You see what I did there, right?
Kurt Vonnegut said that every character in your story must have a desire, “Even if it is only for a glass of water.” When I read stories submitted to the literary magazine I edit, or when I read student work for the creative writing classes I teach, the most common character mistake is that there is a total lack of desire. People go to a lot of trouble to create a person on the page. They think hard about their character’s taste in music, his favorite food, her darkest fear. They answer questionnaires and fill out all the little boxes of a character’s resume and life. They search baby name books for just the right name.
But then they don’t DO anything with all that information.
It just sits there, like a turgid pile of information, a giant paragraph on the second page or a long, long flashback that loses track of the main action. Or even worse, they do all this research and creation, and then they don’t use any of it. They know what a character’s darkest fear is, but they just show the character eating and sandwich and going shopping. Where’s the part where the fear comes to life?
The way to make your character not only feel multi-dimensional but also worth caring about is to give your character a desire. It can be very simple. This character wants to make it to the wedding on time. This character is hungry. That character wants that character over there. Or the desire can be complex, contradictory, multi-layered; that character wants the approval of her parents. That character wants to be loved but also wants to be left alone. We need to feel that desire from page one of your manuscript, because it is that desire that moves the engine of the story forward. We’re not able to care about the events of the plot unless we understand what the character wants, and we begin to feel that want to.
That’s part of what makes great stories so seductive; even if the character’s desire is something we would never want for ourselves, we can cheer that character on and feel oddly invested in his quest. Think of Satan’s fervent desire to foul up things in Eden in Paradise Lost. Think of gangsters and criminals who just want to get away — and we are rooting them on. It’s desire that moves scenes and stories forward, and that gives scenes tension. Without that desire, no matter how eventful your scenes are, it will just feel like one thing happened after the other, a series of things happened to your character. But we need to see your character make choices and take action, and that can only begin with desire.
So here’s an exercise: look up some random photographs of faces on the internet. Try assigning a desire to each of those faces. Start simple; start with Vonnegut’s suggestion. This character wants a glass of water. Why does he want a glass of water? Why is he so thirsty? What’s going wrong in his life right now? And what’s between him and that glass of water? You’re halfway to a story already.