This is the powerful emotion that inspires people to get off the couch and grab a tub of ice cream. It’s the only thing that is strong enough to pull me out of a very warm bed when it’s still dark and cold outside. It’s what inspires Harry Potter to defeat Voldemort in Harry Potter, Elizabeth Gilbert to find food, meaning, and companionship respectively in Eat Pray Love, and Frodo Baggins to make the long walk to Mordor in The Lord of the Rings.
Your characters have to want something
Every good book begins with a protagonist who wants something. There’s a reason you don’t generally see books about characters cast about by the whims of fate without any sense of purpose or desire, or, worse, characters who are aimlessly wandering about trying to find their purpose. Even Odysseus, essentially a powerless character blown about by the gods, has a rock-solid motivation: he wants to get home.
Wanting something is what makes protagonists interesting. It’s what makes readers invested in finding out if the character is going to get the things that he or she wants. It’s what makes these characters feel like living, breathing humans. After all, we all want something at any given moment.
Your character does not have to know what he or she wants on page one, but it should be conclusively clear by page 30, preferably earlier. Every step that your protagonist takes after this point should be a step toward this goal, though the forward progress will be thwarted by obstacles and other characters, who have their own set of desires and motivations.
Make what they want complicated
Many stories, especially genre novels, have a built-in motivation that’s kicked off at the beginning, like a parent whose child was kidnapped or a save-the-princess fantasy novel. The character’s motivation is immediately apparent based on the situation they find themselves in.
Better yet is a novel where a character wants more than one thing and these two things are at odds. The main character might want to save the princess, but he might just have his eye on the king’s throne as well, and so he has to decide by the end of the novel which of these two motivations are more important to him.
Better still is a character that wants things that are internally contradictory, so that the character not only has to battle exterior obstacles to get what he or she wants, but the character also has to battle their own conflicting desires.
Here’s a way of illustrating that in A Game of Thrones style.
- Good: Ned Stark wants to help his friend, King Robert, protect the realm.
- Better: Ned Stark wants to help his friend, King Robert, while also protecting his family.
- Best: Ned Stark wants to help his friend, King Robert, while also protecting his family and maintaining his personal sense of honor, but he may only be able to do one of the three.
When I was crafting the plot of Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow, it was important to me that Jacob should have competing desires in the climax. He isn’t just trying to figure out how to get home to Earth, as he isn’t even sure if he wants to go home. He isn’t sure at all about what to do in the end.
Before the climax, I steadily built up the idea that perhaps Jacob’s dad was in outer space. Jacob could continue looking for his dad in space or he could return home with his friends, but he couldn’t do both. He had to overcome his own internal battles to make this choice. He had contradictory motivations.
The desires of your characters will help shape these crucial choices in your novel. Every time you introduce something a character wants, either internal or external—regardless of whether they want to save a princess, seek acceptance from their parents, or snare a white whale—you’re introducing a plot arc.
Hone your plot arcs
A plot or character arc is basically a drawn-out process in which a character wants something and then tries to get it. The arc closes when they succeed or fail in getting what they want.
Every single character you introduce, major or minor, from your protagonist to the pizza delivery robot, should have their own plot arc(s) with defined goals and motivations.
If you’re a planner, write these arcs down and know them by heart. Map them out from beginning to end. You should be able to create a spreadsheet of everyone’s arcs, which are shaped by the things they want and their high points and low points as they try to get them.
If you’re an improviser, make sure that when you’re finished with your draft, you can trace these arcs from start to finish. Look for moments when characters don’t display enough motivation, and consider rearranging some events to make the arcs fit together more cohesively.
The more important the character, the longer and more complex the plot arc(s). For instance, your main protagonist’s and your main villain’s plot arcs should be introduced early in the novel, and you will probably have a rather nuanced view of their desires and contradictions.
We probably don’t need to know about the existential crises of the pizza delivery robot, but it should still show some sort of motivation if it is to be an interesting character.
Why your characters are flat
Motivation is often where writers miss opportunities. Their characters seem flat because there’s nothing beating in their hearts. A character without motivation is an automaton. They’re just going through the motions.
Instead, at every step of the way, on every page, with every exchange of dialogue and every action, the best characters are actively trying to achieve their desires. Every character is motivated. Always ask yourself what they want. Then construct obstacles, whether internal, external, or both, that stand in their way. They’re encountering characters or monsters or inanimate barriers that want something different than they do and that are stopping them from getting what they want.
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Art: Désirs by William Kendall