Monday, February 4, 2013

Character Development Series: Question #7 - What's Your Character Aiming For?

You may or may not have heard the quote: "Every character should want something - even if it's only a glass of water."

It's a piece of prime-rib writing advice and something you can self-edit your manuscript to reflect. But we'll get to that part later.

Question #7: What does your character want in this scene? In this story? In this life?

As you may have gathered, this question has three applications:

In each and every scene your character appears in, the reader should be aware of their goal. I think one of the primary problems with many novice manuscripts (including my own) is the tendency to get bogged down in plotting, and forget to tell the reader what the character wants. You see, when the reader knows what your protagonist / villain / hero / heroine wants, they're able to gauge whether the story is currently going well, or not.

Tension, for the reader, is based almost solely on their perception of whether the character's goals are under threat.

So, ask yourself (and your character) first, what do they want in this scene?

Whether it's to get rid of a headache, find a boyfriend, or save the world is irrelevant. They should step forward with a stated goal in mind. If the plot / villain thwarts that goal, then perfect! The events may turn the character towards a new goal - or make them even more determined to achieve the first one. Whichever it is, let the reader know.

Then, sometime in Act II of your novel, ask the character what do they want out of this story?

This is commonly referred to as the "story question", and usually applies only to the primary characters. It can't become apparent until the character understands what kind of bind they're really in. Each character will then have a story question.

In romance the story question is usually "will they or won't they get together?" In science fiction, it's often "Can they, or can't they achieve....?"

The best story questions put the main character's life, love or happiness under threat. But keep in mind, the story question is tangible. It's something the character must attain or achieve. In Techniques of the Selling Writer, Mr. Swain suggests that your story question must be specific enough that you could take a picture of your character answering it.

Will she get the guy?
Will she win the scholarship?
Will the murderer stalking her finally kill her?

Regardless, the story question should be a result of the final goal coming under threat. So ask your character, what do they want out of this life?

Is it freedom from pain? Eternal love? Physical, financial, or emotional security? To live without cancer? To die without regrets?

Determine what it is that your character really wants, at the bottom of their soul. Then make sure your story threatens that life, state or achievement.

Do you see how these all fit together?

If you want an exercise to help you process, consider this: Head up a page with each character's name, and answer the questions in reverse.

What does Ronnie want from life?

How does your story threaten that?

Ergo, what does Ronnie want from this story?

Once you've answered those questions, return to your manuscript and identify a scene Ronnie appears in. What is his goal in that scene? How does it take him a step closer (or further away) from the story question? And how does that bring him closer (or further away) from achieving what he wants from life?

(NOTE: Your protagonist and your villain should have conflicting goals. In order for one to win, the other must lose).

If you can identify what drives your characters forward on a daily basis, then tell the reader what's driving them towards that goal in each scene, you'll never be guilty of a novel that "drags". Your characters will always be moving forward, reassessing when they hit obstacles, then moving forward again.

Don't let them give up - then your reader won't give up on you.

Your Turn: Can you think of a book that really clearly expresses the goals of the characters, and how the good / bad conflict? Tell us about it!

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