This past week I met with author Susan Schreyer for a writing gab fest. She asked me a simple question and I’ve been pondering on it since because it’s so vital to writing. I also had her give me advice on roses. She’s invaluable on both topics.
We all know the important ‘what if’ question. It’s how stories are born. What if this happened, and then that? What if she’d said this instead of that? And so on.
But there’s the more important question once that idea is formed. What does each character want, more than anything else?
I know it’s obvious. So obvious in fact, that it gets forgotten, almost like an ignored cliché.
I talked to Susan about a character that is in jail to figure out her role in the protagonist’s life. Susan asked me, ‘what does she want?’. Yes, I’d thought of that before, because this is the fourth book the character will be in. But I hadn’t given it much thought as far as how roles have changed with jail, how this character will fit into the new role, and more importantly, how she will act within confines.
To answer Susan, I started listing off things I thought the character wanted. The things I thought were important. And then, almost as an afterthought, I said, ‘well, and freedom I guess’. Susan honed right onto that word. Freedom. And followed up with, ‘what would the character do to be free?’.
So while I know the question is simple and basic, it’s too important to forget, or to assume that you already know the answer. It’s a question that should be asked of every single character and really, it works out to a dual question.
What do they really want…and how far will they go to get it?
It’s one of those basic questions writers learn early on. It then gets buried because, after all, you know it and you’re sure that you’re using it in writing. But it’s not such a bad thing to occasionally pull out a tool that might be buried at the bottom of your writer’s tool kit, dust it off, and use it again.
2 thoughts on “Vital Simplicity”
Good question to remember. I tend to approach my writing by knowing what my characters want and why, but extending the question the way you have addresses my big problem with plot. My troubles with what comes next in each moment is probably because I haven’t spent much time exploring how far each character will go to get/acheive what they want. This is central to the conflict, and plot is all about conflict. Thanks for the spotlight!
It’s one of those very basic things that are actually way more important than you first think. And for me, because it’s so basic, I forget about it. I also like the quote ‘To fully understand your antagonist you must know why he is a protagonist in his world.’