What do you want from life?  ~The Tubes

 Characters want things. They need things. Some are the mundane: food, shelter.

Other things are less essential: friends, stuff. The key to a good, well-rounded and complex character is in her wants and needs. The foundation for all characterization is the character’s desire.  It gives him the strength to keep on keeping on against the odds. It drives her actions so that she can realize her desire.

In the story, “Friendly Skies” by TC Boyle, the character only wants one thing: to land back on solid ground. Her need for safety puts the entire story into motion and we, the reader, can’t imagine things working out any differently than they do.

Think about Kafka’s “The Metamorphasis” where the main character had transformed into a cockroach over night. More than anything else, he doesn’t want to burden his family.

Look at your work. Can you write one sentence that conveys the deep desire of your character? Do it now.

The above description is a bit simplistic. A complex character will have more than one desire. She’ll have many, and here’s where it gets interesting. Some desires may fly in the face of the character’s or society’s values, creating conflict, or the character may hold two equally, but conflicting desires. This is what life is about. If we want our characters to appear real to our readers, they must be complex and conflicted. Little Miss Sunshine only holds an audience for a very short time!

How do we learn about these desires? Through the character’s choices, what he has to say to other characters, what he withholds from other characters, how he behaves, and through his thoughts and narration.

Remember that desire is packed with emotion. Desire is emotion, and human emotions are not neat. They are conflicting and mutable. Be cautions of making your character’s emotion too messy or you’ll end up with an unbelievable character. We want to be surprised but trust the character at the same time.

There are many ways to portray  your character’s desire. One excellent solution is to show how characters feel, think and behave in relationship with other characters. People think and act differently, depending who they are around and so with characters. Through different interactions, the reader can learn the facets of your characters’ person.

Compelling characters:

Hold two or more conflicting values/desires

Personalities are depicted by which value or desire the character chooses.

The character’s attitude about his choices builds characterization.

Small choices should be consistent with larger desires and can act as foreshadowing of the larger choices to come.


Write a back story for your protagonist as a short story or flash fiction. What has shaped her/him? How is her/his current desires driven by their past? Now do the same for your antagonist, if possible. Memoir writers, you can do this too. How has your past informed your present in relation to the story you are writing?

I've heard a lot of buzz about critique groups over the last few years. At every conference, meeting, and author talk, we are reminded that publishers don’t retain editors anymore, and agents and publishers expect near perfect manuscript. Author Karen Batchelor once said, “These days, the writer is mostly on his or her own.” And it’s true. We have to “re-vision” our approach to professional, publishable writing.

The Norton guide to creative writing, The Making of a Story, encourages us to take our time with our manuscripts. Don’t assume a piece is more complete than it is, author Alice LaPlant says. I agree. Take the time necessary to explore your work, making sure that the characters are believable, the plot is working, the narrative is rich with detail and sensory language, and the right scenes are in place.

Here’s the rub, I’m way too close to my own work to objectively evaluate these issues, and I’m willing to bet you are too. What’s the solution? 1) Workshop style classes that focus on constructive literary criticism like our class at UVC; I have attended one of Susan Bono's groups for years—a real help to my writing. 2) A writing partner who will read and comment on your work. 3) Critique groups. I’ve started several peer groups: the First Drafter’s Society for encouragement on those brilliant, messy first drafts (Anne Lamont would call them something else,) Wordweavers for camaraderie, encouragement, ideas, insight, copy editing, and great revision, and JAM for in-depth criticism, structural help, and deeper characterization—my nemesis.

“Isn’t there some sort of protocol for critique groups?” a friend asked recently.

“Of course, why do you ask?”

“Well, first, people come with work that hasn’t been proofread. Then they spend hours arguing over tiny points of grammar, spelling and punctuation. A couple of the people get an idea about something and they never stop going on about it—but they're easier to take than the man who says everything is “nice.” What does “nice” mean? And then there’s a woman who defends every criticism anyone gives her and is still making the same errors now as in the beginning. And I'm tired of hearing everybody say how bad their work is. Why do I want to read someone’s bad work? It’s a waste of my time—but it shouldn’t be, should it?”

No, your critique group shouldn’t be a waste of your time! The group should be one of your most valuable tools. My experience is that I improve my writing most by hearing what critique givers say about other work rather than what is said about mine. I don't have the same attachment so am relaxed and open to seeing the possibilities. I'm lucky. My groups have met for years and the participants are kind, purposeful, and very good critique givers.

When I mentioned the problem to my class, a student pointed out Judith Barrington’s suggestions in her Writing the Memoir, from Truth to Art. We use these principles as guidelines for our workshops.

Readers do
-come prepared with copies for all participants that have been read over and corrected
-ask for specific feedback they would like
-ask for clarification if they don’t understand
-make notes while people talk
-respond to specific questions asked during the critique

Readers don’t
-denigrate their own manuscripts
-explain the intention of the piece or why it was written
-respond until all have given their critique

Critique givers do
-start with what they like, what moves them
-pinpoint why something works or does not work
-point out where they feel confused, lost or do not believe
-write notes on their copy of the manuscript and sign it as a reader
-suggest possibilities for language or plotting to example their critique
-make copy editing and proofreading corrections on their copy

Critique givers don’t
-criticize in a way to belittle the writer or the writing
-make generalizations without pinpointing specifics: Try, “This is good because I was moved by the last paragraph where you said…”
-tell stories from their own experience
-waste time pointing out small grammar problems and other proofing errors
-impose personal viewpoint or flog a point that has already been made, and never are mean!

Writers—always remember: it’s your work and what you think is most important, that is, until your publisher says differently!