No question so focuses the mind of a writer beginning to draft a scene—or the series of scenes that will comprise their story—as what do the characters want. The question instantly begs a slew of others: Why do they want it? Do they themselves know? How? With what degree of clarity, certainty, or honesty? What if they’re mistaken? Worse—what if they’re actively deluding themselves?
Or, as two of my favorite writers put it:
More often than not, people don’t know why they do things. ―William Trevor, “The Room”
She’d gone into real estate, she claimed, because she liked helping people find what they wanted, and she seemed blithely innocent of the fact that most people had no idea what that was, especially the ones who were defiantly confident they did. —Richard Russo, “Intervention”
This of course brings up all manner of murky ruminations about the role of the unconscious in behavior, the influence of denial, the insidious effects of bad faith, the power of persuasion—and barely have we begun than we find ourselves wandering the weeds.
The solution for a great many writers is to simplify by making the character clear about his desires, but making them extremely difficult to achieve. The question is never what the characters want; rather, it’s will they prove capable of obtaining it. This is especially true in stories where the major struggles are exterior, as in mysteries and many adventure stories, or in love stories where the interpersonal element minimizes the self-doubt aspect of the pursuit of the loved one.
In stories where a significant share of the drama plays out in the internal sphere, however, a fog all too often descends. This results from the fact that, absent a need to act or make a decision with real-world consequences, characters—like their creators—all too readily spin their mental and emotional wheels trying to figure what they want, what they should do, and why. This struggle is part of the drama, of course, and can be among the most affecting aspects of the story as long as it doesn’t digress into mental meandering or tedious navel-gazing.
In either event, the trajectory of the character pursuing some ambition, goal, or desire, regardless of how consciously, wisely, or honestly they do so, is what we often refer to as that character’s arc
As a practical matter, many writers (and not a few writing guides), follow a format that has the character at the story’s outset wedded to a wrong idea of what she wants or why, and allowing the struggle of its pursuit awaken the character to the folly of that desire and then discovering what it is they truly want, with the end of the story providing a gauntlet of reveals and reversals as the character now pursues her true desire with clear-eyed resolve.
Is it really that simple? Let’s discuss.