Do You Know What Your Characters Really Want?

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We want something every moment that we’re awake, but most of us have no idea what we really want.

It could probably be boiled down to love, acceptance, status, or safety. Not wanting to admit to ourselves, or anyone else, that we could be so weak as to want basic human desires, we try to fancy it up. “I want to change the world.” “I want to make a difference.” “I want everyone to know I own vinyl records.” Fine wants, sure. But why? In order to understand ourselves and others, we need to get down to basics.

There is a simple writing practice that I am doing for the next 30 days. It’s one scene, each day, where one character wants something, and another character is in the way. That’s it.

Understandably, I want to be a “good” writer, so a lot of times I try to write things that are interesting, complex, “good.” This leads to muddled, abstract, boring, and pretentious writing that I can’t even stand to read later. It’s a lot of scenes where characters are brooding, saying vague things, and acting like something interesting is happening, when nothing is.

Telling stories and getting feedback has a wonderfully painful way of reflecting back what is wrong with us. As they say, creating is like walking down the street naked. In this specific case, my problem was that I wasn’t being totally honest with myself about what I wanted, and it was showing up in my characters.

I’ve had the notion that this might be an issue for a while, but I really didn’t know what to do with it, so I just buried it in the “shame” section of my mind. I try to not bury away unfinished business, but I’m human. As all things unresolved, it came back with a vengeance. I had horrible fear around my writing getting rejected in any way. In total honesty, I am working out the details of this as I write this now. Side note: writing is very helpful to sort out stuff floating around in your head.

Anyway, I didn’t let the fear stop me. I still submitted and shared my writing. But, in hindsight, I was suffering way more than I needed to. One day I was talking to a good friend who is also a writer. He’s took a class with Randall Park (of Fresh Off the Boat fame) and he shared with me his favorite take-away, which I am sharing with you now. 30 days of simple wants.

This advice hit me hard, and I my instincts told me to drop any other writing exercises and focus on it. I wasn’t sure exactly why until now, but the benefits have been immediate. Not only to my writing, but also to my mental health in relation to my writing.

I watch these scenes unfold, one character wanting one thing and another character stopping them from getting it. I was amazed about a few things. I’ll number them:

  1. Simple wants did not make for simple characters or simple scenes. They were just fertile seeds from which to start and which to return when in doubt.
  2. It felt much more life-like because that’s what people are like. People want something. That’s why they do what they do. They do it through the filter of their character, circumstances, and life experiences, but in any given moment, they want one thing. If they are ambivalent, then the scene is not about them.
  3. Even if it is serious, allow it to be funny. People are funny, single-minded, and blinded by their wants. It can still be a dramatic scene. Comedy is the recognition that our limited perspective gives rise to constant error.

Over the next 30 days, I will accept my simple wants and not judge them. I will not judge my characters for just wanting to be loved, to be special, to be comfortable.

If anyone wants to take on the 30s days of wants with me, please reach out and let me know!

Originally published at on June 21, 2020.

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Lost southern boy learning to be a storyteller in Los Angeles. Interested in writing together?

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