Everyone makes mistakes—even writers—but that's OK because each mistake is a great learning opportunity. The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them early in the process. Note: The mistakes in this series aren't focused on grammar rules, though we offer help in that area as well.
Rather, we're looking at bigger picture mistakes and mishaps, including the error of using too much exposition, neglecting research, or researching too much. This week's writing mistake writers make is ignoring your characters' desires.
Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Ignoring Your Characters’ Desires
I had the privilege of being in Jane K. Cleland’s Thursday session “Mastering Suspense, Structure, & Plot” in July during our Writer’s Digest Annual Conference 2022. Throughout the day-long discussion on craft and genre, she asked everyone in the room to write down what their character wanted the most. Then people raised their hands and shared with us what they’d written down.
“Revenge for their parent’s death,” one attendee said. Another simply said, “Peace.”
Listening to each writer describe what their characters wanted, I realized that a big mistake most often made in first drafts is not properly identifying what our characters want. This is the seed that will grow your story—it will drive your conflict, help you navigate your resolution, and determine whether a character changes (or not).
It’s also a great way to just get to know your characters. If you have someone who has been abandoned by people in the past (their family, a series of long breakups, friends ghosting them), then they might be the kind of person who will do whatever they can to keep people from leaving them (not creating/holding boundaries, for example), even if they don’t consciously understand that.
Another important note: Your main character isn’t the only one whom you need to be aware of when it comes to desires. What about your secondary characters? Your villain? Sometimes even a third-person narrator will have desires—think about tone. Do you want them to see the characters as righteous? Ridiculous? Every voice in your story will want something, so it’s up to you to figure out what that is.
Mistake Fix: Identify What Moves Them
By identifying what touches your character, you can find what they desire most—especially if they don’t understand it yet themselves.
A perfect example of this is the All for the Game series by Nora Sakavic. Without giving anything away (and I promise you, this series is way more awesome than I’m about to make it sound), in the series, runaway Neil Josten has recently lost his mother, the person he relied on most. After he is drafted onto a college sports team, he forms relationships with his fellow players that he would do anything to keep.
It’s not until about book 2 that Neil starts to realize how much his team, the Foxes, mean to him. Until then, he didn’t actively desire a family because he’d never really had one before—at least, not like this. As his feelings for his teammates develop, his decisions change, which alters the trajectory of the plot. This allows the story to go in directions it wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.
It's important to be specific; Neil Josten didn’t desire a family. He desired the Foxes. So, how do you determine these desires? Here are just a few ways.
This is a great place to mine your character’s desires. In All for the Game, Neil grew up in an isolated and lonely environment—genuine connections, then, became something that would be very important to him.
When you think about your characters’ backstory, what were they missing? If they grew up without money, maybe they fear losing the wealth they have. What did they lose? If they had a mother they were very close with and then she passed, perhaps they’re searching for a similar bond (consciously or not). Is there something that they didn’t realize they needed? If they were never celebrated in their life, going viral online for something they’re passionate about might cause them to chase that feeling again.
If you know where you want your story to end up, you’ll be able to tailor your character’s desires to help you achieve that goal. Say your story is about a person who is tricked by someone on an online dating site to deliver something illegal on their behalf. What would drive someone to do something so outlandish? Maybe they’re a serial dater addicted to love; maybe they’ve never been in love, and this is the first person they feel like they really connect with.
Think about the start of your story. Who is your character? What are they like? What is their situation? Then think about the end of your story. Who do you want your character to be? What about them has changed (or not)? How has their situation changed (or not)? Make a list of some desires you could use to help them get from Point A to Point Z.
Relates to Conflict
Desire and conflict are a perfect duo because you can’t have one without the other. Think of Jurassic Park, a classic man vs. nature story. There are two characters who share a very similar desire; Dennis Nedry and Alan Grant. Dennis wants to make more money, so he takes the rival corporation’s bribe to deliver them dinosaur embryos. Alan wants his dig to be funded—it’s why he agrees to go to Isla Nublar in the first place. Though they both desire money, the fundamental wants behind that are different. Dennis is greedy; Alan wants to better understand our world through paleontology. This also affects their outcome! While Dennis, whose first and only priority is money, gets eaten by dinosaurs, Alan, whose first priority becomes the safety of himself and others, manages to get himself and his friends off the island.
What’s the conflict of your story? If you’re not sure, I wrote another article in this series about identifying conflict that might help you. How could your characters’ desires relate to this conflict?
Of course, I have stripped this subject down to its barest bones. The more you write and revise and write some more, the more your character’s desires will come to the surface for you. The most important thing is to listen to your inner author’s voice and let it guide you to where you need to go.