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The hardest thing I ever learned was to be decisive...
In the last fifteen years, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that you have to make decisions while writing. Setting a character’s motives, scars, and hobbies in stone can feel confining because, what if you decide you don’t like what you picked and then you have to change them? WORK, UGH. But knowing what a character wants and being able to transcribe that into one sentence or a bulleted list makes it infinitely easier to explain what the hell is going on in your book--to yourself and others.
When I first started writing, I was unable to decide what my characters wanted. I don’t know if that’s because fourteen year olds have trouble articulating what they want, or if I had trouble mentalizing what a person could want, etc., but my characters were essentially hollow shells. I knew what they looked like--their hair color, eye color. I knew who their relations were, perhaps a hobby they liked to do, but what did they… want?
The problem is--you need to decide what your characters want in order to make the story work. What they want (and the fact that they don’t have it yet) sets up the conflict, and that drives your story.
Conflicts are kind of like werewolves. You should know what you want to do about them (murder, presumably), how you will do that (silver bullets), and what you will do after (decorate the foyer!)
So how do you delineate what your character wants, how they will accomplish it, and what they will do after?
There’s an oft repeated maxim in the writing community, “show don’t tell,” which I think is totally bunk. (This quality of mine may be apparent from the working title of my book, Magic Princess Academy. It is what it says on the tin.) I believe that writing out your book in the plainest language possible is how you, yourself, begin to understand it. YOU are your first reader! Out of everyone else, it is most important that you understand your book.
If you know what a character wants, how they will get it, and what they plan after, then you have, essentially, a summary of their story.
One of my first characters, May Forrester, wanted to be a mime.
You might be like--Chelsea, what?
Let me explain: Mimes were telekinetic people. She wanted magic powers. But I never bothered to decide what that meant. What did “becoming a mime” entail? And what did she want to do with it? Essentially I was saying “Protagonist wants power. I don’t know how she gets it or what she wants it for, but boyyyy does she want it.”
If, beyond what she wanted, I had also decided how she would get it and what she would do with it, I would have had much more of a story:
She could have wanted to become a mime by foraging for sacred spirits, asking for their blessing, and then used that power to overthrow a dangerous cult
She could have wanted to become a mime by questing for lost tomes of wisdom, battling guardians in a dungeon crawl, and then used that power to spread literacy and peace throughout the land
She could have wanted to become a mime by making a blood sacrifice at a forbidden altar, extinguishing a immortal flame, and then used that power to take revenge on the people who wronged her
All three of these have much more flavor than “she wants power.” From them, you can begin to see a story take shape. If you only know what your character wants, you have a plate of tofu. You need more! Plain tofu is not a dish. It is a vehicle for flavor.
When you delineate as clearly as possible what your character wants, how they will get it, and what they will do after, you do a lot of high-level plotting that will save time later--you also have a pitch for your book ready to go. Gone are the days of struggling to explain the vague conflicts and characterizations of my early books to friends! I won’t even begin to write a book at this point without knowing these three things.
So spice your tofu. Kill your werewolves. And figure out what the heck is going on in your novel.