Monday, November 12, 2012

The One Thing You Must Know About Every Character

In many ways, writing easy readers is no different from writing fiction for adults. You use the same basic "blocks" to build all stories. You need to simplify the blocks when writing for children -- you have less space, fewer words, and less complicated plotting -- but good storytelling always uses the same techniques.

One of those "blocks" is particularly essential to good storytelling. And if for some reason a story "isn't working," this is the first thing I check.

In all likelihood, you have heard teachers say that conflict is the guiding principle of all fiction. You may have been taught that fiction is conflict. You may have even heard the old saw, “Conflict is two dogs and one bone.”

There’s a lot of truth in all those sayings... but it’s a bit misleading as well. An over-emphasis on conflict can actually cause your story to fall flat. Conflict isn’t a cause in fiction; rather, conflict is the result of characters doing what comes naturally.

And what comes naturally to characters? The same thing that comes naturally to all of us human beings...

Going after what we want.

So it follows that the one thing you absolutely must know about every character in your story is... what does she want more than anything else?

“Ah, yes,” you say. “That’s all well and good. Each character wants something, and I should know what that something is. But I don’t see anything so revolutionary about that.”

But it is revolutionary because there’s so much more to this than just “every character wants something and I should know what it is.” In fact, understanding this one concept can completely change your approach to writing.

There are several reasons why this is so, and we’ll be looking at each of them over the next few posts. They are:
  1. No matter whether your story is inspired by a character, a world, or a plot (all are valid starting points), it's the character who fuels the emotional dimension of the story, who causes your readers to identify with and hook into your tale.
  2. What a character needs is what drives his actions in the story... all his actions, not just the external conflicts in the story.
  3. When I say “every character,” I mean every... with some minor exceptions.
  4. What a character appears to be after isn’t necessarily what they’re actually after.
  5. The best character needs aren’t external needs, but internal ones.
I think you'll find that knowing what your character wants immediately improves your storytelling.

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