Writing A Character With A Strong Motivation And Desire, by Jane Kirkpatrick
The word character comes from a Greek word that carries meanings of engraving or to chisel. The word suggests that it’s what’s left after we’ve been gouged out that is our enduring character. That’s true of our fictional characters as well. They need to be gouged out but in ways that are believable and congruent for the reader. Such engraving depends on the barriers a character faces and how they overcome them.
I discover those barriers by first performing a motivational exploration of my character. What is their desire? What do they want in this story? Why are they here to share their lives with readers? A character has to want something badly. I write down as much as I can about what I think that character might want, hoping to come up with one main desire that motivates action.
Characteristics are secondary to me. Many of us remember Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. We remember her little 18 inch waist (characteristic) or the way she said “Fiddle dee dee” and flipped her hair with her hand (characteristic). The reason she is memorable is not because of her unique descriptors but because the most important desire in her life was to save the plantation. Everything that happened to her after that was a barrier to her desire. She had other desires along the way but always the driving force was her desire to save the plantation. If only Rhett Butler had paid the taxes when she asked she wouldn’t have stalked her brother-in-law or…well, the rest is history – and fiction.
Maybe my character doesn’t even know for certain what he wants. However, as the author, I need to know what he wants. Author Angie Hunt says to think of characters as having “one internal and one external desire”. I like that. It’s useful to think of something tangible that the character can hold or reach that is a symbol of their desire that will be accomplished at the end of the story. That way the reader can cheer along with the character when they’ve achieved their goal. Awakening the Heroes Within by Carolyn Pearson and A Writer’s Guide to Fiction by Elizabeth Lyons are both great sources to explore the desires of characters with lists included of well-known novels and what those characters desired.
Then I have to imagine various barriers that will get in the way of that character’s desire. I have to give them trouble, asking questions such as: What would the character lie about in order to achieve their desire? What do they most fear? Who would be the most helpful to them? Why might they resist that help? How can the worst thing that just happened to my character be turned into the best thing that happened? The questions will help move the narrative but also deepen the characterization of the protagonist.
In my book A Mending at the Edge, Emma, who was part of a communal society in the American west in the 1860s, wanted a home of her own in which to raise her children. Houses were allocated based on the leader’s preferences and Emma had never endeared herself to the colony leader. She did get what she wanted but there were obstacles and, along the way, she discovered she really didn’t so much need or want her own house as much as she wanted her family to be reunited – whether in her own house or in another. The house was the external desire; her internal desire was to feel as though she belonged to a family. The challenges she faced helped chisel out her desires. She had to change to achieve them, experiencing grief and trouble, but she triumphed in the end.
A metaphor will often arise as I’m writing that can also help the reader experience the trials and triumphs of the character. Those metaphors can’t be forced; they just seem to come out of the writing, and my comfort with the character and the storyline. They’re very useful in deepening the emotional connection with readers and are very helpful to guide revisions. The word metaphor also comes from the Greek and it means to change or transform. The purpose of fiction, I think, is ultimately to move people, to get them to consider new ideas and feel deeply about something, maybe even to take action at some later time. I love it when people tell me they’ve read one of my books and then they’ve planned a trip to go to the places of the story and “walk where Emma walked” or where “Marie once lived”. That tells me that the character became real for them and hopefully offered the reader something to consider about their own personality too.
Considering our own desires is always a good use of a novelist’s time. One of my favorite proverbs says Desire realized is a sweetness to the soul. Madeline L’Engle once wrote that we are named by the choices we make, so if we want stronger characters we need to name their desires and the barriers that will define them.
Jane Kirkpatrick’s author website: www.jkbooks.com
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