Writing Characters, Not Plot Elements

So, you’re deep into your writing process. Maybe you have a completed early draft of your story and there’s just something off about some of the characters that you can’t figure out. You figure out that some of them just seem like they’re in the story because you want them to be, not because they really should be there. They do the things you want them to do, but maybe it’s uninspiring and they just don’t seem like real people when all is said and done. Why does this happen and how do you fix it? Here are some things to think about that might help elevate your character writing to the next level.

What Does Your Character Want?

Every real person on the planet, even the most boring person you know, has at least one thing they want at any given time. Almost everyone has both long term and immediate desires that determine the course of their actions. These wants can be very diverse, and aren’t even related. For instance, maybe someone wants to become the best basketball player in the long term but immediately they want to find a girlfriend.

Of course, the two kinds of wants can be related as well, especially if the person has a strong focus on their goals. The person in the last case could want to be the best basketball player in the world, and they have an immediate desire to go out and practice. Both are realistic cases. Both play a big part in how the person or character will respond to different situations.

What’s Standing in the Way of Getting It?

There are two types of obstacles that each real person faces that keep us from getting what we want: internal barriers and external road blocks. For instance, if your long term goal to lose weight faces a short term want to indulge in pizza and beer, you have met an internal barrier. If your long term goal to lose weight meets the fact that you are being held captive by a witch in a house made of candy who only feeds you sweets to fatten you up, then an external road block stands in the way of you getting what you ultimately want.

Both long term wants and short term wants can be met with internal and external forces that can stop a character from getting these things. If right now you want to eat cake very badly, but don’t want to gain weight, your short term want has been thwarted by an internal barrier. If you want cake but it’s midnight and no stores are open anywhere near you to buy it, then an external force stands in the way of getting your short term want.

How Will Your Character Respond?

The choices your characters make based on the two questions above will determine who the character really is at that moment. It is a snapshot in time, and by knowing how they respond to these things, you can decide how they will grow if they are primary characters in your story.

A character who wants to become the best basketball player in the world but at the beginning of the story spends all of their time chasing girls instead of practicing will need to overcome that in some capacity if the story you want to tell is about them becoming the best basketball player in the world. Maybe it means they stop chasing women all together. Maybe they settle down with one woman who helps them stay on target. Maybe they just chase women a little less.

There is no right or wrong answer here – it’s ultimately up to you how it all plays out. The important thing you need to understand here is that by giving our characters these things that they want and putting them in situations where we see them try to get them, we can learn everything we need to know about them.

Don’t Forget the Little Guys

It’s not just the main characters you need to be doing this exercise with that matter, if you really want to make a story that will engage readers. Each and every single character in every scene should have at least one thing they want in that scene. Even if it’s the want to rest and relax after a long battle, or it’s as simple as wanting to get money for the things someone else wants to buy from their store, you have to consider everyone if you’re trying to make the story and characters believable.

With that said, remember that most people hold their cards pretty close to their chest most of the time. You don’t have to explicitly say that you want to lose weight when you are offered pizza and beer which you also want. You can just keep that weight loss goal to yourself and eat the pizza and drink the beer, and you can pass on the pizza and beer without saying you are on a diet.

Often times we will reveal our wants when explaining choices we make to ourselves and others, but we don’t have to. As long as we know why the characters do what they do and it comes from something internal to them, then we’re working with characters and not just plot devices. This fact should be the key driving force behind writing all characters, no matter how big or small of a role they will play in your story.

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