What does your character want? And why do they want it? If you want your readers to care about your character and root for them as they pursue their goal, you’ll need to know why that goal matters to your character.
Let’s talk about characters. Specifically, your protagonist. And specifically, what your protagonist wants.
And I do mean that: we’re going to talk about what your protagonist wants—with specificity.
See, there’s something that I have been saying to a lot of my clients lately, some feedback I’ve been hearing myself giving over and over. And I want to share it with you because it’s an important character development concept, and it’s cropping up in a lot of stories that I’m working on right now.
So in this episode, I’m going to share with you the advice I’ve been giving to clients and the exercise that I want you to do based on this advice.
But before we get into that, I want to start off with a question:
What does your protagonist want?
Now, you probably have an answer for this question.
If you don’t have an answer, that’s okay. Check out How to Identify Your Protagonist’s Want and Need (And Why Those Matter to Your Plot).
And if you’d like to do even more character development work, you can download my Character Arc Worksheet. It’s not specifically about wants and needs, but it is about how to craft a compelling arc for your character, and all of these pieces of character development feed into each other. Enter your email in the form below to grab that worksheet:
Anyway, back to character wants.
A Few Things Your Character Might Want
You probably have an idea of what it is your character wants. They could want a lot of things:
- They could want to get a promotion at work.
- They could want to save a victim from a villain.
- They could want to solve a mystery.
- They could want to meet someone and fall in love.
- They could want to make money.
- They could want to escape from a trap.
- They could want to kill a monster.
There are so many things that your character could want. And they’re all good things!
So think about your character and the thing that your character wants over the course of your story, and hold that in your mind as we go through this exercise.
But What Does Your Character Really Want?
Now, here’s the advice that I’ve been giving to clients:
Your character wants X thing. Fill in the blank with whatever your character wants. Maybe it’s something on that list I just gave you, or maybe it’s something else.
Whatever it is, X thing is a good thing. We all agree X thing is a good thing. Anybody would want X thing, of course, because it’s a good thing.
No one is going to be like, “Why does your character want X thing? That’s weird.” No, we don’t think that it’s weird because everybody wants that thing. It’s a good thing to want. It makes sense.
But the thing is, X thing is generic. We hear “X thing” and we think, “yes, that’s good.” We agree with it on an intellectual level.
But generic things do not make us feel. We don’t create a deep emotional connection with a generic thing. We don’t latch on to a generic goal and root hard for the character to get it. Generic goals have generic stakes, and generic stakes don’t move us or make us care.
In order for me to care about your character’s goal, in order for me to feel the emotions they’re feeling about it, in order for me to root for them to get it and feel the pain when they don’t have it and worry about the consequences if they fail, I need more than a generic “good thing.” I need specificity.
I need to know why your character wants this thing.
I need to know why your character wants this thing.
I need to know why your character wants this thing, this specific thing.
We all know that this thing matters in general. But that’s not enough. We need to know why this thing matters to your character.
Side note, this is why when nonprofit organizations share statistics about the impact they’ve had, they pair those statistics with specific stories of individuals that they’ve helped. The statistics hit us on an intellectual level. And the specificity of the personal stories hits us on an emotional level.
Let’s Build Out a Character’s Want
Let me give you an example of how this works.
First off, let’s pick a thing for a character to want. I gave you a whole list earlier, and here’s another list:
- A promotion
- Falling love
- Saving a victim
- Solving a mystery
- Killing a monster
- Making a friend
We could pick any of those things, or something else. For this example, here’s what I’ll choose:
We have a character who wants a closer relationship with a family member. There’s someone in their family that they have a lot of distance from, and they want a closer relationship with that person.
The funny thing is, even as I narrow this down, I can think of multiple clients that I’m working with right now who could be listening to this and thinking, “Oh my goodness, she’s talking about my book.”
And the thing is, no, I’m not. I’m trying really hard to keep this super different from any particular project I’m editing.
But it probably feels like I’m talking about your book because this is a really good generic thing to want.
We all want closer relationships with our family. No one would say, “Nope, it’s weird and unbelievable to me that someone would want to be closer to their family.” It’s a want that makes a lot of sense, a want so universal that it can resonate with pretty much everyone.
If Your Character’s Want Is Relatable, That’s Great
And I want to pause here and say that’s a good thing.
My point here is not to say, “This want is something that we all agree is good. That means there are lots of stories written about it. That means that we’ve already covered this in the span of literature and storytelling, and there’s no room for your story here, so you should go look for something more obscure for your character to want.”
No. That’s not the point at all.
The truth is, when you land on a want that we can all resonate with, that’s a great sign that you’re on the right track. You’ve tapped into something universal about human experience. Yes, we all want this thing. You’re writing about something true.
But you can’t stop there. If you stop there, your story stays generic, stays surface-level, and doesn’t connect with your readers on an emotional level and make a lasting impression.
Here’s the trick: In order to go beyond that, in order to make your story unique to you and create the specific catharsis you want to create for your readers, in order to make your story memorable and stand out as a unique story in a field of stories in which characters want X thing, you must add your layers of specificity to your story.
Let’s Add More Specificity
So let’s go back to our example: A character wants a closer relationship with a family member.
Our character doesn’t just want a closer relationship with family members. Our character wants a specific closer relationship with a specific family member in a specific way for a specific reason and will suffer specific consequences if they don’t get that relationship.
That is the specificity that I challenge you to bring to your story.
So let me narrow this example down further. We’ve got a character who wants a closer relationship with family members.
Let’s say our character is a girl. So now we’ve got a female character who wants a closer relationship with a family member.
I’ll say the family member is her mom. Okay, we’ve got a female character who wants a closer relationship with her mom.
That’s two layers of added specificity, and already, I’ve cut out a handful of people who were thinking, “Oh my goodness, my story is exactly like that.”
But I have also kept in quite a few people who have a story that’s exactly like that. I can think of both clients of mine and published books that I love that have female protagonists who want closer relationships with their moms.
So this is not yet enough specificity. A girl who wants a closer relationship with her mom, not enough specificity. Let’s add some more.
Why does our character not have a close relationship with her mom?
Our character doesn’t have a close relationship with her mom because a few years ago, her aunt died, her mom’s sister, and her mom has been wracked with grief ever since.
Now we’ve got another layer of specificity. We’ve got a specific reason why she doesn’t have the thing that she wants. Great.
Let’s go deeper.
She doesn’t have a close relationship with her mom because her aunt died and her mom has been wracked with grief. This means she used to have a close relationship with her mom, but she doesn’t anymore.
Why did she love that close relationship with her mom that she used to have?
Sure, when people have close relationships with their moms, we all think that’s great. Everyone wants that. But what does our character love about it? What does this relationship mean to her?
Well, when our character was a little girl, she would come home from school every day and her mom would have a slice of homemade banana bread cut on a plate and waiting for her. She’d sit down with her at the kitchen table and she’d ask about her day at school—the same four questions every time, but they’d cut to the heart of the day, and they’d help our character open up and share what she was really feeling.
And no matter what she shared, her mom understood her, and she listened closely and gave her wise advice about how to navigate the problems she was facing.
And these times of eating banana bread together after school were some of our character’s favorite memories with her mom.
And now she doesn’t have moments like that. Her mom doesn’t really talk with her. She hasn’t baked banana bread or asked her those four questions in years. They don’t connect the way they used to, and our character doesn’t feel like she can share her problems with her mom the way she used to.
So she’s got this memory of this thing that she loves to do, and she doesn’t get it anymore.
Okay. That’s great. That’s a layer of specificity that’s starting to differentiate us from some other stories. But there’s more we can dig into here.
Let’s create another layer of specificity by asking why again:
Why were those days eating banana bread with her mom so important?
Well, when she was eating banana bread with her mom, she felt so seen and loved and supported. Her mom got her the way no one else did, and she gave her such good advice. There were other people in her life who were happy to tell her what they thought she should do. But no one listened to her like her mom did, no one understood her as well as her mom understood her, and no one gave her such tailored advice, full of empathy and love, as her mom did.
She trusted her mom like no one else. She leaned on her mom when she was overwhelmed or confused or struggling, and she relied on her mom’s advice all the way through her childhood. She felt so safe with her mom.
And now she doesn’t feel any of that. She feels on her own. She feels adrift. She does not feel like she has a safe, secure relationship like that where she can share what’s going on, and where someone will give her advice that really fits her.
She feels like she’s got to solve all her problems herself. And she’s afraid that she’s not as wise as her mom. And so she’s not going to do the right thing all the time. And she’s just feeling so sad and lonely and adrift because she doesn’t have this close, loving connection.
From Generic to Specific
Now we’ve got some specificity. Now we understand why she wants her mom.
It’s not that her mom was a mom who did mom things.
Her mom was a mom who baked banana bread, who asked her questions about her life, who understood her the way no one else did, and who gave her good advice. Those things are the things that she wants from her mom that she’s not getting any more.
When she wants her mom, she doesn’t just want “X good thing.”
She wants her mother who fills specific needs in her life: who bakes her banana bread, who listens to her, and who gets her and guides her through life.
Other characters with other moms are different from this character and her mom. Their moms fill different roles in their lives, meet different needs, are important in different ways.
This is why this character specifically wants her mom.
We’ll See Specificity on the Page
And when we see this character in this story wanting her mom, we’ll see that present in ways specific to her.
One of the ways her mom is important to her is that she’s always been a guide to her, a wise mentor when our character runs into a problem. So now that her mom isn’t filling that role anymore, our character feels scared and overwhelmed when she has to face big decisions in her life. She’s never trusted anyone’s advice the way she trusted her mom’s advice, so even when she can ask other people, she always has this nagging sense that their advice doesn’t quite fit. So she has to rely on herself now, without the guidance she craves, and it’s so scary.
Another thing is, when she goes to a coffee shop, and she sees banana bread in the pastry case, sometimes it makes her want to cry. She remembers her mom making her banana bread, and she hasn’t gotten to eat her mom’s banana bread in years, and so she sees this symbol of the mother’s love that she used to have and she wants back so desperately, and it hurts.
Your Specificity, Your Story
These are layers of specificity that differentiate this story about a mom and her daughter from every other mother-daughter relationship story.
Now it’s completely different from every client’s book that I’m working on. You’re welcome, all my clients. I hope that I have allayed your fears.
Now it’s completely different from all the published books I’ve read that include a person who wants a closer connection with some family members.
This is its own story with its own layers of specificity.
And this story now has the power to create catharsis for your readers. Telling us that “a character wants a closer relationship with some family members” is not something that pulls at our heartstrings.
But “this young girl wants to sit with her mom and eat banana bread again while her mom listens to all her problems and gives her incredibly wise and caring advice about how to solve them”—that is something that tugs at our heartstrings.
We know that the thing your character wants is good. We know it’s a valuable thing, and it makes sense that anyone would want it. In our minds, we get it.
In order for us to care, though, you have to show us why your character wants this thing—what it means to them specifically, and what happens if they don’t get it. That’s how you touch your readers’ hearts.
Keep Asking Why
Now, this isn’t the end of the line for our protagonist and her mom. We could keep on adding more and more layers of specificity. I can ask “why” a lot more:
Why does our character feel like her mom gets her in a way no one else does? Is she very similar to her mom? Or is her mom very good at reading people?
Suppose her mom is very good at reading people. Why does it feel like a loss to not have her mom around reading her? Does she feel like other people don’t see her clearly? Does she feel like she picked up her mom’s skill of reading people?
We could keep going—asking why, and why again, and why again. At each new layer, there’s another “why” to explore, more opportunity for even more specificity.
But I’ll stop here, because I think you see where this is going, and I’ll give you your assignment.
Your Turn: Discover What Your Character Wants
So here’s your task now:
Take your character’s goal, that thing you know your character wants, and make it more specific.
And the way I want you to do that is by asking why—and then asking why again, and then asking why again.
Your character wants X thing. Great. That’s a good thing to want.
Why do they want X? Okay, they want X because of Y. Cool.
Why do they want Y? Okay, they want Y because of Z. Cool.
Just keep digging and digging and digging on why your character wants that thing until you get down to something really deep and fundamental.
2 Possible Roots of Your Character’s Want
A lot of times that deep thing turns out to be either:
- A belief they picked up in childhood about the way the world works, or
- An experience that they had at some point in their life that shaped them as a person and the way they see the world.
Sometimes it’s a specific event that changed the way they experience the world or really shaped them as a person.
Sometimes it’s more so the general way of things, the way that their life was, rather than one life-altering event.
That general way of things might then be represented by specific events. For example, our protagonist didn’t have one major event that defined her best times with her mom. Instead, she had an ongoing caring, supportive, and loving relationship with her mom, and that was represented by a moment at the kitchen table eating banana bread.
You don’t always have to go back to childhood, but a lot of times things do go back to childhood.
The key, though, is to dig down until you figure out why it is that your character wants the thing that they want.
Don’t stop until you’ve gone three or four or five layers deep and get down to some real specificity where you understand what’s really underneath that thing that they want.
Use Specificity to Make Your Readers Care
Wanting a good thing is a great start. But you will meet your readers on an intellectual level only unless you put on the page with great specificity why your characters wants that good thing, specific to them, and why it’s important that they get it.
I hope that helps you discover some new layers to your characters that maybe you didn’t even know yet. I think you’ll find some beautiful, powerful things when you keep asking why.
And I encourage you to lean in hard to that specificity as you write about your character and their pursuit of their goal.
Paradoxically, it is in creating that specificity that you will write stories that resonate with us all because you’re tapping into universal human experiences—and showing us truths about our world in ways that are new and unique to you.