Contrary to popular belief, characters can take over a story and write it on their own. I’ve experienced this firsthand, so I know it happens.
In keeping with the same popular belief, the only thing you get out of your characters is what you put into them. They can’t do anything except what you’ve created them to do.
Nonsense? Contradictory? *rubs hands**cue ominous music* We shall see.
All villainous dramatics aside, I should confess that my current protagonist has been a nightmare. If you’ve ever had to deal with a character who constantly drags his feet and doesn’t seem to have motivation for ANYTHING, you know exactly what I’ve gone through.
Now do that times three, because that’s how many times I had to re-do him.
It wasn’t that he didn’t have strong enough motivations. It wasn’t that he didn’t have a million things he wanted and was driven to pursue. It wasn’t that I didn’t know where I wanted him to end up, and what lessons he would learn, and how he would change along the way. I knew all that. He had everything he needed; absolutely everything.
Except one tiny thing I was forgetting.
All humans have it. It’s the key ingredient of change— the key reason we get up and pursue life instead of just letting it clobber us over the head. All characters need it, and yet so often we authors overlook it entirely:
Desire for fulfillment.
Think about it. The most dynamic and compelling characters are the ones who change, right? Change is story. Story is change. In pursuit of their goals our characters should also find something richer— truth. About themselves and about the world and about their place in it. The character who rides off into the sunset is not the same character who galloped on stage in the beginning. He’s changed. Hopefully, he leaves the stage fulfilled.
Yeah yeah, we know this. It’s all basic. But we tend to assume change has only two ingredients— where you begin, and where you end up.
Not so. When we do it this way, we’re stuck between two islands without a way to cross from one to the other. The character must be willing to change; to exert himself and take risks and put the status quo on the line before change is even possible. He has to be willing to sweat and toil to build the bridge that will ultimately lead him to the end result.
He must desire fulfillment.
Without that desire, he just buckles under the strain of everything we cruel authors throw at him and becomes a mess of crippling fear, depression, anxiety, angst, and inertia.
All of those sins are forgivable except the last one. Readers understand fear, depression, anxiety, and angst. But the instant the protagonist starts dragging his feet, he loses his heroic charisma and becomes nothing more than an annoying brat who wants to whine or run his way out of every tough situation. He won’t run the story because he doesn’t even want to run his own life.
Desire for fulfillment is the one desire that keeps him going. His goals can (should) change. His idea of fulfillment can (should) change. He grows wiser. He better understands what’s worth having; what true fulfillment is.
But he must yearn to find it from the very beginning, even if he doesn’t know what he’s looking for. This gives him the courage to go out and face life and not be broken by it. To pick up his feet, pick himself up out of the mud, and face every challenge head-on even when life knocks him bloody again and again.
Whatever our external quests, inside we’re all looking for real happiness. This desire is the one ingredient that makes your character stand up and take his life in his own hands, and your story with it.