Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What Does a Character Want?

La Primavera 1936--Anselmo-Bucci-1887-1955During the recession of the early 90s (which looks like nothing compared to the one we’re in now) I was fresh out of college and working for very little money at a magazine. Begrudgingly, I took on a bank job as well as writing for the periodical.

I ended up (oddly, considering my lack of leadership skills) in a supervisory role. Basically, if someone sent the bank written correspondence (no one really had email then), I would get it and reply.

So I was the complaint letter girl. And, wow, did people complain.

These letters, for the most part, were poorly-written, rambling rants.

And what got me was that no one asked what they wanted. The bank had screwed up. What did these customers want in return? What kind of reparation were they looking for? It seemed like the sole purpose of their letters was just to let off steam.

If they didn’t ask for anything, I didn’t offer them anything. I just apologized on behalf of the bank.

The whole experience (besides giving me insight into writing effective complaint letters) made me realize how important it is to express…or even to know….what we want.

I’ve read plenty of books where the conflict is apparent and well-written. The character reacts to what’s thrown in his path. But what does he want during the novel? Just a return to normalcy? Or can we make his wants (and, by extension, himself) more complex ?

How do they show what they want? Dialogue with a friend? Internal monologue? Through their actions?

Knowing what our protagonist wants can also propel the plot—because then we can effectively withhold it.

Do you know what your character wants?