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
Insights from the life of an aspiring, struggling writer; a passionate reader, and a working librarian.
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