What If You Aren’t Sure What Your Character Wants?

This entry was posted on Saturday, February 26th, 20112011-02-27T01:52:37Zl, F jS, Y at 5:52 pm2011-02-27T01:52:37Zg:i a

Most writers, when asked what their character wants, say something general like love, power or money. But we need to be much more specific than this in order to establish stakes and to give the character a tangible goal.

If you only know what your characters wants in general terms, that’s actually okay – because you can now ask WHY your main character wants the power, money, fancy car, etc. And in this answer you will find the inner need.

So for example, if your character wants love, we will ask WHY the character wants love. Ah – could be a lot of things, could be that the character was orphaned and never had a nuclear family. Could be the character had an emotionally distant parent. Could be the character never felt as good as his or her older brother.

So we could look at it this way:

General want (love, power, money, success, etc.)
to
Specific want: something external that will give the character the feeling of the general want (new car, better job, to rob the bank, to be homecoming king etc.)
to
Internal need: something painful, emotional and very interior that is the real truth behind the general want.
to
Flaw: the result of not being able to get that specific want because of inner pain
to
Symptoms of the flaw: what the flawed behavior really looks like onscreen

Some examples of the way want, need, goal, flaw and symptoms come together:

In HAROLD AND MAUDE, Harold wants: attention. He needs to appreciate life and feel loved. His goal is to pursue a relationship with Maude in order to fill that need. But he can’t have what he wants (Maud’s attention/relationship to last) until he gets what he needs (appreciation of life) so what was his flaw? Detachment. Harold can’t appreciate life until he falls in love and stops detaching. But when he falls in love he has to learn to also let go. And now he can truly appreciate life.

The symptoms of Harold’s detachment were: Harold’s pallor and dress, his hearse for a car, his death scenarios, his spacey interactions.

In JUNO, Ellen Page’s character wants to live a normal, teenaged life. But she needs to forgive her mother for abandoning her. She can’t get what she wants (normalcy) until she gets what she needs (to forgive). What was Juno’s flaw? Sarcasm and a tough exterior. How does she get what she needs? By dealing with being pregnant and giving the baby to a better home. That becomes her goal, finding the baby a home. When she finally forgives her mother and sees that parents (even the prospective adoptive ones) aren’t perfect, she is able to attain her goal of getting the baby to a good home, and her want – of a normal, teenaged life. But she is changed.

The symptoms of Juno’s flaw of sarcasm and irony were: her super-articulate chatter and eye-rolling, sarcastic take on everything, her ironic clothing, her campy belongings.

What does your character want? What do they need?


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