Well-developed fictional characters have desires—needs, wants, ambitions, and goals—just like real people do. Your characters must want or need something in order to be interesting. And the stronger the character’s desire, the more compelling the resulting drama and the more intriguing the character becomes. This happens because desire intrinsically creates conflict—that crazy stuff that happens inside of your story that helps shape your characters into “people” that your reader can relate to.
Readers might love your characters or hate them, but they shouldn’t be indifferent to them. Boring characters make a boring story. Remember all the conflict that Romeo and Juliet created as a result of their desire to be together? OMG! And how about that battle between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker? Talk about drama!
Characters are Driven by Desires
Characters who aren’t driven by desire merely react. If a character only reacts to events, then they don’t distinguish themselves as unique individuals. They’ll simply respond in the same way that a normal person would. They simply become victims in the story, rather than interesting personalities. But characters who are driven by desire have the power to push the action along through the entire story. Well-developed characters must have both conscious (what they know they want) and unconscious (what they don’t know they want) desires. Although a character’s conscious desires may shift from scene to scene, the unconscious desire stays the same throughout the novel and often forms the spine of the story. Stories are often about the conflict between a character’s conscious and unconscious desires, and the job of the plot is to bring the character’s deeper unconscious desires to the surface.
The stronger a character’s conscious desires, the more likely they are to drive the action of the story. That’s why characters with strong desires often make such interesting reading. Rather than being generic victims batted around by the plot, characters with strong desires create the plot as they try to achieve their desires (or what they think they want). Characters with strong, and competing, desires help make scenes more interesting too. In order for dialogue to come to life, characters need to want different things from the interaction—and want it badly. Nothing makes a story more boring than agreement between characters.
A character’s extreme compulsions and obsessions give us a sense that there must be some deep unconscious desire beneath the surface that’s actually driving them. Quite often, characters are only partially aware of their unconscious, or true, desires. However, the writer must be aware of these desires in order to effectively structure the characters’ narrative arcs (to have a deep desire form the spine of the story).
When creating your characters, start with desire. List what your character wants (their conscious desires, which might change over the course of the story). Then try to figure out what lies beneath these conscious desires. What’s the deeper, driving unconscious desire that they’re not aware of? The stronger a character’s desire (or obsession), the more they’ll drive the action of the story (and the more interesting they’ll be).
Once you know your character’s conscious and unconscious desires, think about how these desires might conflict with each other. Try to plot your story in response to your character’s desires. Ask yourself how the character might make things worse for his or herself by pursuing the wrong desire? What events might put pressure on your character and force his or her deeper, unconscious desire to the surface?