• establish what your character wants and ultimately needs

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 changed, when his aunt and uncle are murdered by the empire and he is 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 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.

What does your character need?

Great Character – wants and needs

We often use a saying: ‘X has shown great character.’

But we rarely think about what we mean by that.

Examples might include; overcoming a huge setback, completing a monumental task against all the odds, succeeding in the face of overwhelming danger or simply sitting at a keyboard day after day, year after year, and punching those keys, telling those stories, never, ever giving up.

YOU. I. WE are all great characters.

If you are doing this course right now, that show great character. You love writing so much, you love to learn more and more about the craft and you’ll read anything associated with it, just to glean a hint more understanding in our paths to enlightenment and development.

You are showing off your growth mindset, you are changing and evolving in response to a great need – you have to become a better writer. 

And this is a good example of the difference between a NEED and a WANT, just while I mention it.

Lots of writers ask what is the difference and don’t always get a satisfactory answer.

Well, think of YOU! You WANT to finish that book, to become published etc etc.

But what you NEED – that is different and very much more personal and internal than external outcomes or objectives.

And I suspect if you’re reading this, you NEED to become better as a writer, you need to elevate your craft and your knowledge to a level where you better understand story, not so you can get an agent or become published. That is what you WANT. You are doing it because you NEED to tell even more epic and emotional tales that will have long lasting effects on the readers who browse those pages and consume your words.

And the same applies for your characters. In my latest novel, my main character wants to escape from her situation, she feels trapped, like her whole life is mapped out for her: she wants to leave Mars.
But that’s not what she needs. She needs to accept what has happened in the past, and to reconnect with her father, the only family she has. She needs to overcome her fear of loss, and can only do that by learning to let go of her guilt that she was responsible for mum’s death. 

I also have a variety more wants and needs for my main character but those are the biggest ones. And it’s important to remember that the want is more likely to be the obvious one to start, but your book should always be about satisfying that need for your main character, even if they don’t get what they want – which they don’t in so many stories.

Dr Who wants to defeat the Daleks, to travel through space and time, and save worlds and defeat alien races and ultimately ends the Time War. However, what they need is a companion, someone human, who will make sure they never go too far with all of their power. Someone to show them the human qualities that make them a better Time Lord.

We see a few episodes, if you watch it, where the Doctor has no companion, and when they don’t, they make poor decisions, some of which are disastrous. Think Waters of Mars or Turn Left.

*if you’ve never seen Dr Who, please watch the short clip of the Waters of Mars episode I’ve posted below. It’s the very best written scene in Dr Who ever, I believe. And completely encapsulates the needs of the Dr.

Hope that makes sense?

And by working out the wants and needs, you’re already a good part of the way towards developing a great character!

We are great characters. It’s worth remembering that when you sit down to punch the keys today. Every keystroke is a symbol of your determination, of your strength to overcome all of the obstacles in your way. And as each of us is a great character, you need only look inside to find the courage to finish that book. And if we are great characters, I have no doubt you can translate that to your story characters, with all their strengths and weaknesses, their attributes and their flaws, their courage and their fears.

Time to write!

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

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.

And finally what do you they need? What is missing from their life that they don’t realise? What do they need to learn in order to be happy in this story?