Last week, I talked just a little bit about getting to know your characters. There are many parts to this and many different angles to approach it from, but one of the most important aspects of any character—every character—is their central desire.
What is desire?
Your character’s desire will likely spin off of their main problem. What is the goal they want to accomplish? What are they looking for? What are they attempting to gain? Is it a physical thing, a person, a state of being? Your character may want many things, but the central desire is the most important.
Sometimes, their want is a simple thing, like in Tangled. Rapunzel has a straightforward desire to see the floating lights. It’s that want that drives everything she does. Other times, the desire is more complicated. In Mulan, she realizes near the end of the movie that her true want was not to save her father, like she thought it was, but to find her own self-worth. When you have a hidden desire like that, everything must point towards it, even though your character herself is unaware.
desire supplies motivation
Desire is often the motivator, the reason why your characters are out there doing what they’re doing.
Why do you do things? What gets you up and going? Likely it’s because you wanted something. It’s the same for your characters. When a character lacks a clearly defined desire, they come off as bland, flat, and useless. A character’s desire rounds them out. It helps you as an author to understand them, and it helps readers to connect with them.
In real life, we don’t always know what we want, but in writing, the character’s desire must be clear. If readers don’t understand what a character wants, they aren’t going to sympathize with their quest. In fact, it becomes boring. Instead of an active character doing things of their own volition, we have a passive character who comes across as a victim.
While a few of your characters may have the same wants, more often, they won’t. If these differing desires are at odds with each other, you will have conflict. That’s a great thing! Conflict is what keeps readers going; it’s what grips their hearts and pulls them along for the ride. But it has to make sense, which is where conflict born of a character’s desire comes into play.
If Sally wants to go to the Opera, and Sam wants to watch football, there’s going to be conflict. If Rick wants to make Susie happy, but Susie wants to be left alone, there will be conflict. If Harry wants to keep the Sorcerer’s Stone away from Quirrell and Voldemort, but they want to find the Stone, there is conflict.
Sometimes, a character can have conflicting desires within themselves. This inner conflict will hold them back and keep them from accomplishing their main task. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry has conflicting desires to find the Horcruxes or the Deathly Hallows. He struggles with getting his priorities in order, and it causes not only conflict within himself, but also with Ron and Hermione. It slows their progress in defeating Voldemort, and gets them into trouble.
Creating your character’s desire
How do you make sure your characters have a desire? If every character (at least all your main characters) need a clearly defined desire, how do you make sure they have one? Simply ask what they want more than anything else in the world. Ask, and then don’t give it to them. Keep them away from it as long as you can (unless you’re writing a story about the consequences of getting what you want. Then you can give it to them part way through the story).
In my short story “Gypsy of the Sea,” my main character Abigail wants to be brave, but she can’t become brave because she’s scared of her father. The story is about her overcoming that fear. Once I figured out that was her desire, the story came together.
Look at your characters—talk to them. Find out what they want more than anything else, and then use that desire to propel them forward.
I had a teacher who had us work it out this way:
Once upon a time, there was a ________ , and what he/she/it wanted more than anything else in the world was _______ . But they couldn’t because_______.