It's one of the most common pieces of writing advice: Know what every character wants in a scene. But what if your characters are just apathetic?
It could happen. I mean, in real life, most of the time, people want something kind of boring, that barely qualifies as a "want." You want to get your work over with so you can go home. You want to eat dinner. Maybe you want to watch that new zombie movie. Or maybe you just want to go to sleep so you can get up and go to work again.
Sure, those things are "wants" – but they're not going to drive a story forward. And they're going to be difficult to foreground. So how do you make sure your characters want things, so your readers will want to keep turning pages?
It's not as simple as it may seem at first — some stories move forward in spite of what the main characters want, while others only move forward because the main characters desperately want/need something and that causes things to happen. But both types of stories still require your characters to have desires of their own — or you risk winding up with passive nonentities who just drift through the story having terrible things happen to them.
Plus, the difference between fiction and real life is that people have a lower threshold for boredom in fiction. Often you sometimes have to compress and simplify events in fiction, so that all the interesting stuff happens at the same time. In other words, if your character has ever nurtured a fierce longing in his/her life, it's best for that desire to be erupting at the same time as all the other interesting stuff in that character's world.
So here are some tips on making sure your characters have compelling needs, whether temporary or long-simmering:
Rethink your characters
Especially if your story is large and crazy, you're going to want to have characters who stand out. There's no simple formula to creating memorable characters that people obsess about — if there were, novelists and Hollywood screenwriters would be way better off — but motivation is undoubtedly a huge part of it.
And as a rule of thumb, the larger the desires, the larger the characters. Characters whose goals are small are probably going to be tiny characters, no matter how cool their clothes or mannerisms are. (I'm sure we can all think of exceptions to this rule, but it's definitely true a lot of the time.)
So maybe you need to think about your characters in general — if you don't know what motivates them, then you may to go back to basics, and think about where they came from and what experiences shaped them as people. Maybe their backstory needs some defining moments that still drive them today, or maybe they need a new obsession. The deeper you can plant the roots of their craving, the more epic their story will probably feel.
Bottom line: If you don't know what a character wants, then you haven't really gotten inside that character, whether minor or major. You can tell me eye color, favorite liquor, favorite music — but not what gets this person out of bed in the morning. Or better yet, in the middle of the night. What's his or her unfinished business? Tell me that, and you're halfway to making me follow this person to the ends of the universe.
Rethink your plot
If your plot can work with characters who are basically apathetic, then your plot probably needs some work. Sure, there are plenty of stories where stuff happens to the characters, and it's still compelling and exciting. As we said earlier, you can definitely have a plot that unfolds in spite of what the protagonist wants. But the best plots still interact with your protagonist's desires, and that of other characters.
Even if your protagonist's wants don't drive the story, your antagonist's goals might. And your hero is still going to be making choices in the context of the story — choices that will be driven by your hero's needs.
We can all think of great stories that are just about people confronting impassive natural phenomena, or unknowable cosmic entities. Or people serving as the tools of fate. But at the same time, a lot of great stories, if not most great stories, come from conflict — one person wants one thing, another person wants something else. Not everybody can get what they want.
"There can be only one" is generally a better formula for a story than "there can be a bunch of us, and none of us cares especially one way or the other."
If the plot happens in spite of your characters' desires, that makes those desires more important.
Not less important. More.
Suppose your story is about a guy who really wants to bury an urn containing his mother's
ashes, but aliens keep invading and unleashing giant spiders everywhere. Obviously, fighting the aliens and destroying the spiders is a lot more important than burying the ashes — the mom is already dead, there's no point in the hero dying too.
But even though the main character's desire to get his mom's ashes to the burial spot does not drive the story forward, that doesn't mean it doesn't matter to him. The aliens are keeping him from doing the thing he wants to do, and he can't get closure as a result. (Or maybe instead of wanting to bury his mother's remains, he wants to be reunited with a loved one who's still alive. Or maybe he has a sick pet that he desperately wants to take to a veterinarian.)
To the world at large, the alien invasion is much more important than the hero's personal wants — but to the hero, his unfinished business still looms large. As usual, I suck at coming up with examples, but you get the idea.
Wants don't have to be simple or easy to pin down.
A lot of us have complicated, tangled desires instead of simple driving urges. In fact, the more realistic your characters are, the less monomaniacal their wants are likely to be most of the time. Mixed feelings, conflicting desires, and somewhat neurotic drives are all part of being human.
Your main character may want an abstraction, like "redemption." Or "revenge." Or "my father's approval." It could be something that's impossible, like the approval of a father who happens to be dead. Or maybe your main character wants something that he/she won't admit to wanting — even to him/herself. Sometimes a desire is just like an itch in a place the character can't reach, or a nagging pain that they can't cope with.
Also, people don't always know what they want — until they can't have it. And the harder something is to get, the more aware of needing it people are likely to become.
Plus, people's wants can evolve over the course of the story. Either your characters' desires might change, or they might develop and get either clearer or more muddled.
Finally, watching people not get what they want is usually more interesting. Even at the end of your story. People who get what they want are jerks, and we can't identify with them because we hardly ever get what we want in real life. So if it comes down to a choice between letting your main character achieve his/her fondest desire and yanking it away — it's always better to leave the character wanting more.
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