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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Writing 101- Part 3 What does the Main Character Want?

After a writer establishes their main character they have to answer a critical question: What do they want?

What the main character wants to accomplish is the primary reason for the story transpiring. It is what the character desires, what they must have above all else.

Usually the answer to this question is simple.

In Isis, Isis wants redemption.

In A Recipe for $ucce$$, Cassandra Lee wants to take over her family’s Bakery.

In All About Marilyn, Marilyn Marie wants to break out of being typecast

In The Temptation of John Haynes John Haynes wants a job.

In the Sneakers Trakaim and Luis want the Air Jordan sneakers.

In Trial of The Goddess Isis wants to get through her trial.

Usually I keep the main characters’ simple so the reader can have a clear understanding of what the story is about in the first couple of pages.

I also keep the main characters’ goal simple so I can have a clear understanding of what I’m writing about. It’s easy to get off track when a writer isn’t clear about what the main character wants.

All the subplots are related to the main character achieving their goal. All the supporting characters are working for (or in the case of an antagonist) against what the main character wants to achieve.

As I try to answer the question of what the main character wants, I ponder what obstacles would be in the main characters way in trying to accomplish this goal. Conflict is what drives a story. Each of the obstacles that are placed in front of the main character has a purpose:

To get the reader asking questions. The reader wants to know how the main character will overcome the challenges put in front of them. What solution will they come up with to achieve their goal.

To further the storyline. The conflict is what moves the story forward. Each obstacle the main character overcomes moves the story just that more forward towards the climax and the eventual conclusion.

To show what kind of person the character is. As the main character is confronted by the conflicts presented to them in the story they show parts of themselves to the reader. When confronted with conflict, does the character run away? Do they take time to plan a strategy to face the conflict? Do they explode in rage and frustration? Or do they give up?

How a character deals with conflict speaks volumes about what kind of person they are. The actions they take have a direct impact on the advancement of the storyline.

For example in The Temptation of John Haynes, John Haynes wants a job. In his quest to get that job he shows that he’s an honest man with pride. When presented with a job by his friend Scott Grayson, he declines. He feels it’s a step back. What does that tell us about him? That he’s proud. Is this a character flaw? Maybe. No one wants to go back. That keeps them from growing. So while he’s proud the reader can respect his decision. It shows his character as a man.

Moreover his actions show that wants to earn his own way. He doesn’t want a handout. After he doesn’t get the job at American Foods through his own networking efforts he’s desparate. He’s this close to swallowing his pride and calling Grayson for that job. But That would be the end of the story. Then he gets the call from the headhunter. Tempted with the offer of a new job, the story moves forward. When he gets to the headhunter’s office he’s offered the position of CEO of Morris Phillips. It’s a position where he’ll have lots of money and lots of power. An unemployed man down on his luck, John gives into the first of many Temptations furthering the story. The reader wonders will he compromise more?  What will he show us about his character when he gets this new high-powered position? Will he change for the better? Or will he change for the worse?

In All About Marilyn, Marilyn Marie wants to break out of being typecast. She’s a washed up former child star, a woman down on her luck, struggling to pay bills. Her agent, Sabrina has retired leaving her with no way to get an acting job. Sabrina’s assistant Ava offers her a job, but her unethical and under-the-table tactics cross the line. But Marilyn is desperate. She needs money to stay afloat.  She needs a role that will help her break out of this character. She takes Ava’s offer hoping for a way out. However, when she gets to the set she finds out she’s been set up by the unethical Ava. Worse, she’s trespassing on a friend’s set. The set of the very movie she tried to pitch years ago. That makes her feel guilty. Seeing how far she’s fallen, she decides to leave.

In that scene Marilyn shows that while she’s desperate she there’s a line she won’t cross. She has integrity, dignity and self-respect. Sure, the story could end there. But she’s crossed the line. The conflict can only build from here. As she tries to cross back over to the side of good, the story moves forward. The Clown recognizes her. As do other people she’s overwhelmed by former fans. The conflict builds. How does she get through the crowd? How does she get back to the side of good?

How a character handles each obstacle shows the reader what kind of person the main character is. What will they do to accomplish their goals? Will they cross the line? Will they find a way to solve their problems while doing the right thing? Or will they compromise?

In resolving conflict, the writer wants the reader to ask questions.  The more questions the reader asks means the reader is more involved in the story.

Each conflict has the reader asking more questions. As the writer answers those questions through the character’s actions the story moves forward on its way to the conclusion.

Once a writer establishes their main character and what goal they want to accomplish they have to answer the toughest question of all: Why should we care? I’ll answer that question in the next blog.

1 comment:

  1. I must say, as an established, longtime writer, you're doing a great job of explaining with absolute clarity what's called for in a good story. This is certainly the chief component.

    And while we're at it, never be afraid to strive for greatness. You know the saying, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for." We might be mocked and derided for even trying, but stick to your guns and you'll have far more fun.

    Thanks, Shawn, for continuing in this vein. I, for one, am grateful. People who follow your guideles closely will sell stories.