When my daughters were little I used to read all kinds of books and magazines filled with parenting advice, looking for the nugget of wisdom that would help me be the best possible parent. One day, I found it: “Don’t forget to smile at your kids.”
Well, that’s obvious, you think. But it isn’t. In those days I was working full time, raising two toddlers, and helping support my husband through a PhD. I played stuffed animal games while plotting grocery lists in my head, and bustled them into clothes and socks and shoes and coats with determined concentration every morning. But once I took that mandate to heart and began smiling at them more readily, the dynamic in our house shifted. Their faces would light up in response to my smiles, and their happiness made me happy, and it became a virtuous cycle. It remains the single best bit of parenting advice I ever got.
Can writing advice be distilled down to one game-changing essential nugget? I’d say yes: What does this character want? Well, that’s obvious, you think, as obvious as smiling at your kids. But just like that nugget of parenting wisdom, there’s more to it than that. Because what your character wants may conflict with the wants of a host of other characters, for starters. What your character wants may put them at odds with themselves. What your character wants may be not one thing but two things, and those two things may be at odds. And if you can stay focused on all those wants, you will end up with one hell of a story.
So what’s the best way to do that? Here are a few tricks:
Make a mind map with your protagonist’s want at the center of the page. You can divert an entire day or more into reading or watching videos about creating mind maps, and like every bit of writing advice it will work wonders for some and leave others cold. For me, it kept me focused throughout the writing of my third (and most complex) novel with a strong visual that kept my protagonist’s want front and center. My novel was about a woman who desperately wanted a baby, so I glued a large photo of an adorable baby (one of mine) in the center of a big ole piece of poster board. I drew satellites with other characters’ wants, and shoots and leaves that showed how those wants intersected or butted up against each other. I kept that map on the wall of my office for the 18 months I spent writing the novel, and it focused me. It grew and changed as the novel grew, but the want in the center stayed the same, even though at one point the character doubted her own want.
Take the time to think through the wants of every character in your story. Every character needs a reason to be there, a motivation, a purpose. Having a clear understanding of that motivation (or want or desire or goal) will help you see where that fits in with your protagonist’s motivation. Wants that align or conflict will guide you through your story, and will also help you grow your characters. People aren’t static; their desires grow and change. That should happen for your characters, too. Michael Corleone wants to separate himself from his family and their business in The Godfather, but over the course of the novel he comes to want to protect and preserve his family more than anything else, and comes to see his family’s crimes as a necessary evil.
Write an elevator pitch. Take 10 or 20 minutes to write a paragraph telling the story of your novel, laying out the characters, the setting, the motivation, the main conflict. Then, turn on a timer (and either a video or voice recorder) and give yourself 30 seconds to summarize your story without looking at what you wrote. Compare your 30-second speech to the paragraph you originally wrote. Did you distill it down to the essence of what your character wants and what stands in the way?
What is the want driving your story? How do you figure out the wants of all your characters?
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