Deep, engaging and compelling characters are at the very heart of every good story. I’d argue that without it, there’s no story (although there are always exceptions).

Before we can really begin writing a novel, we need to have a character who wants something. 

Then we need to not give them it. We need to introduce obstacles to that deepest want and yearning. 

Sounds simple, right? Well, of course our characters, like ourselves are multidimensional, multi-layered and often multi-intentioned people. 

They have flaws, lots of them, and contradicting thoughts and uncertainties and worries and lots of personal, internal issues that can stop them from getting what they want.

Obstacles can be internal (like those above) or external (other people/environment). We will discuss these in more detail later.

So, where to start?

What does your character want?

If they are not striving towards an objective, a goal, a need of some kind, we’re not going to be carried along in their current for 300 pages. More likely, we’ll sit in stagnant water, wishing we were anywhere else.

Wants range from some very, very specific – do destroy the one ring in the fires of Mordor – to more vague, but equally important ones like, finding a true love or partner – even in this second example, we can get more specific later, but on the outset, we it might be more of a vague longing rather than an immediate need – if that’s the case, we need something more immediate at the start of the story to get us going.

Luke simply wanted to find R2D2 and return the droids to his uncle, so he could leave the farm and become a pilot. An admirable and valid want at the start of the story. 

But as we know, things changed. His wants/needs changed, when his aunt and uncle are murdered by the empire and his taken under the wing of Obi-Wan.

Now he must become a Jedi, like his father before him, to learn the ways of the Force and bring down the Empire.

And this becomes the focus of the next 3 films – there are small wins and big losses along the way, obstacles both internal and external, and the stakes at all times are kept high by ensuring Luke has conflict both within and without, the complexity of both increasing as the story progresses.

But, in reality, as in fiction, when the novel begins is often not where the story begins. Characters, as we know, are moulded and directed by our past, our childhood, our past experiences and memories.

So while searching for that want, that need, that desire or objective, search deep into the past to so what might have happened to bring your character up this point. This is important for your antagonist, too, but we’ll discuss them later.

Almost everything we do/say/want is dictated by our experiences and you can follow those all the way back to specific incidents (or a series of incidents) in their past – this is the better known as ‘backstory’.

Backstory is very important for you, the author, to know your characters, what they want and what flaws you need them to overcome in order to get what they want, however it’s not usually necessary or even desirable to use this in the story. More that we need it to shape who is our character is at the start of the novel, to ensure they do have that authentic and relatable want.

Suggested writing task

What does your character want on page 1? Write this down (remember this doesn’t need to their main want/need).

How can we make this clear to the reader? How can we SHOW this.

If you’ve already written your opening page, does your character want something – does the reader know just by reading page 1?

If possible, make it relatable, make it something we can understand and show us how desperately they want it.

It might just be catching a bus, or getting to school on time, or it might be a bit more exciting. But remember if the character on the page REALLY cares about it, your reader likely will to.

Now, what does your character want in the big picture – it may be the same thing as page 1, but it’s likely to be different. Write this down.

Remember you can post all writing tasks on the #writingtasks channel on Slack.

Character motivation and stakes

Characters need agency, they need to drive or propel their own story forward with what they want or need. Their actions dictate the plot, not the other way around.

So, what will your character move the earth for? What will they beg, borrow or even kill for? Makes us feel how much they want it…the more you do this, the more we will so how much it means to them, and how much there is to lose if they don’t get it – we get STAKES!

So, where does motivation come from?

Motivation, like conflict, can be internal and it can external, and we all act based upon both primal and higher motivations. Sometimes it comes from within – I’d better eat because I am hungry – or from out with – you had better eat your dinner or their will be no dessert.

A classic definition of both main categories:

Intrinsic motivation is a type of motivation in which an individual is being motivated by internal desires.

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is a type of motivation in which an individual is being motivated by external desires.

There are many, many theories of motivation and more specific types, such as:

Competence & LearningIncentive
Arousal TheoryAffiliation and Social

It’s not really necessary to go into this in too much scientific detail but knowing WHY a character wants something is vital as it will influence every decision they make, and ultimately what is to lose if they don’t get it. For example, we all know that fear is huge motivator! Fear of failure or fear of rejection or fear of loss. And it can have a negative effect, stopping you from doing something, but it can also have the opposite, galvanising effect on the character and act as a spur to keep them going.

Suggested writing task

Beneath where you wrote your characters want, write down the why? What is the motivation for the character to achieve this goal? What kind of motivation is it? Is it more than one? How do these work together, or perhaps do they come into conflict – if they do, great, you have a great source of conflict!


Why does it matter? If the character does not get what they want, why should we care, or more importantly why should they care – because if the character has real consequences from not getting what they want, how can we not root for them?

Stakes can be personal or wider-reaching: so Luke wants to bring down the Empire (wider-reaching) but why do we really care if he succeeds? It’s the personal stakes of trying to convert his father, Darth Vader, away from the Dark Side. Without that personal set of stakes, his story wouldn’t have the same emotional appeal.

For me, smaller is always bigger (in terms of emotional engagement).

Small, personal stakes over wide-reaching stakes every time.

The loss of a single child is almost always going to be more emotionally moving than the loss of a whole world.

I often read pitches where it says:

‘X must save the world from Y’

But a story that says:

‘X must save their child from Y’

That surely packs a great emotional punch and the stakes (for the character and reader – the important people) are much higher.

Image credits: Kelly Sikkema [Source: Unsplash]

Suggested writing task

Write down what is at stake for your character if they do not get what they want. What are the consequences? Who/what will be harmed?

The closer and more personal to the main character, the better.Repeat this for every want, from the smaller page 1 wants to the big want of the whole story.