Sunday, June 14, 2009


Let’s talk character. Of course there’s tons of advice about how to come up with them, how to get to know them, how to dress them and undress them, how to move them around a room, a city, a minute, a decade. There’s the dictum carved in stone about the need for a character to experience conflict, inner and outer usually. No conflict. No story. So presumably these characters we create must have problems and must attempt to solve these problems; they must themselves be dealing inwardly and outwardly with the conflicts in their lives. So there’s all that and a lot more that has to do with character building and developing.

I’m thinking about something related but slightly different here though, about how to use character to direct plot. For me story always evolves out of character.

Kurt Vonnegut says that characters must want something. He says even if they only want a meal or a drink of water, their wanting something will keep the reader interested. John Gardner wrote also wrote about the necessity for a character to desire. But the true guru (to me) on the need for characters to need is Robert Olen Butler whose book Where They Dream spends a whole chapter detailing with the need for a character to yearn. I love that word, yearn. It feels immediate, raw, and demanding. Robert Olen Butler’s idea of how this works is that the character’s yearning will direct the character’s story. In other words, points of plot will come out of that yearning.

What I like about this is it gives you something tangible to hang onto while you try to find your way through your story. Know what your character (s) yearn for and your plot can evolve out of that yearning and what gets in the way of it. Of course you will discover different levels of yearning as you work through drafts but knowing early what your character primarily yearns for can help you discover a lot. For example, say you have a character named Bradley who loves Brigitte who loves Brittney who loves no one and never will because Bradley broke her heart when she was sixteen. How will Bradley convince Brigitte to love him? How can Brigitte get Brittney to fall for her? Is Brittney really so shutdown she is unreachable by Brigitte or maybe by Bradley? This is a situation ripe with dramatic, if soap operaish, possibilities. If you know what your characters desire you can give your characters focus. There’s also opportunity to give your story focus.

Another point I would add to the whole idea of yearning is its opposite. What do characters fear or need to avoid in your particular story and the situations it produces? This is also helpful, I think, in developing characters and story.

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