The Writer’s Life from A to Z

To learn, one needs to be ready to receive…and have a mentor like Beth Terrell. Her passion for helping beginning writers shines in this column about developing three-dimensional characters, or those who feel like real people.

Last month, Beth, who writes novels under the name Jaden Terrell, discussed what kinds of questions you need to ask yourself to create your main character. This month it’s about what makes them tick. 

Why do your characters do the things they do?

Desires, Drives, Obstacles, and Conflicts

By Jaden (Beth) Terrell

Last month, you learned a lot about your main character, from physical appearance to habits and preferences. You thought about strengths and weaknesses. You may have explored some of his or her defining moments. Now let’s go deeper. Let’s find out what really makes your character tick, and then talk about how to use what you’ve learned to give your story more power and depth.

A character’s conscious desires and unconscious drives work together to determine his or her actions in the face of obstacles and conflicts. These four elements—desires, drives, obstacles, and conflicts—can help shape your plot and determine the course of your story.

To make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s talk about what those terms mean. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll alternate masculine and feminine pronouns.

Desires

Desires are those things we’re consciously aware that we want. Kurt Vonnegut said, “Every character should want something, even if it’s just a glass of water.” Why? Because tension is created when something stands between the character and the thing she wants, and it’s tension that keeps readers turning pages.

Based on what you’ve learned about your protagonist, what are her conscious desires? What does she want? Are her short term or immediate desires in line with her long-term goals? What does she value most?

Drives

Some neuroscientists believe that 95-99% of human behavior is determined by unconscious processes. The mind is like an iceberg, with the tip made up of conscious thoughts and awareness and the rest—by far the largest part—beneath the surface.

The Brain and Unconscious We don’t see it, but it’s the foundation that holds everything else up. Some say the unconscious mind is like a computer or a tape recorder, playing back the same old messages over and over. Others say it’s roiling, chaotic. Primordial soup. Whichever image you prefer, this much we know is true: it remembers everything we’ve ever experienced and everything we ever felt about those experiences.

When new situations arise, it sifts through those old experiences, finds something similar to this new situation, and uses that past experience to tell us what to think and feel about what’s happening now. We make decisions based on thoughts and emotions lurking down there in the primordial ooze. Then we justify them based on rational thoughts and logic.

Imagine Little Teddy, five years old. He marches off to kindergarten, where he learns the alphabet and how those 26 letters are magically transformed into words. One afternoon, sitting at the kitchen table, he writes a story about a squirrel and a spaceship. His brother looks over his shoulder and laughs. “That’s the stupidest thing I ever read. Squirrels can’t drive spaceships. Plus, you can’t even spell.” Teddy crumples his story and throws it in the trash. Why did he ever think Squirrels in Space was a good idea?

Grade 3, and his teacher posts everyone’s essay on the wall outside the classroom. Teddy is so proud he can hardly breathe—until he hears the snickers. “Look at this one. He spelled ‘ammunition’ wrong. And look at that handwriting. Are you sure he’s not still in kindergarten?” 

And so it goes. Teddy grows up to be Ted. He hates his English classes, says they’re boring and stupid. Instead, he gets a degree in business, lands a terrific job he’s good at, becomes a rising star in his company. Then his supervisor offers him a promotion. It’s a great opportunity. Lots more money, better benefits, but he’ll have to write copy for clients. His unconscious mind knows this a bad idea. He doesn’t consciously think about the Squirrels in Space incident, but deep inside, his unconscious mind knows writing hurts. It’s already decided that this is a dangerous situation that Ted must be protected from at all costs.

Ted goes home to think it over. Maybe he makes a list of pros and cons. He thinks of all the rational reasons why the cons carry more weight than the pros. On Monday, he goes into the office and says, “Sam, I appreciate the opportunity, but…”

His decision to turn down the promotion is based, not on his carefully constructed list of pros and cons, but on an inner drive to avoid the kind of pain he felt the day his brother laughed at Squirrels in Space.

Drives are our unconscious motivations, the thoughts and emotions that churn around in that primordial soup we talked about earlier. They’re the reasons we want what we want and fear what we fear. They might drive us to enter a marathon and push on until we drop, even when common sense says it’s time to stop. The conscious desire is to win a medal, get in shape, make Dad proud.

The unconscious drive is the fear of not being good enough (because Dad, who was a track star in high school, always let you know when you fell short, but never once expressed his approval); a hunger for attention (because when you were small, everyone you knew praised you for your athletic prowess, and that felt good); or the need for validation (because your older sister was a star athlete who got all the accolades while you were the clumsy one who sat in the bleachers and pretended to cheer).

What are your character’s unconscious drives and motivations? What influences are working on him that he isn’t even aware of?

Obstacles and Conflicts

Obstacles and conflicts are the things that come between your character and what she wants. For the purposes of this lesson, obstacles are external forces (like poverty, natural disasters, physical disabilities or limitations, or an antagonist with opposing drives and desires), while conflicts are internal or interpersonal.

With internal conflict, your character feels opposing emotions (like the desire to win a show jumping competition with a $10,000 prize versus a fear of riding developed after a bad fall from her horse) or is torn between two equally attractive but mutually exclusive options (think of Stephanie Plum’s ongoing flirtations with Joe Morelli and Ranger).

Let’s go back to that show jumping competition. If your character—let’s call her Molly—wants to win the competition, has the means to enter, and has no doubts about either entering the competition or about her ability to win, then you have no conflict. Tension is low because nothing is keeping her from getting what she wants.

But let’s say she needs the $10,000 to help pay her way to the college of her dreams, and let’s say her best friend, Pia, is also entering the competition. Pia is riding a horse she loves, but the owner (their trainer) is about to sell him, and her foster parents either can’t afford or aren’t willing to buy him for her. Pia is a lonely girl whose only friends are Molly and this horse. Losing him will break her heart. That $10,000 would be enough to buy him. If Molly were to withdraw, Pia would be a shoo-in. Does Molly choose college for herself or happiness for her friend?

Chess ConflictNow you have conflict. 

Interpersonal conflict occurs when two characters have opposing desires. Some writers think that, to have conflict, the characters have to bicker throughout the story, but that’s not the case.

Imagine a mother and son. The son wants to go to college, but he knows his widowed mother can’t afford to pay for it and needs him at home to work in the family business. She has health problems, medical bills. If he leaves, she’ll lose the business and probably her home. He tells her he’s decided to forget about college. 

Mom wants him to go away to school. She thinks it’s his best chance for a good future doing work he loves. She’ll sell the business, she says. Sell the house. Get a smaller place or even go live in a retirement home. No, he says, she loves this house. He wants her to be able to keep it.

There is conflict, because their desires are in opposition. Each wants the other to be happy and is willing to sacrifice much to achieve that end. Neither wants the other to make that sacrifice. Can you see how a conversation between these two, in which she tries to convince him to leave despite his determination to stay, could be infused with tension, even though these people aren’t angry, or even annoyed with each other? Even though they’re coming from a place of love and mutual respect, their conflicting desires create tension.

Some situations serve as both obstacles and conflicts. Antagonism or rivalry between two characters could be an obstacle (if it results in one keeping the other from a desired outcome), an internal conflict (if it causes emotional turmoil), and an interpersonal conflict (if one confronts the other). 

Whether internal or interpersonal, conflicts are emotionally charged. As a result, they can create powerful moments in your novel.

Putting it all Together

In your character’s pursuit of her desires, what obstacles stand in the way? What internal conflicts does he have?

Is he comfortable with his current life? Happy? If so, what might happen to threaten that comfort or happiness? If not, what has kept him from acting to change the situation, and what might happen to make him finally take action? 

What does your character actually need, and does this need conflict with his conscious desires? What does he value most and why? Is it a belief? A loved one? An object, homestead, piece of property? What might threaten this person or thing, and what will he risk to protect it? What is something your character would never do? Based on what you know about his motivations and desires, what would make him do that thing? Is there a way to work this into the book? 

The mistake I made when I first tried to answer these last two questions (which I got from a Donald Maass workshop) was to go with the easy, obvious thing: my character would never rape a woman, murder a child, torture an infant. So when I asked myself what might make him do those things, the answer was always so extreme it would simply not believably happen.

If you’re having the same problem, back away from these most extreme circumstances. If your character is afraid of heights, maybe the thing she would never do would be to cross a suspension bridge over a canyon. What would make her do that? If your answer is, “She would never torture anyone,” can you think of a circumstance where she might? What if the villain has buried her spouse alive, the clock is ticking, and the captured villain refuses to reveal the spouse’s location? Maybe she would, in fact, resist the temptation to torture the information out of the villain, but the conflict between her moral decision not to torture and her desire to save a loved one could make for a powerful scene.

As you develop scenes and plot points, ask yourself how one or more of these elements might add tension and propel the action. Whatever your plotline, the interplay between desires, drives, obstacles, and conflicts can add depth and dimension to your story.

Beth TerrellJaden Terrell (Beth Terrell) is a Shamus Award finalist, a contributor to “Now Write! Mysteries” (a collection of writing exercises by Tarcher/Penguin), and the author of the Jared McKean private detective novels “Racing The Devil”, “A Cup Full of Midnight”, and “River of Glass”. Terrell is the special programs coordinator for the Killer Nashville conference and the winner of the 2009 Magnolia Award for service to the Southeastern Chapter of Mystery Writers of America (SEMWA). A former special education teacher, Terrell is now a writing coach and developmental editor whose leisure activities include ballroom dancing and equine massage therapy. www.jadenterrell.com

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