I am embarrassed to admit that, eight years and countless drafts into writing my first novel, I have finally come to truly understand a piece of writing advice I have heard so many times I can’t even count: Make your characters want something.
Seriously? I’m just learning this? I have to admit it’s true, but I also 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. I worked with that for years, and only just realized why it doesn’t work.
When Your 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 this last draft of my novel, I decided to make my main character want something. Specifically, I decided that she wants to be a forest ranger. The biggest result? My first chapters are singing along like never before.
The sentences are la-la-la-ing all along those first fifty pages now, 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 has.
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 helped me to finally commit to her desires too.
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. Be it a high-powered career in finance or chocolate fudge. Just choose a path, any path, and start down it.