• Erica Young

Character Development Tips: What Does Your Character Truly Want

Updated: Mar 22

When it comes to character development, there’s nothing more important than understanding what your character truly wants. What drives them? Why are they pursuing this course of action? What lies behind the choices they make?

At face value, this probably seems obvious. However, you might be surprised to find that what your character wants is much deeper than what you suspect.

For instance, if you’re writing a fantasy novel with the classic “good battles evil” theme, you might think your character wants to win the war, but what they really want is to stop fighting. They want to win the war so that they can experience peace. How does that change how you see your character? How does that change the paths they pursue?

Maybe your character has a dark backstory, and they have some self-destructive traits because of it. Do they truly want to punish themselves? Or do they just want to feel like they are somehow working to make things right?

Example from Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library

I just finally got around to reading Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library. After finishing, I watched this interview that he did with Kristin Hannah (author of The Nightingale, and more.)

[If you aren’t already familiar with it, click here to read a synopsis of The Midnight Library. There will be some spoilers below.]

In the interview with Hannah, Haig says, “At the start, it’s not even life or death because she doesn’t care if she lives. She’s not even wanting to live at the start. She’s wanting to want to live.”

That key distinction defines all of her actions in the book.

When she’s living the life of a rockstar, when she’s an accomplished Olympic athlete, when she’s a mother married to a loving man, she’s definitely living, but it’s not enough. It’s not enough because living isn’t what she truly wants.

However, in having all of these experiences, Nora sees all the possibilities of her life and she begins to find herself wanting to create those things herself. She doesn’t want to step into a life that a different Nora built for her. She wants to earn it on her own.

I thought that was really insightful.

Does Your Character Know What They Want?

At points in TML, and maybe in your own novel, the main character doesn’t always know what they truly want. For Nora, she started off by reliving her life and changing things she did to disappoint her loved ones — her ex-boyfriend, her brother, her father, her friend.

She went back and changed things in the hopes that the people around her would love her more for making the “right” choices. She thought that if people could just love her, then maybe she’d want to live. But ultimately, those changes weren’t enough.

Only once she started wanting to live, and acting on that desire, did she start making progress toward happiness.

Character Development Questions for Writers

Take a moment and ask yourself what your character truly wants. Here are some questions to help you flesh it out:

Envision them achieving their goal. Is everything worked out? Or are there still loose ends?

What gives your character hope?

What makes them feel despair?

Where are they most content?

What is one thing that your character will not tolerate?

What are their obstacles?

Answering these questions will help you see a clearer direction and dig deeper into what your character truly wants. Even if you never reveal it in the story, keep it in your mind as you write so that your character remains consistent and true to themselves.

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