Advice · News · Writing

What Characters Want

First, per the norm, some news before we get into today’s article. I finished up the edit/polish for The Rhyme of the Golden Aegis yesterday for the upcoming “The Lexicon Calopa” collection. You might have also noticed that it, The Fahlworth Papers, and Tuning the Orchestra are all conspicuously absent from my Ebook and print book shop. Por que?

Simple reason: I really want The Lexicon Calopa to be the benchmark introduction for new readers into the steampunk-and-magic world of Calopa, and I want it to be the best version of those stories. For old fans, there’s new things to find beyond just the new maps I’ll be illustrating. Trust me. I didn’t leave you hanging.

Also, one addendum to a previous announcement: I’ll be putting together the recording and video for my take on Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” NEXT week, instead. I wanted to shift things around a bit to make this week’s schedule a little less Oh-God-I-Have-To-Do-All-The-Things ™. I’ll let you know when it’s live. But for now, tuck in, and let’s get on with today’s offering.


What do you want? Right now. What are you after? Take your time, I’m hourly.

See, that’s a fairly simple question to answer in the moment. At least, for most of us. I grant that the pop quiz might be taken at existential face value, and that some of you might already be curled up into the fetal position with haunted eyes unblinking in a thousand yard stare as you come to grips with the deepest desires of your soul.

tumblr_lfp9x7klKz1qfcbfro1_500.gifPictured: Wednesday.

Me? I want more coffee. I’m a simple creature. My point is that, by and large, we can answer that question in a hurry.

And that is something, I think, that you should consider more when it comes to your characters in the script, or in the prose. Simply put, that’s the question you should be able to answer about your characters in any scene, any act, any chapter, and in the entirety of the story.

Yes. All of them.

Why? Simple. Mathematics.

Okay, yeah. I can hear the internal hamster wheel squeaking to a full stop from here. But honestly, it’s about simple mathematics. Follow along.

math-formula-chalkboard.jpgOkay. Not like that. This hurts my soul parts.

At all times, you want to be doing not only what’s best for your story when it comes to your writing choices, but also be focused upon the myriad aspects that drive that story forward. A stalled out story is worse than a stalled-out vehicle. At least with the vehicle you’ve the option to wax game show, and phone-a-friend for a lift to your destination. With a story, you’re pretty much alone in the wilderness, so you had best figure out ways to keep that engine running smoothly. Before the banjos start.

Get out of there, you fool!

A great tool for that is simply knowing what your characters desire at any given moment. Desire, particularly desires at cross-purposes, create Conflict. Capital C. Conflict creates rising tension. Say it with me now, brothers and sisters! Conflict, in turn, requires resolution to satisfy that tension. So, let’s say that equation looks like this:

(Conflict + Resolution) = (Rising Tension + Release.)

That simple formula forms the backbone for entire acts, arcs, chapters, and narratives. Rising Tension, released Tension. Conflict introduction, conflict resolution. And what your characters want at any given point fuels either side of the equals sign to keep your engine humming along from point A to point B.

And your characters have wants and needs. Or, they should, unless you want them to fail as characters in the first place. And those desires will not always coincide, even with characters that are actively allied with one another. They can’t possibly. Unless you’re writing about a hive mind—which, sure, I like the Borg as much as any other geek—but I’d argue at that point that your hive mind is a single character unto itself with it’s own motivations, desires, and goals.


I am Xero of Borg. Decaf is futile. The coffee will be assimilated.

And the reason that’s crucial is because it gives a character the one defining trait that turns it from a concept and into a fully understandable, if not always relatable, personality: AGENCY. Yeah, you’re pulling all of the strings, so said agency is totally an illusion, but that’s besides the point. Save the semantics for philosophy.

The whole crux of conflict is any character desires that meet at cross purposes. The teen wants to go to the concert, but her mother won’t let her. What? You think all conflict is epic battling? Alas, it is not. But that’s actually good news for you. Because that conflict, that pitting of wants and needs against each other, no matter how grand or mundane, fleshes out the characters involved.

It opens the way for that rising tension (Will character X get what they want in this scene/chapter/act/story?) and gives you the platform for resolving it to reset things before you ramp up again. (Character X did/didn’t get what they wanted, but along comes . . .)

So. Let’s review on that. Desire = Agency, and it follows that Agency = Better personality/character. Now, let’s plug that in, with the end goal being driving the story forward. We’ll just call it Momentum for simplicity:

(Conflicts + Agency) (Tension + Resolution) = Momentum

pslmwShut it, Boromir. You failed Archery class.

I’m sure I’ll catch hell from my more mathematically minded friends that will find flaws in the proof, but this isn’t calculus. What I’m showing you here is that the answer to a lot of your story snags, writer’s blocks, or stalls in the narrative can be answered simply by knowing that formula.

If you can answer the question “what does this character want?” at any given moment, you can drive them forward. Inevitably, they’re going to meet opposition to that desire, be it internal or external. BOOM. You’ve got conflict, and that conflict has to be resolved. That resolution brings you to the next point, and so on and so forth until the story is done, and you’ve answered the big question about the entire tale: “Will the protagonist win?”

Simple math.

So. What do your characters want? Right now. What are they after? Take your time. I love a good story.

That’s all from me for now. I’m still in the thick of editing, so no Writober piece. I’d love to see what some of you folks have turned out, though! Show off your stuff in the comments below.
Until next time, Horns Up.


Want to help keep this content flowing? Consider supporting my Patreon! You get stuff, and I get to keep eating. Win-win.


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