What do your characters want? (writing exercise #13)

As with a couple other writing exercises we’ve done, this one does not create a new story, but is working with one you already have.

Typically I use my novel that has been in the works for a long time now, but recently I have taken a much needed break from that and am concentrating on short stories.

I’m currently working on a scary short story (I like to do them around Halloween time) and I’ve also been revisiting my novella to submit somewhere – it’s my novella I’ll use for this one.

Characters want something – this is a fundamental fact of fiction. If they don’t, they’re probably nothing more than a prop.

Behind the more specific wants – I want to dump my boyfriend and get out of this dead end relationship – are the more general, abstract wants that most folks can identify with: love, individuality, security, etc.

Page 42 in the book.

“Wants in fiction aren’t always straightforward things, just as people’s motives are seldom unmixed. The more complicated and unsuspected – both to her and to us – are a protagonist’s aims, the more interesting that character will be and the more interesting will be the unfolding of her story.

“The exercise: Look at the stories you’ve already written and ask:

  • What does the central character want?
  • What are her motives for wanting this?
  • Where in the story is this made clear to the reader?
  • How do we learn what the central character wants? Dialogue? Actions? Interior thinking?
  • What or who stands in the way of her achieving it?
  • What does that desire set in motion?

“If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you don’t know your character and her desires as well as you should. Aristotle said, ‘Man is his desire.’ What your central characters desire will inform the situations and ultimately the elements of the plots in which they are involved.

“The objective: To understand how your central character’s desires shape her life. To see characterization as more than a description and voice and mannerisms.”

Assuming that y’all haven’t had a chance to read Sisterly Affairs yet, let me give you the plot synopsis so you can follow along with the exercise:

It’s about a twenty-three-year-old agoraphobic woman – Alina – who gets dumped by her cheating boyfriend. She’s been with him for several years, and being agoraphobic, she hasn’t left their apartment in a very long time. Now, she’s on her own, and she reaches out to her estranged half sister, Trina.

Alina and Trina are estranged because of their family background. Their father, Terry, was married to Trina’s mother, and had Trina. He then cheated on his wife with another woman, and the affair produced Alina. Trina’s mother, in a jealous rage, shot and killed Alina’s mother. Now, Alina’s mother is dead, Trina’s mother is in jail, and their father is racked with guilt for the rest of his life.

  • My central character wants more than anything to be normal. She thinks she wants to be in love and be with Cooper, her ex boyfriend, but he was only a crutch. She thinks she wants to stay at home and be in her safe bubble, but what she truly wants is to want to be outside, to get a normal job, participate in normal situations, and generally be a normal person. She is not as fulfilled as she thinks she is staying at home all the time.
  • Alina’s motives for wanting to be normal are partially to fulfill herself so she can be happy, but it’s also so she can stop burdening her loved ones. She knows that her father, half sister, and (now ex) boyfriend have a difficult time dealing with her and her strange needs, and she wishes she could be independent of them so they can all be their own persons.
  • This want of Alina’s is made clear in the story during the 4th “chapter.” Alina is driving with all of her belongings from her old apartment with the ex to Trina’s place. She experiences a panic attack after witnessing a near car accident. The section ends with: “Why does driving anywhere always feel like it’s the end of the world to me? What is wrong with me? Why can’t I just be normal, for heavens sake?” Her inability to drive mirrors Alina’s inability to be normal at anything in life.
  • We learn what the central character wants by internal thinking coupled with flashbacks to the past. Just about every other section in the story goes back 17 years, then 4 years, etc. The reader is able to glimpse Alina’s childhood, before the agoraphobic days.
  • Alina’s disease stands in the way of her achieving the normalcy she desires – this is in part because she isn’t really being medically treated the way that she should be. If we were to say another character is in her way, I would go with Cooper, the ex. Cooper wants to be Alina’s night in shining armor, he wants to be the one to “save” her and make her normal, but he only stands in her way. Despite his good intentions, and the love between the two of them, Alina’s condition has continued to get worse as their relationship progressed. This led to Cooper pulling away, cheating on her, and ultimately realizing he has to break up with her if she has any hope of growing as a person; he wants to help her but he only pulls her down.
  • The desire that Alina has to be normal sets in motion her going out of her comfort zone in order to achieve her goal. She drives when she absolutely has to. She is talked into going into a neighbor’s apartment to have a drink when they ran into each other in the laundry room. If Alina didn’t have that desire to be normal she would only continue to regress, being alone in her own apartment.

I’m pretty happy with my answers there except for the last one. I would like to give some more thought to what Alina’s desire to be normal sets into motion. Could it be argued that her desire to be normal is what – ironically – pushes Cooper away, into the arms of another woman? Perhaps.