March 12, 2015 by Ray Yanek
One thing the Ray Bradbury 52-Week Challenge (read here to find out why I also think YOU should take this challenge) has reminded me of is that my most fulfilling stories start not with plot but with character.
I’ve also been reminded of how I struggle with the concept of creating character wants and needs and then using those wants as the base on which to build a story.
I know what character’s want, of course. I know that character’s need security. They
want peace. They need acceptance, sex, validation, connection, money, power, etc. I know about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and it’s not hard to say, for example, that my barbarian queen from the frozen wilds of Allado wants to feel like she’s a part of the Sunday Quilting Bee held on the high fjords. Hey, men quilt in Allado too, because, you know, it’s cold and quilts are often used as currency…
Anyway, with the want established I know I should start throwing things in the way of my barbarian queen, but this is where the story creation process stalls for me.
I think I may have figured out why.
For me at least, it’s an issue of semantics, of me taking words too literally. The answer also speaks to the power and necessity of strong verb choices, or of word choice in general, perhaps.
Maybe that’s a lesson enough in itself.
Here’s how my mind works when dealing with a character want: So my barbarian queen wants acceptance. Okay, I think, great, and then what I see in my mind is an image of this barbarian queen shuffling her feet in her small village and wistfully hoping for a change in her circumstances.
See the problem? She’s passively waiting rather than actively trying to attain what she wants. There’s no forward push and without that momentum–there is no story. Look at the Uncle Sam poster at the top as well. He ‘wants’ but what specifically is he doing to fufill that want?
For some reason–and maybe this is because of some deeply weird psychological thing inside of me that you don’t want to know about–I have a hard time associating the term ‘want’ with forward progress. I have a hard time taking the next step and asking “So if the character wants it, what is she going to do about it?” It’s like my characters have stalled in some early, infantile stage of development where they wait for someone to come and do things for them.
But I’m finding, and I’m knocking on wood as I say this, throwing salt over my shoulder (sorry to that little kid sitting behind me), and making multiple signs of the cross, if I get away from the term ‘want’ and try to determine the character’s ‘mission’ it becomes a lot easier for me to get that movement and propel my characters naturally forward.
The connotation behind ‘mission’ implies that something needs to be accomplished, something needs to get done. It’s not just a ‘want’ but a goal that the character must attain. It suggest a sense of immediacy as a mission requires action verbs rather than soft verbs.
For example: Her mission is to gain acceptance, rather than she wants to be accepted.
See the difference?
That implied action trips something in my mind and makes me envision my characters in action.
It was LAPD detective Harry Bosch that helped me understand this. Bosch, the character in the series by author Michael Connelly, has a distinct life mission. Bosch, as a both a person and a detective, strives to make sure that everyone matters, because he believes that either everyone matters or no one matters. It’s this mission that has pushed Bosch through not just one book, but through a series of 18 books and now an Amazon TV series–all of which revolve around him completing that personal mission. It fuels everything he does–from his career, to the way he treats others, to his outlook on life. His mission determines his choices.
Yeah, done properly, a want does all the these things too, but sometimes, just like in a story or a poem, a simple word change or substitution can unlocks so many new things and can make so many things seem so much more obvious.
That’s what happened here, I think, and maybe it will help you too.
So give it a try. Think about your character’s mission (or turn her ‘want’ into a ‘mission’) and look how many more avenues open up in your story.
So what kind of thing do you do when creating characters? Leave me a comment!