I am embarrassed to admit that, eight years and countless drafts into writing my first novel, I finally came to truly understand a piece of writing advice I had heard countless times: Make your characters want something.
Seriously, I thought? I’m just learning this, after all this time? But in my own defense, I feel the need to explain that for years I thought I WAS making my main character want something. She wanted to NOT be her mom. Turns out, that’s not enough.
When Characters Refrain
What I’ve come to understand is that not wanting something actually leaves a vacuum, giving a character little to motivate them. Likewise, it gives the reader nothing to root for, nothing to care about as they embark on the story with that character. There is no story in not wanting something.
Leaning on the lack of something is a tick in my writing that I’ve come to recognize more and more lately, something I am getting better at correcting.
For instance (and I’m just making this up, it’s not actually in my story), say someone pounds on the front door. I used to write something like: nobody moved. While factually accurate, the wording of “nobody moved” leaves a big question mark. What did they do? Did they look at each other? Did they turn pale with fear? Did the room go silent except for the water boiling in a pot on the stove?
See how that lack of something just isn’t very compelling?
When Characters Want Something
In the last draft of my novel, I decided to make my main character want something. Specifically, I decided that she wanted to be a forest ranger. And guess what. My first chapters started singing along like never before.
The sentences were la-la-la-ing through those first fifty pages, where they used to lag for *some reason* I couldn’t pin down. It was such a simple shift. I honestly hadn’t thought it would change the story much at all, but it did.
And why a forest ranger? Because that’s who she is. I know her a lot better than I did back when I started writing this story. No doubt that also helped me to finally commit to her desires.
So if you’re struggling with a story, or if your beta readers are telling you it lags a bit in parts, ask yourself – what does your character want? And then choose something. Anything. Maybe your main character is after a high-powered career in finance, or they’re a kid longing for chocolate fudge, or a dog yearning for a bone. Make them want something.