Kurt Vonnegut famously said, “Make your characters want something right away even if it's only a glass of water” and the concept of “Want vs. Need” is a tenant in screenwriting. All this to say, I’ve known this idea for many, many of my writing years, and still, when I wasn’t paying attention, I was struggling with a character that didn’t want anything.
So, I’m currently working on draft 2.5 of a novel, and in all three versions-- while other elements of the plot and characters shifted and shaped in more sensible things -- one character of my ensemble cast continuously gave me trouble. I couldn’t justify why she was exactly where she was (recently joined a secret organization). She ping-ponged along in the story, hitting plot points by contrivance, coincidence, and other people’s doing, never making a significant decisions herself (well, later in the story) just sort of reacting to things.
So, I wrote and shedded multiple variations of backstories, brainstorming a dozen more, trying to give her a generic, hero motivating detail.
Ultimately, my resolution came from not looking backward, but looking forward. This novel is intended to be the first in a series, so I started theorizing forward, what’s coming next, what plot pieces are upcoming, what are the major themes I’m building up to explore and… kazam, there it was, a way that only gave me a character motivation/want and backstory, but also a way to integrate this character into the story in a way where she was just a sideline player before. Now she is not just ping-pong hitting against plot paddles, but a person who is drawn in because they have their own agenda.
So I’m telling you anything new when I proclaim ‘Every character needs to want something!!!’ but hopefully am shedding some light on ways to catch said problem and fix it.
How to Notice Your Character Wants Nothing
Ways to Fix Your Want-Nothing Character
Here is a very simple but very effective tactic I use to overcome writer’s block, and it something I do by sidestepping and ignoring the boulder that has dropped down in front of me and blocked inspiration for my story.
Here’s the trick: Write something else.
I usually have at least two, sometimes more, ongoing writing projects at a time. One very often has priority and the most of my attention, but the others are things I’m interested in and excited about as well. So, when one of my stories is giving me trouble, I hope on over to something else that day or two or a week, and then hop back to my priority story later.
This is actually a wondrous case where ignoring the problem sometimes just… fixes it. Sometimes you really do just need some time away to think and breathe to figure out whatever was blocking you -- a plot point, a character motivation, just overwork on the same story -- and giving time away lets your subconscious surprise you with solutions when you're driving home from work or taking a shower or just about to fall asleep. (Isn’t it great how the human mind works?)
Another benefit is that you are still writing even when the focus is off your main writing. All writing, even writing that’s never seen but by your own eyes, is good for your writerly life. It’s practice, it’s experimentation, it’s fun, and most importantly, keeps you writing juices flowing.
So when writer’s block hits you, move on to write something else. If none of your ongoing projects are getting you jazzed, try starting something else. Maybe that little piece of whimsy that has been wiggling in your head to get out or that piece of self-fulfilling fanfic you’ve been burning to write. Heck, sometimes you have writer’s block for one story, because a new idea is demanding your attention like a screaming toddler. Give it attention and then it will stop!
Writer’s block can be so frustrating and I, a perfectionist, find not being productive frustrating on top of that, so as long as I am writing something, I am much happier. So go one, flip between different writing projects and kill writer’s block with abundant productivity.
Having writer’s block? Switch up the way you’re writing: typing, by hand, by dictation, by smoke signal…
For example, I primarily type on a computer when it comes to writing, but when I get stuck one of my surefire battering-rams to take out that writer’s block is to switch to pen and paper.
When we change the method we are physically getting words down, we are also changing the process of our thinking. I’m a fast typer, so it is conducive to my thoughts coming in fast. When I’m blocked, it’s frustrating to sit at that screen with nothing to write. It takes me longer to write by hand, so usually by the time I finish up jotting down my current thought, another has already gotten to form.
Because handwriting is harder to alter, I think ahead more to get the scene put in the correct order. Writing on a computer means I can jump around. Never mind that the notebook I’m writing in doesn’t have any internet connection to distract me.
This is probably very individual depending on which method you usually write, and which methods are slower and faster for you, but I bet the principals will still apply. A change up from the norm will help jog some ideas loose.
Insights from the life of an aspiring, struggling writer; a passionate reader, and a working librarian.
This website uses marketing and tracking technologies. Opting out of this will opt you out of all cookies, except for those needed to run the website. Note that some products may not work as well without tracking cookies.Opt Out of Cookies