In the world of writing, sometimes we can get really wrapped up in complicated aspects. Since art essentially has few rules, we can forget that there’s some pretty simple guidelines for what makes our stories work well and engage readers.
One of the most important elements of a story are its characters. I rarely hear people say, “I loved the plot! The plot was the best part!” Often characters sell a story to audiences. And often, characters can be the hardest thing to create, and I know I can’t be the only one who’s put a book down because of boring, flat characters. Readers care about engaging, dynamic characters who keep moving the story forward, so our challenge is to create such characters.
I’m not here to talk about angsty backstories or redemptive arcs or witty dialogue. While all those things, if done well, can certainly make an interesting character, in the scope of plotting, it doesn’t usually add much to the story.
So what is this magical thing that both creates a dynamic character and moves the story forward?
It is the character’s want.
Within the study of screenwriting, this is one of the most important elements to keep in mind when forming a scene. What is the character’s want in this particular scene, and what is the character’s overarching want that binds all the scenes together into a movie? Every character must always want something in every scene, and opposing wants create conflict.
Films, of course, are very compressed and have a more rigid structure than does prose. Within the world of story and novel writing, you have more space to stretch out your scenes and work with characters who might not necessarily want something. But always remember, in order to move the story forward, your main character must always want something and that desire must be strong enough to propel him to action to get what he wants.
What are some examples of something a character wants? Maybe the main character’s main objective is world domination. But in this particular scene, he wants a smoothie, because he needs sugar in order to move forward with his plan. Another character in the scene wants to stay at home and not drive the main character to the smoothie shop. These opposite wants create conflict. Maybe at the end of the scene, the main character wins, gets his smoothie, and this moves the plot forward because now he has sugar and energy to take over the world.
Sure, that was a pretty ridiculous example, so let’s look at examples from real films and books. I first started thinking seriously about wants and motivations while watching the Bourne trilogy for the first time. In the second film, The Bourne Supremacy, Bourne firstly wants not to get killed and to know why people want to kill him, and secondly, he wants to find out the truth about a fragmented memory from his past. The conflict here, quite simply, is that everyone else in the film wants him dead. The plot is moved forward as Bourne discovers more of his past little by little in each scene, the end of each scene leading him to a new place to find answers.
Another more recent example of a plot driven by a character’s want is Spider-Man: Homecoming. Peter wants to prove himself to Tony that he too can be an Avenger by defeating the Vulture. Besides the Vulture, there is another interesting source of opposition in this film. Tony’s want is to keep Peter safe and from doing stupid things. Thus Peter’s desire and Tony’s desire clash, creating a unique conflict.
In the well-loved Redwall by Brian Jacques, the main character, Matthias, is driven to find Martin the Warrior’s sword in order to defeat Cluny the Scourge. This want takes him on an investigation through the Abbey, each scene having him come closer to finding the sword and getting it.
Quest and journey plots are also great examples of a plot driven by a character’s want. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s want is to get to Mordor to destroy the Ring. This goal is what drives his story forward, and every scene brings him closer and closer to getting to Mount Doom.
Of course, characters’ wants can change over the course of a book. A character may start out wanting one thing and then realize that he actually needs another thing. This can be a great start for creating a compelling character arc. Rey, in The Force Awakens, wants to return to Jakku and wait for her family in the film’s first part. However she grows and realizes that no one is coming back for her on Jakku, and realizes that she needs to move on. Then her want becomes to help her friends save the galaxy.
Naturally, a character needs to want more than one thing in a story. Peter wants to impress Liz and keep his superhero identity secret. And so on.
Basically, the takeaway is this: know what your character wants, and make it mean enough so that the character acts on it. Every scene must bring the character closer (or farther! Setbacks are mandatory in good plots, but that’s a topic for a different article) to getting what he or she wants. If you stick to this simple guideline, it will make a huge change to the stories you write.
The next step after figuring out the want is figuring out what is at stake for the character if they don’t fulfill their goal. For the writer interested in studying this, this is a sweet and short example to get you thinking about it.