The Best Question to Drive Your Story: What Does Your Character Want?

By Guest Author T. Eric Bakutis

When I sat down to write a few thoughts about what I learned while writing Glyphbinder, the first thing that came to mind was how much my book has changed over the years and why. I believe the more an author writes and workshops, the more they learn about what makes good characters and a good book. This is why writing groups are so important–the minds and insights of others fill in the cracks authors don’t notice, teaching simple lessons that influence everything that person writes or has written.

Regarding Glyphbinder, I must have rewritten the book from scratch at least eight times over the past 15 years, so it may be disingenuous to say what was published in August is the same book I started writing so long ago. Only a few characters from those earlier drafts and the bare bones of the plot remain. The final book came together in the last few years, built on the bones of what came before.

Thanks to excellent critiques from editors, friends, and others, I greatly simplified Glyphbinder’s plot and better defined its characters. My world building is stronger and my villains have far better reasons for doing what they do. Despite all these changes, if I had to point to the most important thing that changed between the first draft and the eighth draft, 15 years later, it would be answering the question writing coaches have been asking their students forever: “What does your character want?”

I always thought I knew the answer to this question. It was only when Bill Benners, one of my longtime mentors (and an editor for this book) asked me to answer it in a clear, concise manner that I realized I could not do so. I had written dozens of short stories and even a few novels in the interim, and it was in trying to answer Bill’s question that I finally realized why those newer short stories and novels felt much more compelling than the book I had been working on for so long: urgency, and simplicity.

In short stories, authors have a limited number of words to make their protagonists understandable and interesting. The question “What does your character want?” becomes far more urgent in such an abbreviated space. Does your character want to save a family member? Avoid a seemingly inevitable death? Defeat a bitter rival? Whatever their goal, it should be easily understood from the first few pages and immediate to the circumstances of the plot. When readers aren’t told what drives a character until late in the story, that character is not as compelling and the plot does not make as much sense.

In the published book, of course, the answer is clear. Kara’s mother is dying, and Kara desperately wants to save her life. This is a simple, straightforward goal that anyone can immediately understand. It drives Kara in every situation she encounters, even from the first page, and shapes her thought processes and actions no matter what might be happening. The strangest thing about this clear goal is that, as integral as Kara’s quest to save her mother now seems to the book, it did not exist until the final draft!

Before I added that element (saving her mother) Kara had many clear goals. She wanted to become the royal apprentice. She wanted to protect her friends from the evils hunting them all, and even wanted to save her world. These were clear goals, certainly, but they were also scattered and vague. Sometimes, Kara was driven by her desire to protect her friends—other times, she was driven by her desire to become the royal apprentice. Often, she was driven simply by her desire to survive whatever horrible thing had befallen her next. The story was driven by the action, not Kara’s goals—not Kara herself.

When I tried to give Bill a simple, clear answer to his question, I realized I didn’t have it. What was Kara’s true goal, the one thing she would die to accomplish? It was missing, and there was nothing I could point to that drove Kara from one near death scrape to the next (this is adventure fantasy, after all). The story was driving her, rather than her driving the story, all because she lacked a clear goal.

Layering in her mother’s illness and Kara’s single-minded determination to save her finally provided the urgency her story needed. Almost every decision Kara made now occurred because of her desperate desire to save her mother, a desire that’s present from the first time readers meet her. Once I gave her this one clear, understandable goal, Kara began to drive her own story rather than being driven by it.

As a bonus, working Kara’s mother into the story made her driving goal less abstract and more “real”. Kara’s brief scenes with her mother are some of my favorite scenes in the book. What was once an intangible, long-term goal (becoming the royal apprentice or surviving an attack) is now personified. There’s this nice, funny woman Kara loves, and she’s going to die in horrible pain if Kara can’t stop it.

When I look back at all the books I’ve really enjoyed over the years, the protagonist in all of them has always had a clear, immediate goal I understood from the first chapter. This doesn’t just improve the main character–it improves all characters in a book, especially the antagonists. Once an author understands what their characters want and how those wants conflict, the book often writes itself. Grand decisions and conflicts simply make more sense when people have strong reasons to want things.

If I could offer any advice to budding authors, it would be to approach the question “What does your character want?” with an eye to creating strong, simple, and immediate goals for your characters. Don’t answer this question in an abstract way, or give your characters goals that won’t present themselves for five chapters. Make their goals simple, tangible, and urgent–things they simply cannot live without.

Do this and you may find, as I did, that you have a much more compelling story in your hands.

~~~~~~

~~~~~~
T. Eric Bakutis is an author and game designer living in Maryland and a lead content developer on The Elder Scrolls Online. His short fiction has appeared in Fiction Vortex and will next appear in the Fairly Wicked Tales anthology from Angelic Knight Press. His debut fantasy novel, Glyphbinder, is now available from McBryde Publishing. His professional website is www.tebakutis.com.

Read our review of Glyphbinder!

2 replies
  1. Gary Cecil
    Gary Cecil says:

    This is wonderful information! It is near impossible to find simple, yet important, information these days. This is an article that I will take with me for a long time. Thanks!

    Also, I am looking forward to playing ESO! Oblivion was my first dip into the Elder Scrolls universe, and I haven’t stopped loving it since.

    Reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] a scene to truly be a scene, each character in the scene has to want something. There has to be conflict, an obstacle inhibiting the character from getting what they want, and […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *