Long time ago, I read an advice on writing that said basically, "Create well-developed characters, then just watch what they do." For years after, I created complex characters with deep backgrounds who stood around looking Interesting and never *did* anything.
Then a Writelab exercise required me to write a scene in which two characters were after opposing things, and *voom*, suddenly a whole set of my favorite old characters were moving and speaking on their own.
"AHA!" I said. "Now I've got it!" Well, it turned out to be a little more difficult in practice than in theory, which is why I thought it would be a useful thing to practice here.
No pain, no gain
One of the difficulties I have in writing conflicts is that I would rather solve conflicts than create them. Once I have imagined a character I can care about, I really don't want to sic an opposition on them. I want them to go straight for their heart's desire and get it. And I have always hated watching villains thrash around in psychological torment causing misery for everyone around them, or being stubbornly stupid and shamed for it in the end. I want to heal them. Instantly. In the first act.
But that's a wish-fulfillment daydream, not a story. One thing that a story can do is to help us confront part of our reality and find some emotional resolution with it. In reality, even walking across the room for ice cream takes effort, and there are usually obstacles in the way, like having to wash a bowl and spoon first. Humans are complex, and if you get any three of them together they are likely to want five opposing goals, at least.
All of my favorite writers put their characters through the wringer. They don't dream up Evil Emperors of the Galaxy to sic on them -- they describe life. Then deal with it.RL's Dream by Walter Mosley
"Tell me something?" Kiki asked.
The social worker's lips twisted so she could barely ask, "What?"
"What would you do with him now, even if he wanted to go with you?"
"I'd take him to the shelter tonight and the hospital tomorrow. Mr. Wise is a sick man."
"You waited until he couldn't even talk to decide he's sick?"
"There are a lot of people at the shelter, Miss, um ... Sometimes it takes a little longer than we'd like."
"Well, he's with me now."
"If you don't let me speak to Mr. Wise, I will have to get the police."
"You can come in, but that's all. Just ask him if he wants to stay and then get your butt away from us."
Soupspoon was tilted over to the left side in his chair. He gaped at the women. His face, handsome at one time, was shrunken with deep furrows where his cheeks sagged and caved in from lost molars, His lower eyelids hung open, exposing their gleaming red membranes.
"Mr. Wise?" Miss Tatum asked.
Soupspoon's mouth opened and closed as he nodded.
"I've come to take you back home to the shelter."
The jaw swung loosely on its hinges when he shook his head.
Strong opposition motive
You are writing about Joanna, whose goal is to refurbish the 1985 Camaro she bought in a junk yard and turn it into a classic show car. Family, neighbors and surly clerks all give her a hard time. Why? Because they are mean and ornery and they want to -- and because Joanna has to have *some* opposition, or you haven't got a story.
It would be a more interesting story, though, if the person or persons giving Joanna a hard time had a more detailed motivation than sheer human orneriness. Perhaps Joanna's mother's first boyfriend died in a hotrod he'd worked on himself. Maybe her father feels so guilty over having married his dead friend's girl he can't think straight about cars. Resolving all of that would be more dramatic than even trying to get a needed engine part that your parents won't give you the money for and the autoparts clerk swears doesn't exist.
Revealing the motive
Realistically, the autoparts clerk is probably not going to look Joanna in the eye the first time he meets her and say, "I am so utterly insecure that I feel like my testicles are going to fall off at any moment, I can just about tell the difference between a carburetor and a muffler, you scare me to death and I hate you for it, so I'm going to make it impossible for you to buy so much as a wing-nut." It's unlikely he's that honest even with himself.
In real life, people have the motives they claim in public, the motives they feel inside, and the deeper drives that underly those, that they often aren't consciously aware of. And in a story, you have to show all that without telling it.
Your main character's real motive
What is your main character *really* after?
A useful goal-setting exercise is to ask youself, "What do I want that *for*?" until you reach the answer, "Because." For example:"I want a Bachelor's degree."
"Why? What do you want it for?"
"So that I can get a job."
"So that I can earn some money."
"So that I'll be secure."
"Because I want to be secure!"
The real goal here is security. Once you know that, you aren't locked in to just one way to get it. You may still go after your degree and job, but you can look for other ways to enhance your security too."I want a Bachelor's degree."
"Why? What do you want it for?"
"So that I can get a job in Landscape Design."
"Because I love working with plants and making beautiful designs with them."
"Because I do!"
But maybe if the road to Landscape Designer is blocked, you can find another way to work with plants and make beautiful designs with them.
In the same way, knowing your main character's *real* goal will help you create more plot twists and opportunities for her.
FoundationYou may not choose to do this for critique, but it may be useful for you personallly. Practice developing your character's goals and motivations by studying your own life.
1) Spot the GoalSit down with a large pad of paper. At the top, write one of your personal goals. Under that, write the reason why you want to achieve it. Then the reason for that, and so on. Continue until you come to a line that is its own reason.If this is easy the first time, try a second goal. If you can list five goals that are each ends-in-themselves and have no further reasons behind them, award yourself the Self-Insight Medal, With Chocolate.2) Conflict ResolutionOne useful conflict resolution technique is to get everyone past explaining their position in the argument, and find out what everybody needs. The classic story-lesson for this is:Mom finds Jerry and Suzi quarreling over an orange they both want. She grabs the orange, cuts it in half, and both children break out crying. It turns out that Suzi wanted the whole peel, in one continuous cut, for a school project. Jerry wanted the juice of an entire orange, for a cake he'd promised to bake for his best friend's birthday.If Mom had taken a moment to find out what each child *needed*, the conflict could have been resolved with everyone's needs met.
List the people ivolved with you in a current conflict. For each of those people, including yourself, list what they need, or what you think they need.
To do this thoroughly, you will need to talk directly with the other people involved and ask them what they need. It's up to you whether you choose to do this.
From life to the page3) In 100 to 300 words, describe a character who has one of the goals you discovered in Exercise 1, but claims -- even believes themselves -- to be pursuing something else. Never state the goal. Show it.
4) In another 100 to 300 words, show that character meeting one or more of the obstacles that you have met in pursuit of your own goal.
5) In 100 to 300 words, describe your character and opponents in a conflict similar to one you analyzed in your own life. Show each person's true needs in the conflict, without ever openly stating them.
Anitra L. Freeman
All contents and images are created and copyrighted by Anitra Freeman, except quotes from published material, which is attributed to the author and used only for educational purposes. Others may use this material, on request, for personal or educational purposes where no fee is charged, with credit to the author and a link wherever possible.
StreetWrites Workshop Exercises