Sometimes, a main character seems to come into being, fully fleshed out, and a story just coalesces around them. More often it’s a lot of work to figure out what exactly a character is all about, and what they’re doing in the story. And occasionally, that character fights you every step of the way, and you find yourself uncertain where the story should go.
Today, I want to talk about finding a character’s direction: where do they want to go, and how are they going to get there?
What Do They Want?
The first thing you need to know about your character is what they want. A character with a goal has something to fight for, something to work toward. The story comes out of their adventures along the way to that goal. If a character excites you, there must be something interesting about them, and this interesting thing can often lead to their goal. A character trapped in poverty may want to start a business and become successful. A character whose fondest childhood memories are stargazing with their father may want to become an astronaut. Any strong emotional or physical need can embody the goal that drives the story.
The goal doesn’t have to be straightforward. It could be subtle. In the real world, most of us don’t always understand all of the things that motivate us. For as much as we cherish our reason and intellect, we are creatures of instinct and emotion. Often, feelings run deeper than any “reasonable” ideas about what we need.
Some characters might know what they want and actively seek it. Others may fight themselves at every turn, never entirely understanding what they are actually looking for, creating an internal conflict. Sometimes discovering the real goal can be a powerful revelation that the entire story hinges on.
Where Do They Live?
No character lives in a vacuum. They are a product of their environment, and the setting they live in will influence what their goals are, and what tools and allies are available to them. Sometimes when it feels like a character doesn’t have direction, it’s really a problem with the setting. It’s perfectly reasonable to have the setting be mysterious to the characters and to the reader, but it should not be mysterious to the author.
The character needs to be able to navigate the setting to achieve their goals, and if the author doesn’t know what roadblocks they can face or help they can find, it will feel very difficult to craft a story around them.
To create conflict on their journey, there must be hindrances that make this goal harder to achieve. To relieve some of the tension, the character needs help. Every time they fail to reach their goal, they need to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and try again. This try-fail cycle keeps the story moving forward, and ideally, it keeps escalating the stakes.
Break the Steady State
Stories don’t happen because everything is staying the same. They happen because something changed, and that change has consequences that the main character can’t ignore. Throw a wrench in the gears. Screw up the character’s life so that there’s no going back.
The most common place to ruin a character’s life is a he beginning of the story (to get the action going) or near the end (to resolve the conflict). However, this technique is just as useful in the middle of a story that is starting to stall.
When the main character is succeeding left and right, a catastrophic failure can bring them back to earth and raise the stakes again. When a villain is running roughshod over the main character, they might let down their guard and suffer their own huge setback, getting the good guys back into the game.
A catastrophe can also serve as a reset button, forcing all the characters to reevaluate their goals and what’s really important to them.
A character needs goals, challenges to overcome, and help along the way. They also need options. Story comes from characters put into hard situations where they have to make choices. Those choices lead to new situations, new problems, and more choices to be made.
Choices are where characters reveal what’s important to them, and a great opportunity for unexpected revelations. When a character has to choose between something that ought to be important to them and something that really is important to them, they’re forced to reveal that secret (or keep it hidden and deal with the regret of not making the right choice).
When the character has clear goals, choices make the story interesting. If there’s only one path forward, then the character will just keep walking. But if there are many options, the character will have to decide among them. For the character and the reader, this amps up the tension as we wait to see if they made a good choice. Alternately, the author can reveal up-front whether it’s a good or bad choice, and the tension then comes from wondering what the consequences will be.
When a main character has direction, the rest of the story often accumulates around it. The goals of the character get them started, and roadblocks and challenges can divert them in unexpected directions and keep the story interesting. They have to make choices; find allies; try, fail, and try again.
If the character is stagnating, a catastrophe can force them to make new choices or reevaluate their goals, and is often a great twist in the middle of the story.
Finally, the most important thing is to remember what made you want to write that character in the first place. They have something awesome about them, and their direction should be tied tight to that. If it excites you, it’ll excite your audience.