What Is Your Character’s Deepest Desire?

Maybe you’ve heard this canard tossed about in writing conferences or on writing blogs: your protagonist has to want something.

So, what the heck does that mean? Isn’t it enough, you might think, to just tell the story?

Well, technically. That’s the bare bones of the beast. But to really make your fiction pop, your protagonist needs a compelling goal that will keep readers turning pages to see how he or she is going to achieve such a seemingly impossible task.

Think about some of your favorite and most riveting novels. The ones that kept you up past your bedtime, while you read another chapter and another chapter and another chapter. The protagonist probably wants something desperately, deeply, and so badly that he or she would be willing to sacrifice anything up to and including his or her life.

For example, in Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, one of the protagonists, Miss Skeeter, desperately wants to tell the stories of the African-American women who work as maids in the racially-charged environment of 1960s Mississippi, where the consequences of telling these stories could mean getting the maids fired or imprisoned. She wants this so badly that she turns her back on societal expectations of a white woman in that time and place and finds herself ostracized by her former friends. But she still does it. And we keep reading because we want her to achieve that goal.

For the two young Afghani women at the center of Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, their desire is to stay alive in their war-torn country under the thumb of various oppressive and violent regimes. As readers, we’ve developed sympathy for them and pull for them to succeed.

This overarching desire doesn’t always require bigger-than-big heroic action. It could be quieter, but still as compelling. The protagonist of Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist just wants to get on with his life after losing his son in a random shooting. The nonagenarian nursing home resident of Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants just wants to tell the story of his amazing life with the circus.

What about your protagonist? Is it an old score he wants to settle? An unmet desire?  Curiosity about the path not taken, when she meets an old friend who took it? (This is basically both protagonists’ desires in the film, The Turning Point. Excellent rental, by the way.) Or is your hero in danger and looking to escape? If you’re writing literary fiction or something with a more character-driven plot, see what drives your character. This should give you some hints about what’s important, what’s worth leaving the comfort of his or her daily existence for, and maybe, what’s worth risking everything for.

Still have no idea what your protagonist wants? Sometimes, all you have to do is ask. Try this writing exercise that’s really worked for me. Get into a quiet place, where you won’t be disturbed. Take a few deep breaths, and imagine that your protagonist is sitting right next to you. Fill in as much detail as you can in your mind, down to what he or she is wearing, and even the subtle gestures this character makes. Then do a little interview. Ask your protagonist what he or she wants. Be patient and pay attention. What you learn might surprise you.

What are some of your favorite protagonists from the novels you’ve read? What moves them? What do they want? What keeps you turning the page?

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