Sunday, 3 November 2013

What Do You Want - and Why? - Heather Dyer

One of the most important things your story needs is character motivation. Your protagonist needs to want something. But WHY they want something is perhaps even more significant than WHAT they want. Hidden in the ‘why’ is your character’s flaw – the part that’s lacking. It's the reason your character wants things to be different.

In Buddhism, all suffering is thought to stem from either ‘craving’ or ‘aversion’. The theory is that if you can accept the things that you can’t change, then you are no longer unbalanced by your craving for things to be otherwise. You're able to remain 'centred'.

However, most of us aren't centred - and our characters certainly aren't. They want things to be different. In the simplest endings, the protagonist manages to manipulate external factors and regain their equilibrium by satisfying their cravings or aversions. Then they live happily ever after. 

But is this accurate? Unless we've addressed the 'why' we want something, sooner or later we tend to start craving something else, or something better.

Therefore, a more satisfying story comes about when a character doesn’t manage to change external factors in the way they want (or get what they crave), but instead stops wanting that thing. This is where the 'why' comes in.

Bridget Jones, for example, craves the Hugh Grant character - even though getting him won’t make her happy. But let’s look at why she craves him. Is it because she admires his confidence, his freedom, his refusal to be controlled? And why might she admire these qualities so much?  Might it be because she feels a deficit of these qualities in herself, and seeks them in another? If, during the course of the story, Bridget somehow acquires these qualities for herself, she might stop running after the Hugh Grant character and stand still for long enough for Darcy to get a look-in...

How many of us, when writing a story, realize that what our characters want is not necessarily what they need? And how satisfying does it feel when the characters themselves realize it, too?

Heather Dyer - children's author and Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow


Stroppy Author said...

Excellent point, Heather! Or realising that what they think they want is a distraction from what they really want (or need) - which is something they can't quite face up to. And how often is that true of us in real life?

Penny Dolan said...

I do like your explanation that the qualities that BJ admires in "Hugh Grant" are those she lacks or needs to develop herself.