Literary Agent: I’d like a better understanding of your protagonist’s motivation in the first few pages. What do they want?
What Does Your Character Want?
First of all, don’t tear your hair out! As budding writers, we hear this request a lot from agents, editors, and critique partners. Heck, you’ve heard it from me already (see my previous post), and I’m not even a professional in the publishing industry. Despite the fact that I know full well how critical Character Want is, I spend a lot of time revisiting those first pages while I’m writing, double-checking that everything my protagonist does later stems from this initial want. And when I’m finished Draft One, character motivation is still one of the primary areas I tackle in revision. Why is this such a problem for us? (I say “us” rather than “me,” because based on every critique group and workshop I’ve participated in since the beginning of time, I know I’m not the only one).
Part of the issue, of course, is the obvious one: figuring out exactly what our characters want when we first meet them in the story. For my middle-grade characters, this is often something small and relatively simple, centered around friends, family, and school. One protagonist wants to protect her learning-disabled brother, another his autistic sister. One wants to stop getting in trouble, one wants to cause as much trouble as possible, another wants to win a role-playing game, and yet another wants to be allowed to sing her heart out rather than do her schoolwork.
But in terms of the stories themselves, these external wants are only the tip of the iceberg. They’re a starting point, a way to show our readers that our characters have human desires and face obstacles in achieving them. They’re a fabulous stepping stone into our fictional worlds, helping readers form attachments with the characters that populate them. The most important thing these desires do is drive our characters to take action—sometimes silly or dangerous—in their desperation to obtain them.
Tock will do anything for a pinecone. Just like his motion propels him closer to his prize, so do the actions of the protagonist in pursuit of their initial goal and the things they desperately want.
Initial. Remember that word. It’s my firm belief that in the most interesting stories, a character’s first want doesn’t end up being the internalized one they eventually realize they need. It might have the opposite effect, in fact, at first hindering their emotional growth and putting them in danger of any sort of resolution of their character arc—until they recognize the underlying need they must fulfill.
So What Does a Character Need?
A need is something essential to survival. In the strictest sense, this means physical survival and includes only the most basic things, like food, shelter, clothes, and medical care. But emotional needs are so important for mental health that we’ve got to consider them, too. Common emotional needs include friendship or a sense of community, self-expression, love, and happiness.
A dog’s needs are simple: Food, water, exercise, a “pack” to belong to, a human to love and be loved by. Medicines, if necessary. In the developed world, many dogs have moved beyond these needs into the luxury of material wants. Tock’s coveted pinecone, for instance, is ultimately an external material good (though I’d argue that his innate desire to work—by fetching cones—brings him the joy and self-fulfillment of a basic emotional need). Tock achieves all of his needs every day, but a lot of dogs aren’t so lucky. Their character arcs aren’t complete—no matter how much I wish I could resolve every single one of them.
A lot of people aren’t so lucky at satisfying their basic needs, either, because they’re mired in poverty, mental illness or other health issues, or natural disasters. Due to circumstances that are often beyond their control, they must struggle to survive each day, no matter how hard they try for more.
In this era of climate change and rapidly fluctuating environmental conditions, plants and wildlife are having trouble meeting their needs as well. This is true whether they live in California, the ocean, the mountains, or the boreal forests, tundra and ice of the far north.
I don’t say these things to make you sad or feel guilty, but rather to think about the difference between the external things you want but could probably live without and the internal things you desperately need. As someone who’s spent most of my life fighting against clutter in my own home, I’m all too aware of how quickly unnecessary things can pile up.
And just as Tock is happier to go on lots of walks rather than sit home alone with a pile of toys, I know my life can be improved by removing some of my own material goods and replacing them with simple necessities or things that fulfill my deepest emotional needs—like hikes in exquisite places and the chance to listen to beautiful music and to write down my thoughts.
I’m pretty sure that this holds true for my characters, too. Every protagonist I’ve written so far comes to the realization that their initial want is actually somewhat self-centered and narrow-minded, and that by taking a broader view of what they and those around them truly need, they’ll all be happier. A few of them completely abandon their initial wants, like the kid afraid of getting in trouble, the kid who only wants to cause trouble, and the kid who wants to become a game champion. My other main characters keep their initial desires (to protect their siblings, to sing), but develop them into much more far-reaching goals, like an awareness that their siblings need understanding more than protection, and that music can reach far beyond the performer, if people only learn how to listen. Whether or not these protagonists succeed remains up in the air, but hey, at least they’re trying!
What about your characters? Have you examined what they want versus what they need? Do these things change during the course of your story?
And how about you?