a girl that he likes, or get his parent’s approval. Whatever your character wants will determine the rest of the story, because it is up to you, the author, to decide whether he will get what he wants or not, and how it all happens.

When choosing what your character wants, consider your character’s motivations, what that says about him or her, and how it may determine your character’s actions. You have already decided some important things about your character, such as your character’s birthplace, current area of residence, name, gender, and more. Use your notes from our last activity to consider the type of person your character is and what someone like that might want. Here are a few common wants for you to consider:

  • Romantic Love (such as getting the attention of your object of affection, or finding someone who you love and/or who loves you)
  • Financial Success / Wealth
  • Familial Love (such as a good relationship with one’s parents, one’s children, or siblings)
  • Making a “Difference” in the World (such as philanthropy, starting a charity, becoming a teacher or therapist to help others, etc.)
  • Athletic Success (such as winning a championship, being chosen for a team, getting a sports scholarship to college, etc.)
  • Receiving Recognition from Others or an Award (being appreciated by one’s spouse or boss, or could be getting a military award like a purple heart, an award in a talent show, a sales award at work, etc.)

Once you have decided what your character wants, consider the following questions:

1. How badly does your character want whatever it is to happen?

This determines how high the stakes are in your story, and how serious the plot will be. You could write a light-hearted comedy piece about a guy who is just on an adventure to find the “perfect sandwich” or a very serious story about a woman who is trying to raise enough money to try to pay for her sick aunt’s medical bills. How serious the goal is and how bad your character wants it will play a big part in the overall feel of your story.

2. How far would you character be willing to go to get what he or she wants? Is there anything that your character wouldn’t do?

This goes back to the previous question—if the character’s goal is just to eat a tasty sandwich, he would probably give up much more easily than a character who is trying to save a dying relative. How far would that character go? Would she rob a bank just to get the money she needed? Would she kill someone else if it meant saving her aunt? Or is she the kind of good person who would stop before things got that far, even if it meant that her aunt might die. There is no wrong or right answer, but some choices will make your story more interesting than others.

Next, brainstorm some actions that your character might use to try to achieve his or her goals. Freewrite or create an outline of your ideas.

Finally, consider the reactions that your character’s actions might provoke in other characters around him or her. Make some notes of anything interesting that you think of. These reactions to your main character’s actions can help you develop well-rounded supporting characters later on, and can also help give you inspiration for your overall plot.

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