I Want to Write Good Characters

What is the most important part of a story? If you said “the characters” then congratulations—you’re right!

At the heart of every story, in every medium (a book, movie, tv series, a game, or anything else with a story), are the characters. The characters are how we identify the story, how we interact with it, and most importantly the characters DRIVE the story. In fact, I am of the school of thought that the CHARACTERS ARE THE STORY.

But writing GOOD characters can be a little tricky. It’s easy to fall into stereotypes or two-dimensional nobodies.

Here’s a question to think about: what DEFINES your character? What makes him/her who he/she is? If you said “he has a badass sword” or “she is the princess of a kingdom” or “he’s quirky and sooo random omg” then you’re doing it wrong. The most important element of a character is what he or she WANTS.

Let me repeat that, because it’s going to the the central thesis for this article: the defining element of a character is what he or she wants.

In other words, a character’s motivation makes the character. Once you know what motivates your character, and incorporate it into his or her dialogue and action, it will not only create a more emphatic character—building a strong bond with your audience—but it will pull your entire story into a tight and cohesive character-driven narrative.

The “I Want Song” 

I’m a huge Broadway nerd—I loooove musicals. And within the world of musicals, there is a particular kind of song known as the “I Want Song”. In nearly every (good) musical, the protagonist (and often the antagonist and other major characters) will have a song devoted to the expression of their desires. It usually comes in somewhat early—maybe even the character’s first big number. Because this song will define the character for the audience—the audience will know immediately that this is what the characters WANTS, and how it will influence the character’s actions throughout the rest of the play. Often the song is reprised multiple times throughout the show, as the character’s “I Want Song” becomes the character’s leitmotif or theme song. When the melody of an “I Want Song” is juxtaposed over a scene where something is happening that goes directly against the character getting what he wants, it can be genuinely heartbreaking. This is why the music in musicals can have tremendous emotional impact.

The concept isn’t restricted to musicals—while your character might not be literally singing about what he wants, the “I Want Song” needs to be present WITHIN the character at all times. This isn’t to say that the character’s motivation can’t change—in fact I would argue that the strongest character development comes from development of the character’s motivation—but if your character’s actions aren’t defined by his motivations, then your character isn’t much of a character at all.

I’m going to look at two examples of great memorable characters to show how a character’s motivation becomes central to his or her identity and how the “I Want Song” should be used to build conflict and DRIVE the story.

Ariel Wants to Be Human

The Little Mermaid is a classic Disney musical. I’m more familiar with the Broadway version—which has a lot more depth than the animated movie (particularly it gives Ursula and Eric a lot more depth so they’re fleshed-out characters (with “I Want Songs” of their own) rather than vessels for moving the story along). Whichever version you’re familiar with, though, you’ve probably heard Ariel’s “Part of Your World” (here’s a Youtube—go ahead, watch it).

It’s clear that her strongest desire is to be a part of the human world (the most repeated phrase in the song is “I want”). She’s absolutely fascinated by human culture, collecting discarded objects and paintings from shipwrecks and wondering what kind of civilization could create such magical artifacts. This fascination drives the main conflict of the story—she makes a deal with the devil (in this case her aunt, the witch Ursula) where she gives up her voice in order to have human legs.

Now what really gets me is how Ariel’s song is used as a metaphor for the overall theme of the story—becoming human is a metaphor for growing up. Ariel is a girl who is on the verge of becoming a young woman, and that thematic element of her motivation creates a strong link to the audience. We can totally empathize with her, and that creates an emotional core to the entire story.

The next character isn’t from a musical, but his “I Want Song” rings loud and clear in everything that he does.

Gollum Wantses his Preciousss

Everybody knows what Gollum wants. Even if you’ve never seen or read Lord of the Rings, you’re familiar with his catchphrase: “My precioussss.” Gollum wants the One Ring, and it motivates everything that he does.

Honestly I don’t even need to say much more than that—once I’ve brought it to your attention, it’s so obvious that he is the perfect example for the power of a character’s motivation driving a story. He’s undoubtedly an antagonistic force—his desire for the One Ring is in direct conflict with the protagonist’s goal of destroying it. But at the same time, his motivation is so REAL that he evokes sympathy. The final shot of Gollum in The Return of the King is beautiful. As he falls into the volcano to his death, he has a look of pure joy on his face: even though he’s dying, he gets what he wanted all along. And in his very final action as he is consumed by the lava, he reaches again for his ring.

It’s worth noting that while Gollum is defined by his obsession with the ring, it doesn’t prevent him from being a fully fleshed-out character. His motivation is direct, even shallow. But over the course of the movies (books), he becomes an incredibly deep character. In the time he spends with the hobbit protagonists, it’s clear that he develops some level of affection for Frodo. These feelings go directly against his defining motivation: it creates conflict. One of the most iconic scenes from the trilogy occurs where Gollum attempts to work through this conflict. When Gollum argues with his own reflection in bizarre and unsettling internal/external monologue, his defining motivation is threatened but wins out in the end.

5 comments

  1. Steve says:

    Hi there–I came here from a link posted on rpgmakerweb’s Facebook.

    I want to tell you that your advice is exceptional, and as a teacher of creative writing and a writer myself, I’m excited when I hear practical, functional, fundamentally sound writing advice.

    However, during one of my graduate school residencies, writer David Jauss said something that changed my prescriptive approach to talking about writing altogether–that a character’s motivation (his yearning, as Robert Olen Butler puts it) is, in some of the greatest examples of writing of all time (he cited Chekhov’s “The Bishop” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” as examples), completely unknown. In fact, the STRENGTH of these pieces is that they portray characters struggling to understanding what it is that compels them. This is when characters become most human, most tragic and most empathetic, since most often, we, ourselves, don’t truly know what it is that drives us.

    I also think of Sherwood Anderson, whose “Winesburg, Ohio” is often praised for having some of the most humanely and realistically-portrayed characters ever seen in the English language. They behave in heartbreaking, seemingly irreconcilable ways which defy the classic advice to know what it is your characters want.

    In any case, I’ve said the same thing you’ve written here for years, so I thought it would be worth speaking up and letting you contemplate the alternatives. And even so, knowing what your characters want is still excellent foundational advice, especially for beginning writers setting out to create an RPG.

    • Despain says:

      Hey Steve thanks for the great reply. :)

      I would argue that the characters you describe have motivations if not concrete. Like Meryl Streep’s character in Adaptation., they want to want something.

      As long as there is motivation, it doesn’t really matter what it’s for.

    • Maligned says:

      I agree with despain in that all the characters and scenarios you’ve mentioned have motivations, they just might not be apparent to the audience or even the character themselves. But they are there, nonetheless.
      Personally, I enjoy deep characters with unseen and oft conflicted motivation. This lets me try to work my way into their mind and try to understand what is happening in their shoes, how they feel about it, and how it effects the present and future plot events and the story as a whole. (To be honest I hate musicals in general because of “I Want” songs. It’s so ham handed and overt that it takes away so much intrigue and interest in the overall story.)
      But, the whole point of this article (I believe)is to develop motivations for your characters and to think about how their motivations at the time will effect the plot events that are occurring and how it will impact the story as a whole.
      Very good article despain, my mind is all the richer for reading it.

  2. I find your articles quite useful.

  3. Liam says:

    A terrific example of this is the musical ‘Into the Woods’, where almost every song is an ‘I want’ song. The theme of the entire show revolves around characters actually getting what they want, the consequences, and the fact that they all lost something to get what they wanted, or realised that their ‘wish’ wasnt truly what they were looking for.

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