One of the great pleasures in fiction is coming across characters who are focused, determined, and know exactly what they want in life, and if you’re a writer, you’ve probably looked into creating such a character yourself. Like most writers, you’ve probably read about how you’re supposed to ask what your characters want to learn more about who they are. While it’s sound, timeless advice, there’s a deeper, more meaningful aspect to it that’s rarely discussed.
First, though let’s take a look at some famous villains and what they want:
1. Sauron wants to conquer Middle-Earth, and he has the strength, the military might, and the intelligence to pull it off; all he needs is his ring, and he will stop at nothing to retrieve it.
2. The Deacon from Waterworld wants to find and pillage Dryland, and he never gives up, no matter what obstacles are in his way, including the incompetence of his underlings.
3. Disney wants to buy every corporation, media franchise, and nation on Earth, and they won’t let pesky things like laws, common sense, or an outraged public stop them.
Now, let’s look at some famous heroes and what they want:
1. Gandalf will stop at nothing to prevent Sauron from taking over Middle-Earth, but while he puts his allies and assets in harms way, he doesn’t hesitate to put himself in harm’s way as well.
2. Luke Skywalker will redeem his father from the Dark Side and refuses to give up, no matter the odds, even when he has to turn himself over to the Empire and stand before the most powerful and evil being in the galaxy.
3. Jack Dawson may be a scrappy beggar with nothing to his name but the clothes on his back and sketches of naked French prostitutes, but he’s not going to let anything get in his way from saving Rose aboard the Titanic.
All these heroes and villains have simple, identifiable goals, but have you noticed that there’s a common thread among them?
None of them will take ‘no’ for an answer.
This is the deeper meaning behind ‘what do your characters want?’ What do they want so badly that they will refuse to give up, no matter the odds, no matter how many people say, ‘no, you can’t do that,’ or even if they lose everything dear to them? Combine this determination with the classic advice and we get a new, richer version:
‘What do your characters want so much that they won’t take ‘no’ for an answer?’
Answer this question and you’re already halfway there to creating a determined, focused character. Even better, combining an antagonist who refuses to accept ‘no,’ and a protagonist who refuses to accept ‘no,’ results in guaranteed conflict, the lifeblood of any story. Better yet, make both sides morally ambiguous and the conflict becomes even richer:
1. A soldier has to maintain a quarantine on a city infected with zombies and knows that if any break out, his family will eventually be attacked and turned into zombies themselves. But while guarding a vulnerable section of a wall, a desperate survivor with her little boy comes up to escape. Problem is, her boy has been bitten and will inevitably turn and spread the virus. Her mother is aware of this, but is determined to find a cure and is willing to kill to get her son out of the city.
2. Two battlefleets sail towards each other: one is from an empire that is on the verge of total victory in the galaxy, and only needs to conquer one last planet to obtain complete control over the galaxy so they can use every world’s resources to build a fleet to combat an even bigger, more dangerous alien fleet that’s heading their way. But the fleet from the last planet will stop at nothing to protect their people from a lifetime of slavery, even if it means deploying planet-destroying weapons and wiping themselves out to defeat their enemies.
3. A terrorist organization sneaks into a city to plant a nuclear bomb and blow it up to kill an evil and corrupt president and his cabinet who have turned their once-democratic country into a third-world dictatorship; wipe them all out with one bomb, and the country has a chance to recover. The city’s police officers – who have dedicated themselves to protecting the innocent – set out to stop the terrorists no matter what the cost, even if some innocents are caught in the crossfire.
It’s easy to come up with ‘my character wants to save the world/get rich/win the baking competition/stop the Disney corporation from taking over the world,’ motivations when developing our characters, but if we take the time to ask what they want so badly that they will sacrifice everything to get, we will get to know them better, and make them even more compelling for our audiences to follow.