What Does Your Character Want? And Why Does It Matter?

I once attended a lecture by Rob Roberge, the author of the memoir Liar, novels including The Cost of Living, and the short story collection Working Backwards from the Worst Moment of My Life. Actually, I’ve attended many a lecture by Rob Roberge. The man knows his stuff. But during this particular lecture, Roberge said something about writing scenes that really stuck with me. He explained that a scene is a negotiation, “two people saying no to each other in interesting ways.”

I’ve heard this sort of thing said many times since, in various combinations of words. But it basically amounts to the idea that your character needs to want something, and someone else has an opposing want, and there’s your story. But what does it mean, for your character to want something. And why does it matter?

Everything is driven by characters wanting different things, and by those different things colliding. Every moment that one character wants something, and another character wants something mutually exclusive, and they collide—every time that happens, you have a story.

— Neil Gaiman

First of all, when your protagonist wants something, it immediately creates conflict and tension. If a character wants something, it means they don’t already have that something, whatever it is. Why not? Ask yourself a few questions. Why don’t they already have the thing, if they want it so darned much? What are the obstacles preventing your character from getting what they want? What is standing in their way? Who is standing in their way? And what is your character going to do about it? Already, you have something interesting to work with.

I like to picture it as a tug of war between the desires of one character and the conflicting desires or mandates of someone or something else. Another person could be standing in your protagonist’s way. Cultural or societal expectations could be standing in your protagonist’s way. Financial limitations could be standing in their way. Your protagonist could be standing in their own way. The pressure of time could be the obstacle–perhaps your protagonist must accomplish something by a deadline in order to get the thing they want.

Often, writer’s block will come when I don’t understand a character or his/her motivations.

— Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

The sheer existence of your character’s wanting something helps to drives the story forward. It creates high stakes. Because your character wants something, they will have do things to get it. What will your character do to get what they want? How far will they go? How far is too far? What will they refuse to do?

Will your character have to travel to a different place in an attempt to get the thing they want? Will your character have to do something outside their comfort zone? Will your character ignore their moral compass? Will your character humiliate themself? Will your character betray someone?

During the course of your story, your character will make decisions, all in the hope of getting the thing they want. Decisions are always interesting. Some of your character’s decisions may get them closer to their goal. Some of their decisions may be bad decisions that result in setbacks. Still other decisions may be disastrous and backfire, making it impossible for your client to get the thing they want.

Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

— Kurt Vonnegut

I think that, in the most interesting books, the protagonist has both external wants and internal wants. What does your character outwardly want? Is this thing what they really want for themselves, or is it what they think they should want? Is this thing good for them, or is it bad for them? Is it truly their want, or is it what someone else wants for them? Are they going after their own want or trying to please someone?

And internally, at their core, what does your character really want? Internal wants are often, I think, secret wants—wants the protagonist is afraid to share with anyone. Is their outward want something that they think will give them their internal want? Do they think, if they can just attain this external thing, it will give them the internal thing: the love, the respect, the peace of mind they long for? And will that external thing really give them the internal thing?

Ask: What does my character want? For me that is the single most important question to ask when writing a novel. I need my main character to want something very badly, and I need to understand completely and utterly what it is. That’s because this thing, or tangle of things, will become the driving force of the book.

— Sue Monk Kidd

Resolving your character’s desires can help you realize the resolution of your story, too. How will your character’s quest for their desire end? What will happen if your character gets what they want? What will happen if they don’t?

Interesting things happen when, it turns out, the thing your character thinks they want isn’t what they really want. And what if the thing they want is not the thing they need?

The first example that comes to mind is Bridget Jones’s Diary. Bridget thinks she wants bad boy Daniel Cleaver and spends most of her time either pursuing him or feeling unlikeable. And Daniel has an opposing want—the freedom to shag any girl in London. Or in the Americas, for that matter. These opposing wants propel the story along in a humorous fashion. But all along, there is this slow burning undercurrent building for Bridget, someone she doesn’t even know she wants. The readers of the book and the viewers of the film see it long before Bridget does. Bridget thinks she despises Mark Darcy, but she’s fallen in love with him. In the end, Mark Darcy turns out to be the person Bridget wants. But he’s also the person Bridget needs—someone who likes her, very much, just as she is.