Chapter 2 - Character as story

I like to think of a simple (and perhaps magic) formula to help when I’m writing a character and a story. It goes like this:

Desire + Action + Conflict = Story

To explain a little further:

  1. A character wants (desires) something;
  2. The character tries to achieve it by taking some action;
  3. Things get in the way, creating conflict.

By the end of the story, the character either will or will not have achieved what she wanted, but most often she will have changed in some way in the process.

The question that drives the story, then, is pretty simple: will the character get what she wants? Following desire, it is action and conflict that make the story go forward: What will the character do to get what she wants (what action will she take)? What will get in her way (creating conflict)?

Now, the desires, actions and conflicts a character has and is effected by don’t have to be enormous. It could be as simple as a character wanting to open the jar of biscuits which is just out of reach, or it could be as complicated as a character wanting to travel through time. (Or, to look at our previous example, a character who wants to be an astronaut.) The possibilities for story, and the characters that live through those stories, are endless.

Example and Exercise #1

Let’s return to the example I’d mentioned above, with the boy who eats lots of toast and wants to be an astronaut. Let’s give him a name, Carl, and say he’s ten-years-old. He has a desire, to go to space, but maybe that should represent an emotional, or abstract, desire he has, too. Why does he want to go to space? Maybe it’s to impress his crush, Sam. This is a good start – we as readers are now curious to see if he’ll get to be an astronaut, and if he’ll impress Sam.

Next comes action and conflict: What will Carl do to become an astronaut? Could it be his attempt to be the world’s youngest astronaut? What will get in his way? Could a rival young astronaut, Rebecca, try and take his place? What happens in the end, will Carl be successful, and finally be able to share his toast with Sam?

Try mapping it out below, making up any details you like:

Carl’s desire: __________________________________________

Carl’s actions to achieve his desire: _________________________________________________

The conflicts that block Carl’s way of achieving his desire: _______________________________

At the end, will Carl be successful in becoming an astronaut and impressing Sam? ______________

Most stories, be they novels, short stories, films, plays, poems or songs, follow some variation of this formula of Desire + Action + Conflict. Think of some of your favourite stories, and answer the following following questions to see if these stories follow the formula as well.

  • Name of Story (Book, Film, Play, etc.)
  • Name of Character What does the character want? (Desire)
  • What does the character do to achieve it? (Action)
  • What gets in the character’s way? (Conflict)
  • Does the character get what she wants in the end?


Exercise #2

Now, make up your own character. Give the character a name. Jot down some of the following, and don’t think too much about it – this is an exercise for brainstorming, and your character can simply be a rough idea at this point.

  1. How old is your character?
  2. What does your character look like?
  3. Where does your character live?
  4. In three words, describe your character.
  5. What does your character want?

Have a look at your list and responses. Is this a character you want to write more about? If so, bring them along to the following sections. If not, don’t worry. Maybe they’ll be better for another time – carry on to Module 2 anyway, and let’s see what other characters we might meet along the way.