What does your character want? Desire drives a story. Yearning creates propulsion. But how to you find/create/discover your character’s desire? These seven authors give us their strategies for engaging with their characters’ desires in ways that make their stories richer and keep readers turning pages.
Read on for advice from picture book, chapter book, middle grade, and YA writers. Share your favorite tips on Twitter or Instagram (@kidlitcraft #kidlitcraft #craftingcharacters), or Facebook (www.facebook.com/kidlitcraft).
Character + Plot = Desire
I think finding your character’s desire is a little bit of a back and forth with getting to know their character and the concept/plot of your story. It’s all a puzzle with pieces that have to fit together! For Layla and the Bots, I knew that they were going to save the day with their awesome inventions. So core to Layla’s character, she needed to be the sort of girl who wants to help people and who has strong confidence and drive. I found that when I amplified those traits to the extreme, the stories started to form. Layla wants to help people so much that she offers to help without even knowing how she’s going to do it—or if she can do it! By creating tension between your character’s desire and their personality, you immediately start to have a story.
DESIRE and motivation
A: I ask what my character wants most of all, and what will happen if they don’t get it. That really helps me know what motivates them, and what leads to their (sometimes dubious!) decisions.
Digging to Find the Hidden Desire
I’m struck by how often we bury our core desires, even—maybe even especially–from ourselves. It’s no different for our characters. As we start to uncover what they truly want, it can be all too tempting to narrow in on what comes up first. Running with that often superficial longing often obscures what’s hiding beneath it. With that in mind, I wonder where (and with who!) my character feels safest sharing their deepest, darkest hopes: a diary under lock and key? A letter in a bottle? A birthday wish? A conversation with a trusted friend? Then I go about the exercise of writing, or simply dreaming about, what that communication might look like.
It can take a long time getting to know my character before I discover what they want most in the world, but the best way I’ve found is to have the character journal or draw their “desire.” This immediately gives them control, and I can then see what they’re waffling about or trying to avoid. This does double-duty because it’s also when I learn their greatest fear–these two things are almost always connected.
I try to start with the character’s passions. What are they passionate about? Are they able to pursue that passion? If not, why? I often find out a lot when I explore what they want on the surface. From there, I dig into their past to get a better sense of the narrative arc. I like to use Lisa Cron’s Story Genius exercises for this, exploring what misbelief the character enters the story believing and where that misbelief comes from. I find digging into the character’s past is the best way to figure out what they enter the story feeling and thinking, which naturally leads to what they want and the barriers in place to getting what they want.
—Denise Santomauro, her essay “A Jeans-Wearing Dreamer” was published in the Dear Sister anthology.
Kind of like how your best friends often know what you want/need before you do yourself, my writer buddies seem to know what my character’s desire is before I do. It’s there; I just haven’t seized on it yet. So in that sense, workshops are important to me. And spitballing is very important. I completely reject this idea that writers shouldn’t give other writers ideas or help them solve their plot problems. I understand that some writers need to figure out every problem by themselves, but that is not me. I want other writers to jump into the creative space with me and get eyeballs deep with my story.
How Characters React to Environment
First, I ask my characters a lot of questions and try to have lots of conversations (writing out dialogues) between the character and myself, or between the main character and a secondary character.
In my favorite exercise from Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, I retell a critical scene or scenes from my work-in-progress from a range of points-of-view and styles. Doing that has often led to deep insights and discoveries about my character’s desire.
Finally, I learned from author Kekla Magoon to observe how my characters react with the environment I place them in–paying attention to what they notice and why, and how they feel about it.
Of course nothing is static. Character desires change. And they are often contradictory. Bottom line–I try to land at what’s true. I try to get at the hidden reason driving character behavior, what is really at stake. And when my gut says “yes,” I’m there.
—Aileen Johnson, her YA short story “Multiply By One” was published in the inaugural issue of the literary horror/dystopian zine The Quiet Ones
Anne-Marie Strohman (co-editor) writes picture books, middle grade novels, and young adult short stories and novels. She is trained as a teacher, an editor, and a scholar, specializing in Renaissance Literature. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is an active member of SCBWI. Find her at amstrohman.com and on Twitter @amstrwriter.