And how a deceptively simple question can help you do it
I am in the middle of pitching a new police procedural series to a major digital-first publisher. We’ve worked together before and I’m playing pitch-doc tennis with my editor as we collaborate on the shape of the series. The proposal has gone through three iterations and with each one, I’ve gotten closer to something the publisher will snarf up like a Great White in the middle of a school of tuna.
To help me, I’m using an apparently easy-to-answer question to create a believable and emotionally relatable lead character. And it isn’t …
… what do they want?
It was Kurt Vonnegut who said, “Make your characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”
It’s true. Because wanting is the prelude to tension, and tension is the mainspring that drives all drama. You could say that drama is tension. Some writers say it’s conflict, but it comes down to the same thing.
The tension doesn’t come from the wanting. Give your lead character their glass of water and their want is satisfied. Where’s the drama in that? No. The tension comes when they are denied the object of their desire. “What do you mean I can’t have it?” they cry. And we’re off to the races. Maybe there’s only one glass of water left and there are two characters who need it. There’s your conflict.
We still need to establish what it is that our lead character wants. If, like me, you’re writing a crime series, then, at first glance, it’s pretty obvious what our character wants. Detective Jodie Walker wants to solve the case. In doing so, other wants are satisfied. To bring closure to the victim’s family. To serve justice. To look good in front of her colleagues and superiors. To win promotion. To put one over on a rival.
And these are all totally valid wants. But, and here’s the real question: what happens if Jodie doesn’t get what she wants? In other words, what’s at stake?
What’s at stake?
If she doesn’t catch the killer, things look pretty bleak for Jodie. The killer carries on killing (or at the very least, stays free to enjoy life). The family are left with no way to close this painful chapter in their lives. Jodie has failed in the eyes of her colleagues and her bosses. Maybe her rival inches ahead of her in the race for the promotion. Worst of all, Jodie herself knows she’s failed.
If we think of the character’s situation as being like a poker table, loaded with piles of multi-colored chips, what Jodie wants are the piles of chips in front of the other players. But what’s at stake is the pile of chips in front of her. It’s not what she wants that matters; it’s what she stands to lose. Revisiting Kurt Vonnegut’s formulation for a second, the character dying of thirst wants a glass of water but stands to lose his life.
But we’re not done with Jodie yet. Oh, no! In fact we’ve only scratched the surface. Because all we know at this point is what Jodie thinks she wants.
The three levels of desire
Sticking with detective Jodie for now, the top level, the superficial level, is what I call the character’s table stakes. (To extend the poker metaphor.)
Homicide detectives want to catch murderers. Abused wives want to escape their husbands. Blocked writers want to find their mojo again. Lonely librarians want to find Ms. Right. Vampire hunters want to drive sharpened stakes into the black, foul, dripping hearts of vampires and send them, mewling in abject terror, back to the hell whence they were spawned. So far, so eh. Table stakes. In fact, these wants are barely worthy of the word. They’re more like objectives.
But why do you want it?
I need to know why they want those things. And that takes us down into psychology. Jodie believes that by catching the killer she will show the male detectives she’s just as good as them. The abused wife wants to escape her controlling husband to protect her child. The lonely librarian believes that in finding Ms. Right, she will also find happiness. And Van Helsing believes that by ridding the Earth of another pestilential creature of the night, he’s making it a safer place for alabaster-necked virgins to mope about draughty Carpathian castles in the middle of the night wearing flimsy, low-cut nightdresses.
You could see these beliefs as indicative of their true wants. But you’d be wrong. These are ego-driven wants. False friends, if you like. Talking of friends, imagine someone who feels lonely. “If only I had lots of friends, my loneliness would be at an end,” she tells you. And you believe her. Why wouldn’t you. She just said it, didn’t she?
So, after a couple hundred pages you give her some new friends. She goes to the theatre with them, out to dinner, on ski trips. She joins a book group, a bowling league, a hunting club. And guess what? Despite all of this, despite having her wants met, she is still lonely. Why?
“I don’t know what I need”
Yes, why? To discover the answer, and arrive at not just what she wants but what she needs, we have to descend to the psychological basement. Here, among the ancient filing cabinets, dust-sheeted furniture and cobwebbed family portraits, we find those unspoken, unacknowledged and sometimes unknown needs that drive our character.
Most of the things that form us emotionally happen in our childhood. So, what happened in our character’s childhood that makes her both dread loneliness and crave friends? Perhaps she caused an accident that led to her sister’s death. Or she stole a friend’s cuddly toy and lied about it. Or she ran away from home and hid out for two days, terrifying her parents. I don’t know, she’s not my character. But if she’s yours, you need to go there and find out.
I can imagine a character who feels that as long as they are winning at work their poverty-stricken childhood can’t rise up, grab them by the ankles and drag them back again. Or another whose ambition to be the Homecoming Queen masks a fear of rejection rooted in her mother’s abandonment of the family when she was three years old. Even in the genres with harder edges – action, crime, vigilante justice – characters with fully worked-out backstories are more compelling and more durable than those who move from one beat-down, firefight or murder to the next with nary a quiver from deep down in their psyche.
Once you know what your character truly needs – the ego-less drive, if you like – you are, I believe, ready to start on your story. Yes, it’s important to know what your character is groping towards. This is their ambition. Their objective. But until you work out what they need, you will be writing with one eye blind, unaware of what they’re trying to escape.
I like to start every new book by figuring out, or listening intently until my character reveals, what lies at the heart of their emotional world.
Where stand-alones differ from series
Of course, just because you know, doesn’t mean you have to give it to them. If your book is a standalone, then, yes, by the end you will have to have brought your character to an awareness that what they thought they wanted turned out to be not what they actually needed.
They wanted the star quarterback, but it was actually the computer club nerd who would make them happy. They wanted to kill Tobias Straker but really they needed to reconnect with their estranged father. They wanted to put the Nebraska Wolverine behind bars but they actually needed to say sorry to their dead sister.
But if you’re writing a character-led series, I’d suggest that you avoid fulfilling your character’s deep-seated desire at all costs. Once you do, the tension goes out of their life and with it their emotional pulling-power for your reader.
You can tease them (and your reader) by dangling the prize in front of them. But you have to be brutal and withdraw it at the final moment. Sure, you can let them assassinate the target, build the society on the new planet, marry the hot priest, catch the killer or stake the vamp. But this must not lead to redemption, atonement, acceptance or any of the other intangible but vital emotional goods we need to win at life. Keep torturing them, in other words.
How Marlowe can help you with character development
Once you have established this fundamental aspect of your lead character’s psychology (and maybe that of their antagonist) you’re going to be writing a far more emotionally engrossing story. How could you not be, when you’ve been rootling around in the cellar, pulling back the dust-sheets and wiping those old family portraits free of spider webs?
Run your completed manuscript through Marlowe and, among other things, she’ll give you a chart like this.
The diagram above is for one of my Gabriel Wolfe thrillers. Negative emotions (sadness, fear, anger, disgust) massively outweigh positive (trust, joy). Sounds like laugh-a-minute stuff, don’t it?
It’s a useful measure of what’s really going on in your book and, more specifically, your character’s hearts. Say a dominant theme of your lead character’s emotional arc is sadness. (Leading to joy, but sadness nonetheless.) The emotional color-wheel gives you an instant visual check on whether you’ve communicated her emotional state to your reader.
Spend a little time and effort really getting to know your character, beyond what they tell you they want, and you’ll be en route to a deeper, and more emotionally fulfilling novel that your reader will enjoy.