Chapter 2 - Character as story
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:
- A character wants (desires) something;
- The character tries to achieve it by taking some action;
- 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 (making her a – remember? – dynamic character).
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
Say we have a character called Ruth, and she’s a 17-year-old football player who wants respect. This is a good start, but we don’t know too much about Ruth yet, do we. Maybe her desire needs to be more specific. Often, the character’s desire will be both concrete (or, specific) and abstract (or, general) – so for Ruth, her abstract desire is to be respected, but that could mean a lot of things, right? What does respect mean to Ruth, specifically? Your task, as a writer, is now to choose Ruth’s concrete desire, and then the actions and conflicts that come from that desire. Maybe her desire is to score a goal in the next match against a rival team, and by scoring the goal Ruth will finally get the respect she’s craved from her coach, her peers and her mum. This is good – as a reader, we become invested in the question that the story now poses: Will Ruth score the goal, and therefore gain the respect she desires?
Next comes action and conflict: What will Ruth do to score the goal? What will get in her way? And finally, will she be successful? Try mapping this out. What are some possible situations for our character Ruth? Maybe you don’t want her to be a football player though, and maybe she doesn’t
want respect – what do you think she wants? Make any changes you like, and write out the following:
Ruth’s abstract desire: (Respect, or…) ________________________________________________
Ruth’s concrete desire: (To score a goal, or…) _________________________________________
Ruth’s actions to achieve her desire: _________________________________________________
The conflicts that block her way of achieving her desire: __________________________________
At the end, will she be successful in scoring the goal and earning respect? ____________________
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 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 – Abstract and Concrete)
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?
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.
- How old is your character?
- What does your character look like?
- Where does your character live?
- In three words, describe your character.
- 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.