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.
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?