What the main character wants

by Suzanne A

Question: I love writing characters and settings, the intricate details are what I get tied up in. I have started several novels with a situation in mind or a cool character. I am not someone who works or thinks in a linear fashion and I tend to work sort of erratically. At work I get the job done thoroughly but with writing I get myself into trouble.I will write a lot of scenes but then don't really know how they fit together.

Someone has suggested that i need to know what my character wants more than anything and then to put obstacles in her way. I have read this advice before but and it makes a lot of sense but whenever i try to give them a goal it seems artificial. I think my main characters tend to be less achievers, less motivated, not go-getters by any means. I am wondering how you give a goal to someone who isn't goal oriented? I think there are plenty of people like this in life but does this mean they don't belong in fiction? Or do i need an objective that is less like a goal? more like morality or some other guiding principle?

I've been struggling with this for a while and will continue to try an puzzle it out. Maybe it's one of those "I'll know it when i see it situations" but if anyone has already done the legwork and is willing to share it would be much appreciated.

Answer: Here are some possibilities...

1. Your main character does not always have to be the protagonist. The protagonist will be the person pursing the Story Goal, but your main character could be someone else, someone who is struggling with an inner conflict about how they should act/be. Their decision, how they resolve that conflict at the climax may be what determines the story outcome, but the Story Goal may not be their focus.

2. Some main characters become willingly involved in the story. Others participate only reluctantly. For instance, if your main character is a be-er, she will be uncomfortable in an action story. A be-er tries to solve problems by changing herself, by adapting to her situation, and is more at home in a deliberation and decision story. That doesn't mean she can't work in an action story, just that she will have to fight against her own nature.

3. There are different types of story problems, and not all of them are about superficial things like obtaining or winning. Think about what would satisfy the majority of characters in your story. Maybe they all want validation, love, or fulfillment. Or maybe they need to change their situation, get a new attitude, find their purpose, discover the truth, etc. They don't all have to pursue the same thing exact thing, but the same type of thing may be important to them.

4. Remember too that not all goals are achieved. Sometimes a main character can learn from failure, and sometimes failure can turn out to be a good thing.

Finally, there's nothing wrong with writing a lot of scenes first and later working out the structure of your story in the revision process. However, it is important to have a structure. Think of a story as one big change in the main character's life. The change can be internal as much as external. It will start somewhere, experience pressures that lead to a pivotal moment of decision or action, and end with the person in a different place.

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