Inalienable truth of the cosmos time: people want shit.
There’s needs, things that we have to have in order to survive: oxygen, food, water, an uninterrupted supply of caffeine*. But, with the exception of the potentially damaging effects of my addiction, they’re boring. Needs are only interesting when they pop up in life or death circumstances: I need to escape from this burning submarine before all the breathable air is consumed. Escape achieved, problem solved. Not a lot of mileage in those.
No, all the fun is in wants: love, security, sex, drugs, a hug, a cookie, a new phone, justice, revenge, a robotic monkey butler with laser eyes and built in wifi hotspot. Wants are the emotional things, the ones that fill you with hope and anxiety and the roiling acid pit in your stomach as you try to figure out how to get them.
Tapping into those wants—those desirable things that play on the imagination and the emotions—are what makes characters interesting. Hell, it’s what makes them characters, not just talking heads used to advance plot.
A thought occurs: needs are more boring because they’re unalterable. You can’t choose to not use air without suffocating, which is a choice, but makes for a very short story. Wants are about choices and desires and then having to live with the consequences.
Kurt Vonnegut’s rules of writing** included this: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” It’s up to you—being the writer and, you know, undisputed god of the story universe—to figure out what it is. Give them a reason to get out of bed. Give them a reason that they have to get out of bed, even if it’s only to take a piss. Then find a reason to leave the bathroom, to go out into the world, to take a length of lead pipe to that guy’s skull. Wants are pressure, forcing the character to act and choose and all the other fun and/or horrible*** things necessary to make a story.
So, what do your characters want? What drives them out of sleep? What keeps them from sleeping at all? And what stands in their way?
*You have your priorities, I have mine.
**As collected by The Atlantic and paired with that nifty video. I love the internet, don’t you?
***New word: forrible.
(Sidebar: Apparently, this is my 200th post on Bare Knuckle Writer. Woot!)