(To skip the story time and go straight to the tips, skip the next two paragraphs.)
In trying to figure out what’s wrong with the stories I’m working on, I looked to my past successes. My most successful short story, titled “How to Become a Princess,” was a funny piece that commented on a lot of the tropes in our classic princess story. When I say successful, I mean that it has become a piece that I am proud of, a piece that I willingly show people (more than just my roommate), a piece that others have told me I should get published. When I think back to my fiction class, all I remember my teacher ever saying is that we need to make our stories literary, and when I asked what that meant, he said “Characters.” Literally. That’s it. I hated him for being so vague and unhelpful (and judgey and elitist. This is the guy who hated fantasy stories and believed song lyrics couldn’t be poetry.)
But now I get it. Looking back at “How to Become a Princess,” I realize that the main reason it worked is because the character was goal-driven. Every sentence contributes to the character’s journey to achieving their goal. My pieces now aren’t working because I don’t have a clear enough goal in mind. I don’t know what any of my characters want.
I looked into Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs, a theory that suggests all our wants and needs break down into five categories (starting with most basic needs):
- Physiological (Are they tired? Hungry? Thirsty?)
- Safety (Do they have shelter? Financial security?)
- Love (How are their familial/platonic/romantic relationships?)
- Esteem (How do they feel about themselves? Do they respect others? Do others respect them?)
- Self-Actualization (Are they finding a deeper meaning to life?)
Of course, goals can overlap and change over the course of the story.
In Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, Libby’s goal at the beginning is to get money (safety). Her need for money drives her to accept Lyle’s offer. Lyle would pay her to look into the murder of her family. Over the course of the story, while she is still motivated by money, she does start yearning for answers herself (This could be safety, as answers might bring her peace of mind; esteem, as she wants to know if she was right or wrong, and she fears what people might think, should she end up wrong; or even self-actualization, as I suspect she wants the opportunity to right her wrong, should that be the case.) In her quest for answers, she reaches out to various family members, partly for the money, but I suspect also due to a desire for love, belonging, and acceptance.
As we can see, Flynn’s protagonist harbors several desires at the same time, all of which grow and change as Libby grows and changes.
It’s good to show the multiple goals of your character. Just remember to tie them all to the story. For the same reason that we don’t want extraneous details, no matter how realistic, like characters peeing or unimportant dialogue, we also don’t want a bunch of random details about the characters that don’t further the plot.
Another thing to consider would be the length of the story. In a novel, it will be easier to weave multiple goals together, but in a shorter piece brevity is important. With a limited amount of words, you may not be able to squeeze every thing in, so prioritize the goals. Figure out what your character’s most important goal is and try to focus on that.
In one of my stories, my character starts the story with the desire for her friends and family’s safety (safety). By the end, she wants to bring her girlfriend back to life (safety and love/belonging). In my other story, my protagonist wants to runaway from her friends, family, and obligations (love/belonging and self-actualization), but in the end, she just wants to be safe and alive (safety).
What do your characters want?