Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

What Do Your Characters Want?

Motivation. It's the powerful emotion that inspires people to get off the couch and grab a tub of ice cream. It's the only thing that is strong enough to pull me out of a very warm bed when it's still dark and cold outside. And it's what inspires Mario to save the princess, despite all sorts of finely rendered cartoon characters standing in his way.

How does this relate to books? Every good book begins with a protagonist who wants something.

I know that this kind of seems obvious (and it probably is), but there's a reason you don't generally see books about characters cast about by the whims of fate without any sense of purpose or desire whatsoever. Even Odysseus, essentially a powerless character blown about by the gods, has a rock solid motivation: he wants to get home.

Now, your character doesn't have to know what he/she wants on page one, but it should be conclusively clear by page 30, preferably earlier. And then, every step your protagonist takes after that point should be a step toward that goal, only they are thwarted at every step by obstacles and characters who have their own set of desires.

Many novels, especially genre novels, have a built-in motivation. Think: "save the princess" fantasy novels. It's built into the plot. The protagonist wants to save the princess. There's your motivation.

But better yet is a novel where a character wants more than one thing, and these two things are at odds. The main character might want to save the princess, but he might just have his eye on the king's throne as well, so he has to decide by the end of the novel which is more important to him. Better still is a character that wants things that are internally contradictory so that they not only have to battle the exterior obstacles to get what they want, but they have to battle conflicting desires within themselves as well.

Here's a way of illustrating that, Super Mario Bros. style.

Good: plumber wants to save the princess.
Better: plumber wants to save the princess while besting green-clad brother with similar goal
Best: plumber wants to save the princess while besting green-clad brother with similar goal, but although he is brave he is plagued by the creeping sense that the gamer controlling his every move might want him dead

Every time you introduce something your character wants, internal or external, whether it's saving the princess, acceptance from their parents, or snaring a white whale, you're introducing a plot arc. The main arc should open at the beginning and close conclusively in the climax of your novel. Smaller arcs may be introduced and closed somewhere in between.

Every single character you introduce, major or minor, should also have their own plot arc(s) with defined goals and motivations. The more important the character the longer and more complex the plot arc(s): i.e. your main villain's plot arc is probably introduced toward the beginning and closed at the end, and we probably have a rather nuanced sense of their own desires and contradictions.

This is often where writers miss opportunities: every character, big or small, has to show motivation, agency, and desire. They have to have their own plot arcs. And it's important that the arcs have a beginning, middle, and end. Unless you're under contract for book two, make sure those plot arcs are closed!

At every step of the way, on every page, with every exchange of dialogue and every action, characters are trying to achieve their desires but run into obstacles, whether internal, external, or because they're encountering characters who want something different than they do. This is conflict.

More about conflict on Thursday.


Bradley Robb said...

Vonnegut addressed this in his rules for writing - Every character should want something, even if it's just a glass of water.

Julie Weathers said...

This is one of your best posts ever. Donald Maassesque in scope.

Maass has an exercise. "What would your character never do?"

I thought it was silly at first and then when I tried it, I was astounded at the depth it added to the character. The conflict rose dramatically, just as your Mario description does.

Good job, Nathan. Thanks for posting this on Twitter, btw.

The Screaming Guppy said...

Awesome post. Love the Mario plot example!

Crystal said...

Oh Nathan! You've stolen my heart with that Mario Bros. reference, I love it!

But seriously, great post. It really got me thinking about my novel and whether it had those character aspects in it. It also got me thinking of a brainstorm for another novel to write, so thanks a bunch for the inspiration!

Off to the drawing board :)

Scott said...

As silly as it sounds, it's easy to lose sight of what characters want, to get sidetracked. This post is a great reminder, Nathan. Thank you.

I'm listening to Harlan Coben's The Woods right now. It's a great illustration of what you're talking about. The main character, Paul Copeland, wants to find out what really happened the night of his sister's muder some 20 years ago. That point is hammered home over and over again by Coben through out the book. Everything Paul Copeland does, somehow relates back to that desire.

David Eric Tomlinson said...

My characters want caffeine.

Anna Claire said...

So simple in principle, but so important. I'm starting a new book and you've definitely given me a focus for the next few days as I try to flesh out my main character. Thanks Nathan!

Judith Coughlin said...

Someone read me one of my stories the other day, and hearing my words in their voice took it right out of my head. And I realized that the reader doesn't know what I know, doesn't have the correct cadence of voice, doesn't have anything that I don't give him. The reading happened by accident, wasn't something I ever would have asked someone to do, but the story arc issues you speak to instantly crystalized for me.

Kate Levin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
K.C. Shaw said...

It's sort of related, although I can't remember who said it first (I've read it lots of places), but every character should think he/she is the hero of the story. Even the bad guy. So any writers out there who want to make a secondary character's motivation "He really wants to help the hero win!" should rethink that.

RW said...

I highly recommend--in addition to Nathan's excellent description of this issue--L. Rust Hills' book Writing in General and the Short Story In Particular. Reading his description of the difference between a sketch and a story was one of those "duh" moments for me that get me kick started.

Prairie Chicks Write Romance said...

There's a reason I fight my way through 5000 to 7000 readers a day to get to this blog. This is a great post, Nathan, thank you. I'm bookmarking it so I can come back to it again and again as I navigate my way through my characters' lives (from start to finish).


Vancouver Dame said...

Motivation was one of the first elements I mapped out when creating the profiles for my characters. It helps define how they will interact with the other characters. This is another great informative post, Nathan, leaving us hungry for Thursday's post on conflict.

Determining what the conflict will be is one of the things I enjoy most about characterization - whether internal or external. The article Alan Rinzler has on his site about 'loving your characters' relates to this somewhat.

Very happy to see this week will include writing topics, since your posts always seem to be right on point.

Marilyn Peake said...

I love that you introduced a topic on writing! Wow, nothing like a writing topic to get writers enthused and chatting like crazy.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to plot arcs recently. On page 217 of the science fiction novel I’m writing, I’m trying to pay very close attention to how the arcs of all the characters, including the minor ones, are progressing. That’s allowing me to move the novel forward much more quickly, and to feel like I’m getting to the heart of the overall story.

One of my favorite novels, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, holds great examples of plot arcs. Every character is unique. Even though an entire family struggles through life in a difficult environment, each one has very different motivations, and their lives end up quite different as a result.

JES said...

Such a great post, even if it IS on the one element of writing a book which gives me the worst heebie-jeebies. :)

Ash D. said...

Wonderful post.

I mean, come on... Who DOESN'T want to work with an agent who uses Nintedo-based examples?!

It just doesn't get much more awesome than that.

ryan field said...

Good post.

Bane of Anubis said...

Nathan, Thanks for the great post!

Ulysses said...

I've critiqued a number of manuscripts, both short stories and novels that suffer from this weakness. Without character desires, the story has no plot. It's just a series of connected events that don't lead anywhere. As a young lady of my acquaintance once said of her relationships: "If it's not going anywhere, why am I involved?"

I'd also stress that wanting something is insufficient by itself. The characters have to take action. They can't just wander through their lives waiting for chance or fate to drop it into their laps... unless they're a tragic figure whose inaction leads to the tragedy.

On an unrelated note: Via this blog:
A fascinating academic study about the future of writing and reading with some unsettling conclusions. The author of the presentation maintains a web site with more information:

Jen P said...

Wow. I've been writing for ages and was comfortable with plot, character, motivation, and how to make it all fit together and that every single thing has to count, but "plot arc" I've never heard of, and it suddenly became visual and so much easier to see in my head. Awesome advice. Thank you. wow.

Emily Breen said...

This post came on the day before my query goes off to my agent of choice with the first three chapters and all my hopes and dreams (keeping it all in proportion as you see!).

The questions you ask are so pertinent and have helped me give myself a little credit for all the work I put in on backstory for all my characters - pages that will never see the light of day but which, hopefully, shine through in everything they say, and all they leave unsaid.

Thank you for this post, much more constructive than the ANTM repeat I was watching. Back to reading, reading and rereading synopsis. Scary times :)

johnaskins said...

Every character has to show agency? But it's so hard to get an agent!

Dara said...

Constructing a good story around what your characters want takes a lot of work. I'm constantly fixing and fine tuning the motivations of my characters; sometimes I have to make them more compelling because they don't always come across that way.

Awesome Mario Bros. reference too. :)

Anonymous said...

Intriguing post to think about deeply!

I just pulled out from some writing and have a really big question for anyone:

If a character starts to think they won't get what they want and gets depressed, loses hope, etc., is that dangerous (for the writing, the reader, etc.)?

(too much of a downer?)

Nathan Bransford said...


At the nadir of a plot arc (which often happens right before the climax), all hope SHOULD seem lost and the character can be depressed and sad, etc. But the character shouldn't stop trying, or they might lose the reader.

Lafreya said...

Great post!! People in my writing group look at me like I'm crazy when I ask them this. They think I'm being picky. I'm sending them here.

Haste yee back ;-) said...

Uh.... Nathan,

Some of us have multiple personalities and we not only deal with contradictory wants but wants that are contradictory to the contradiction and with more than one person living in your head you multiply contradictions exponentially, producing contradictions to contradict any contradictions that are contra-indicators of contradictions to any and all outright contradicts!

Haste yee back ;-)

(plot a mile in my shoes and you'll take the same meds)!

MaLanie said...

Great post, very helpful. Thank you!

I must admit, I am a little scared to let people see my manuscript. It has become very personal and intimate. My characters are like my family! I feel like I am baring my soul.

This is my first book, will it be this way with every book? Does anyone else out there feel this way about your characters?

Mira said...

This is cool, talking about writing.

I'm learning about myself as a writer. Recently I felt liberated when I realized my genre isn't fiction. I don't have 'story' in my head, although I really admire people who do.

Realizing this was a relief because my fiction writing isn't very good, and I kept struggling with it. But I knew I wanted to write...finding my genre was like 'coming home.'

Plot and character motivation, though, is equally as important in my genres of essay/humor/non-fiction. The character voices still need motivation, and the piece still needs conflict to move it along. It's just set up differently.

Or is it? I haven't really thought about this much, but it's interesting to think about character arcs and motivation outside the fiction genre.

Mira said...

Speaking of character, I was thinking of starting a blog for characters.

I would call it 'Come in Character' and writers could post in their character voices. As a way to practice character.

That way your character could interact with other people in real life. It could really sharpen characterization.

I wonder if a blog like that would interest other people....?

Elyssa Papa said...

Really great FYI post on Motivation. Poor Luigi; he always gets such a bad rep.

Anonymous said...

Oh Nathan, that's so helpful!! Thanks!

And, whew! My character is in the final push before the big grand finali

and he is feeling bad and down.

But all hope is not to be lost!
Stay tuned!


(word verification=hinge)

Kristi said...

MaLanie - I also just finished my first book and have that same feeling of vulnerability about having my manuscript viewed. I only had my husband, sister, and brother read it (of course, they thought it was brilliant) but was just accepted today into a Critique Group of mostly published authors. I had to submit sample pages of my book and was really nervous about doing so, as I didn't realize there was actually competition involved in getting into a critique group.

I figure if I can get good, constructive feedback on my manuscript then I'll have a better shot at getting an agent. Has this worked for anyone? I'm assuming it gets easier with time to have others read your that true?

Anyway, my next step is to win Nathan's NCAA March Madness contest. I have absolutely no interest in basketball (or knowledge), but would love a query critique from Nathan. :)

Anonymous said...

That sounds like a great idea and fun too!

Justus M. Bowman said...

I think you like to see me sweat, Nathan.

Nicholas said...

"Best: plumber wants to save the princess while besting green-clad brother with similar goal, but although he is brave he is plagued by the creeping sense that the gamer controlling his every move might want him dead"

Genius example. Makes me wish that book existed.

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

well, I don't see how this applies for every good book. i don't see what Caulfield Holden wanted.


Nathan Bransford said...


I'd say his purpose. But unlike many other books about finding one's way in life that don't work as well, Holden is trying to find it every step of the way.

The types of novels that are driven almost purely by an internal desire are extremely difficult to write, but the motivation is there. It might just be beneath the surface.

Luc2 said...

Great post. I look forward to Thursday.

Rick Daley said...

If you ever flag your blog posts for a "Best of..." anthology, please make sure you include this one.


I'd show up at a character blog, I think that would be fun. Evil Editor had a writing contest last week where you had to be a movie character pitching your memoir, the entries were pretty funny (mine was the Matrix one, and scroll down a bit).

Cat Moleski said...

What a timely reminder! I'm polishing up my mss for submission and wondering if a secondary character arc needs completing. Now I know. Will go polish that spot I missed. Thanks!

RW said...

I once made a little poster with the basic questions that my character was struggling with and used it as a reminder during my rewrites to get me unstuck and keep me focused. It's posted here:

Shaun Hutchinson said...

Outstanding post. I especially like the Mario Bros. tie in. Just Awesome.

Jen C said...

Ahhhhh, I just had a flash of inspiration when reading your post Nathan. I love when this happens! (And no, the inspiration wasn't to put a Mario race in my historical novel... although that would be kind of awesome...)

Kristin Laughtin said...

Timely post! I've been thinking about this for my current WIP, where one of my MC's motivation for why she goes along with the others' plan is that they're simply giving her an opportunity she's never had to pursue her dream job--but the story was getting mired down because I hadn't figured out yet why that is her dream job. The others are pursuing this plan because of their ideology, which is very clearly defined, but she's been giving me more of a struggle than any character I've ever written since most of her desire is solely internal, like you mentioned a couple comments above. So I'm going to have to take this post very closely to heart as I proceed.

Also, mad props for the Mario example.

PurpleClover said...


Thanks! I'm in the middle of a SciFi Thriller and this helps me remember to keep focused!

But for the villain, do you need the arc to be as visible in the beginning or just know they are after the MC?? I dont necessarily introduce the WHY for my villain until WAY past 30 pages...

Anonymous said...

A huge number of months ago, hitting my fourth rewrite at the time, I typed out four pages of what I called "add-ins."

These are accomplishments, needs, goals, wants, events, growth etc. that MUST happen for each (major, supporting, and minor) character in order to complete the story.

Whew! What a LOT of work!

The *completion* is the most complicated part of the writing so far for me and vital too.

Lady Glamis said...

Great post, Nathan! I always think of this as tension. If the character doesn't want or need something, tension cannot be there. Thanks for a great layout of how the "arc" works!

Marilyn Peake said...


My characters are like my family! I feel like I am baring my soul.

This is my first book, will it be this way with every book? Does anyone else out there feel this way about your characters?

It often feels that way with your first book, but not so much after that. Once I started writing more and more stories, the characters were so vastly different from each other, it no longer felt like I was baring my own soul; it became more about trying to tell believable fictional stories from the perspectives of vastly different characters. I especially love the challenge of writing a story about characters who are not very much like me at all and live in a different cultural setting. I recently wrote a short story about an infant faerie arriving in modern-day China as it begins its industrial revolution. I worked the story partially around fantasy lore that claims faeries can't tolerate metals, while industrial revolutions involve a great deal of pollution from metal. I was so focused on developing character and plot arcs for the faerie and her adoptive family, researching background facts about China and faerie lore, and so on, that the characters took on a life very distinct from my own. Writer's angst never seems to go away, however. I'm now constantly concerned about craft and hoping for positive reviews of my writing. :)

Melissa said...

I'm just trying to figure out what my beagle wants today. She keeps going in my bedroom, then five minutes later, asks to be let out, then five minutes later, wants to go back in. How am I supposed to write like this!

jimnduncan said...

So, this should be the lead for your query, I would think. Or at least it would certainly make for a good start to a query. I'll have to look at mine and see where motivation gets put in, if it's actually there at all.

Marilyn Peake said...

Kristi said:
I'm assuming it gets easier with time to have others read your that true?

Not for me. I think most people in the arts continue to have angst about their new works.

Lupina said...

This post was superb, Nathan. Even though I thought I had done pretty well arc-wise in my most recent work, it made me stop and re-evaluate a couple of characters. Sharpening and clarifying never hurts!

Have you thought of writing a book based on your posts? I bet you could land yourself one fine agent.

Amy Sue Nathan said...

I think the key for writers is to know how to show the character motivation without spelling it out. One of my secondary characters wants to appear picture-perfect and serene, everything she does and says reverts back to wanting happiness and peace around her...yet she never says, "Oh my I want to appear perfect." The motivation is there, in her clothing and hair, her dialogue and actions. She works very hard at it.

What I've learned through the writing process is that secondary characters cannot revolve around the main character like the planets revolve around the sun. To be believable they need their own orbits.

It's great to read about writing here - and to remember that every character, like every *real* person wants something - even if it is just a glass of water like Vonnegut said, and your first commenter reminded us!

T. Anne said...

This is wonderful information! Thanks Nathan!
It's something to consider even down to the least of characters.

wolf said...

Lynn Viehl of Paperback Writer has this awesome spiel where she asks her main character: Who are you? What do you want? What's the worst thing I can do to you?

I read that and all of a sudden, character motivations made sense.

Rochelle said...

Great post today. I love your blog every day, but this one is a keeper. I'll be sending it to my other writing pals.

Chris Bates said...


I'd say Holden has a very definite motivation.

He's on a quest for 'truth' or 'meaning' in life.

That said, he is an anti-hero ... an adolescent one at that, so his angst may render him as a character that appears aimless.

But clearly, he is at a 'loss' because he has experienced 'loss'. The search for himself is the 'push' for the novel, however internalised it may be.

Of course, I could be speaking absolute sh!t. You'd be hard pressed to fill the back of a driver's license with my knowledge of story craft!

reader said...

Nathan, can this post be saved in the "essentials" part of the blog off to the side?

I have a feeling I'm going to need to come back to this... again and again as I start my rewrite.

Mira said...

Rick - thanks, I'm glad you like the idea. You as well, Anon. I think I'm going to try it.

I've heard alot about Evil Editor, but I've never checked him out. I'll have to do that.

Mira said...

Okay, interrupting for just a second - Nathan, today I was going to go over to that nice, sweet Janet Reid and ask her to be my agent. Then she could represent me to you so you would be my agent.

Well, I went.

I poked around a bit, looking for the right place to ask my request. And as I looked, more and more, a phrase kept running through my head. Here's the phrase:

"Eat me alive."

As in dip me in flour, fry me in oil and have me for breakfast.

Um, I'm not sure that sweet and nice are the right words.

Don't get me wrong. I could see the heart of gold. I was just afraid that she'd clop me on the head with it.

But I don't want you to think of this as chickening out, although that would be a pretty darn accurate way to describe it. However, I'd prefer you think of it as a wise choice leading to self-preservation.

In fact, the type of wise choice that you might value in a business associate. A business associate you might send a signing contract to, for example.

Okey dokey. I think that's a pretty persuasive argument there.

Boy, I need some time to re-group.

Actually, I need a drink.

Okey dokey. I'll look for the contract in the morning.

Chris Bates said...

I get the feeling that Nathan’s post is ‘news’ to a few readers. It shouldn’t be.

With all due respect to Nathan (Hell, for all it’s worth, I think you do a really great job with this site, Bransford), a literary agent’s blog probably shouldn’t be your first port-of-call for discovering the mechanics of story-telling. Sure, Nathan is a clued-up industry gatekeeper. He is obviously talented in what he does and shows more than a modicum of sympathy when it comes to writing and writers.

But… there are a million books out there that broach the craft of writing. Read them. Some are worthy, some are not. Point being: writing is rarely a sit-down-and-scrawl affair. At the risk of sounding like a know-it-all-prick, I’d suggest most of us breezing through here are probably in need of a little education when it comes to outlining, characterization, theme, motive etc.

Nathan, maybe a ‘Resources’ link for books on the craft?

Anonymous said...

I love you. People don't reach out in the blogosphere and say that - in earnest - enough. And I mean it! I look forward to your sage advice and my belly chuckles every weekday and I appreciate having your wit and knowledge in my life, especially when you could charge for it.

In the very beginning of the PART FOUR of Dostoevsky's IDIOT, he talks about people who want to be original and clever so bad that it hurts. You are NOT one of those people. You're a person who doesn't understand how valued and clever you really are, because if you did, you'd call yourself a writer and you'd get a book deal.


Oh, and Mira- excellent idea. Also, Janet Reid, while genious and probably lovely in person, terrifies me too. I'm not a masochist myself and I sympathize with your decision.

Anonymous said...

Yowza, Chris Bates! You know, you're charming passive agressive voice can't be heard through the characters on the page. Even Marilyn Peake was enthused by the subject. Guess what? She's PUBLISHED.

Nathan Bransford said...

Naw, I agree with Chris Bates -- there's nothing here that you won't find in books on writing (other than my own personal spin on it). I think there's a lot to be said for reading the books and learning the craft. My advice just happens to be free.

Jil said...

Nathan, thanks for a great post that stirs the writing juices.

Malanie, When I sent my first novel off to live with an agent in New York it was winter and I felt terrible sending my young protagonist into that cold weather. I'm always a nervous wreck when someone is reading my work.

Miri - Great idea. I'd love to send one of my characters over for a chat!

Anonymous said...

I agree with him too. It's just very easy to seem like you're putting people in their (inferior) place when you can't hear a tone of voice. Writers are delicate creatures, by and large. Sorry Chris Bates. If I knew how to erase it, I would. I rescind my nasty comment and ask forgiveness

Jen C said...

Just because one can be inspired or jolted by a bit of well-timed advice, doesn't mean that one is necessarily clueless and hopelessly in need of education. I have been writing for years, and have a shelf full of writing books, plus a few writing courses under my belt. I'm also well into studying for a degree in English Literature and Composition.

Yet, reading that post gave me a flash of inspiration - not that my characters were running aroud aimlessly with no motivation, but I had an idea of how to make that motivation deeper.

So perhaps you can't tell what is going on in someone's world just from a quick blog comment! I think that many people who read this blog are in the same boat - filling their head with writing information, and then excitied when one thing really resonates with them.

Word Veri - Penag. So humorous comment, I just liked the sound of it. Penag!!

Jil said...

Chris is right, and most of us have read, or heard. the information Nathan gives us but the fact that it comes a bit at a time, well written as though from a trusted friend, is a strong reminder and incentive to work on things which may have gotten lost in a rush of words.
That's the way I feel, anyway!

Anonymous said...

I didn't take Nathan's post as "news," Chris, more as a reminder. And an amusing one at that. I'm working on revisions now and it reminded me that 1) my protagonist's motivation has to change in the course of the book (she realizes that her original desire will not be fulfilled, and begins to focus on a new one), and I need to be clear about why that matters; and 2) even though I intend there to be a sequel, there needs to be provisional closure to my each of my characters' "arcs" in this book.

MaLanie said...

Mira, great idea! If you do the Character blog let me know.

I have question about secondary characters.

I have a main character(Libby)she represents me stuck in dogma five years ago.

Then I have three other secondary characters (who represent a liberated me today) each character teaches Libby something that helps her out of the dogma.

Now, here is my question, do they (the secondaries) need to have their own personal issues/motives? Or is it okay that their motive is to just to teach her?

I think it is okay with their motive being that they want to guide her out of her miserable dogmatic life style. However, I am a newbie here. So any advice would be great!

MaLanie said...

If you need to understand the story line better to answer the question you can see it on my blog.

Chris Bates said...

Anonymous @ 4.07 & 4.19:

Sorry to irritate. Unintended. I'm an unlikable, yet misunderstood, character with many misguided motivations.

Okay, so to Marilyn Peake. She's enthused. I am too. Fortunately for Marilyn she is someone who is already addressing the stuff Nathan is on topic about. She knows the score. She's published, she must be doing something right. Which is more than I can say for myself.

So here we are: beginning writers with our pencils eating up pages until story resolution. What next?

Go a re-read?
An edit?
Maybe a query to the agent I've been following for 12 months?

I'm going to hinge my hopes and dreams on this query. I know I shouldn't but I can't help it.

My point is that it's a hard education when one is being first exposed to writing craft on an agent's website. My assumption being that people here are seeking representation for novels they have completed, close to completing or wanting to complete.

I'm not trying to attack 'inferior' writers. I am that 'inferior' writer, thus the dog-eared writing how-to books. Thus the self-defeated typist who sits here procrastinating because I could never possibly 'make it'.

My tone is from someone who may once have queried prior to learning the craft. Someone who knows a manuscript needs an edit but would prefer if I didn't accidentally see the 'WTF!!!' scrawled midway through your copy! Passive aggressive = frustrated novelist.

Again, apologies for being insensitive. I really gotta stop putting my name to this crap I brain-dump.

Marilyn Peake said...

I love the way discussions get going on this blog. I think Nathan's topics are so thoughtfully written, he gets discussion moving.

I was thinking this afternoon about the discussion here, the topic of character arcs, and about how different novels emphasize different aspects of novel structure. I love novels that emphasize individual character development. I also love novels that, although they contain definite character arcs, allow the characters to play second fiddle to an artistic or intellectual idea. Examples: The Gold Bug Variations, by Richard Powers in which the similarity of patterns in music, genetic coding and computer programming was an overarching theme and Cloud Atlas: A Novel, by David Mitchell, described by Publishers Weekly as having "kaleidoscopic plot structure". And I love experimental novels in which much of the focus revolves around playing with the form of the novel itself, e.g. If on a winter’s night a traveler, by Italo Calvino and House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski.

I_am_Tulsa said...

This is my first time to speak up here... Thank You!
I enjoy ALL of your posts but this one came at a specially good time. I've been battling with a new character and your comments have shed some light on her "needs". Thank you!

other lisa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
other lisa said...

Let me try that again...

Different people process information in different ways, so it's always good to hear fundamental principles stated in different ways. What really scores with you and helps make that essential connection might go right over my head. Maybe I needed to hear it from another angle.

Great post! And a great discussion.

Oh, I got "flestiv."

Griffin Asher said...

"Every single character you introduce, major or minor, should also have their own plot arc(s)..."

That's fascinating. I don't think I've ever heard it described that way before. That would really deepen things in a story. It would make it easier to write those minor characters too. They wouldn't just be stick figures or simple walk-ons, but actual people to work with.

Great post! Thanks for sharing.

*runs off to start filling out goal and motivation cards for all her minor characters*

A Paperback Writer said...

Wow, Nathan. This is about the best description of motivation and conflict I've run across. I hope you don't mind if I quote some of it (giving you credit, of course) to my 8th grade creative writing class.

Sara Tribble said...
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Vodka Mom said...

excellent post. (Just make sure the mom's get vodka. It's usually in the sippy cups.)

Sara Tribble said...

Okay somehow I managed to delete my previous comment? lol.

Anyways I love the post-it's genius! Made me reflect on my own characters and I am happy to say they each have their own motivations!

Love the blog--keep them coming!

Robin Constantine said...

The Super Mario Bros example is too cool!!

Great post.

Anonymous said...

I am the anonymous coward you addressed and again, I am sorry. I didn't mean to make you feel bad. Actually, I did, but then when I apologized I was sincere. You weren't wrong that we all need to be educating ourselves as much as possible. Ever since I became a mother I've become the defender of all mankind. Please don't feel bad.

(See, you inspired me to not hide behind the anon 'cause that's not fair)

Genny said...

Great to find your blog, Nathan. What a wealth of information. I've been pouring over your posts and just subscribed to your updates. I also saw the link to Rachelle Gardner; I've subscribed to her blog for a while now.

Looking forward to the SCBWI conference in May!

The First Carol said...

To Judith Coughlin: Our critique group reads twelve minutes out loud each week. That is feedback in your face (is that a pun?). You know when they're listening and exactly when they got bored. The read aloud technique is recommended by Elizabeth Lyon in her book, Manuscript Makeover. I bribe my kid to read to me -- I clean the kitchen, she sits and reads. It's an intriguing form of editing.

Oh, and I lie. Everyone else gets 12 minutes. I get thirteen. I run the stopwatch.

Chris Bates said...


I doubt you're a coward.

As for the need to defend all mankind? It's that very same sensitivity that motivates us to create stories and express our views.

BTW, I didn't want to 'out' you. Only reason I sign my crap is because I can't select the 'anonymous' identity option from my high horse! ;)

lisanneharris said...

Props, Mr. Nathan-Dude. It doesn't matter how many "how-to" books we read, workshops we attend, or web sites we visit dedicated to the writing craft, there's always need for clear and concise reminders. You gave it to me in one short blog post. Why pour over a heavy tome written in a boring voice when you say it with glister? :)

Man, I like your style. Thanks for keeping peeps like me informed on a plethora of topics.


MaLanie said...

Chris- don't be frustrated. This is just a season and remember seasons pass.

Be happy you can write like you do! How exciting! You have a gift. I would love to be gifted that way. Oh, to be a Hemingway!

Smile friend, and if you can't smile go get some chocolate-it works every time!

Haste yee back ;-) said...

At the very least writers... start your education with, ELEMENTS OF STYLE - Strunk and White.

Hit all of Lajos Egri... ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING, etc.

(Although for screenwriting)... devour STORY - Robert Mckee. IMHO, an absolute must read for every writer!

(Again, screenwriting), but really all purpose... STORY SENSE - Paul Lucey.

THE WRITER'S JOURNEY - Chris Volger and everything by Volger's mentor, Joseph Campbell.

If you want more, get close to POETICS - Aristotle.

Obviously, I agree with Chris Bates.

Test in the morning. Pull an all-nighter if you have to, but read these, dammit!

Haste yee back ;-)

Yes, it's gonna be work!

Writer from Hell said...

So simple..I just wrote that novel. This is the query..may I send the manuscript pls.

Writer from Hell said...

just read the comment above mine by haste yee back.. couldn't resist responding to the Aristotle quote with another: 'Homer has taught all other poets, the art of lying skillfully'

O! these damned talented poets - I'll never envy them again - they are all a bunch of liars - aristotle said so!

ps - storytelling is just lies really - as it is not the truth!

Mira said...

I liked reading the conversation between Chris and Alex. It's nice when folks can get past disagreements to connect as people. I applaud both of you for your integrity - also, Chris for your honesty, and Alex for your loyalty.

And Alex, thanks for supporting me in my decision re. Janet Reid. I just checked, and I still have all ten fingers and toes, so it's all good. :-)

Alex, Jil, Malanie, you've convinced me. I'm going to set up the blog this weekend. I think it would be fun and useful.

Mira said...

Oh, Haste ye back,

thanks for all of the recommendations. I haven't heard of many of them, and I'll check them out.

And this is nothing about you, since you clearly found it useful, but I'd like to complain about Strunk's Element of Style. I just did't get it. I find it almost completely unreadable. Maybe I'm reading it wrong. I know alot of people like it, but what I could understand, I didn't agree with.

I do need massive help with grammer - a friend just lent me a book called "Woe is I" My hopes are high.

Lynne said...

Revenge is a good way to start, even for a character many love. What brought about the anger that seeks to hit back, hard.

Well, sometimes the best defense is a good offense.

Go watch basketball, Nathan, where the rules are finite. Characters never are.

Alex said...

Yay Mira! I'm glad, and thanks for being kind.

Chris, you've forever endeared yourself to me. (see there's my superiority complex shining through)

Chris Bates said...

Mira, I'll second Haste ye back's nomination for McKee's 'Story'.

Get yourself a copy if you haven't already. My bias is from a screenwriting perspective but the book is beneficial for anyone seeking structure, dialogue, pacing, characterisation info etc.

'Elements of Style' is a great reminder on how we tend to over-write. I'll put up my hand on this one. Also, many of us tend to be too literary in our writing ... because, you know, we want to show that we are 'writers'. My hand goes up again. Somehow we forget the economy of the craft, the simplicity of good writing. You know, the writing that you don't even notice because you're caught in the story?

King's 'On Writing' is great to remind us that adverbs equal lazy writing... and quite a few other dumb-writer things most of us do.

As for grammar/spelling ... get it in the re-write. Story comes first.

@Alex: Good to see I'm not a total prick! Hopefully I can fleece some cash off you one day with a book sale!!

Alex said...

Chris, again, I'm not hearing you say it so I'm just going to assume you're grinning benevolently. I'll have my eyes peeled for your name in a pretty, glossy font from now until I'm 90 and my mind goes, because I'm queer like that.

Aaralyn Montgomery said...
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Writer from Hell said...
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Writer from Hell said...
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Aaralyn Montgomery said...

I was actually thinking of characterization today because over the weekend I got to see "Watchmen." Some characters were better than others, but for some reason the Comedian keeps sticking out in my mind.

His character arc was complex and fascinating and I'm still thinking about it now. That's my aim in designing characters and their goals, to have them occupy the reader's thoughts long after he or she has put down the book.

Thanks for the great post.

Richard Lewis said...

Conflict? Bah. You're a lousy analyst, Bransford. No wonder you're an agent and not an MFA graduate program professor.

Two Flights Down said...

This advice frolics through fields of awesomeness. This is definitely something a writer should be reminded of from time to time, but don't only think of motivation; think also of tactics. How do your characters plan to reach their goal? What happens when an obstacle gets in the way? How do their tactics change? What do these choices in tactics, whether conscious or subconscious, say about your characters? Or perhaps these questions are more for literature analysis. ? Anyhow, it's something I've picked up from my theater minor and it's always carried with me through literature analysis, whether it be for plays or books. Perhaps these questions could help a writer when stuck.

Cat Moleski said...

This was such a helpful article, I copied it out to a folder for future reference.

Thanks, Nathan!

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Very nice, Nathan. Especially the bit about wanting conflicting things. I rarely see it in the short stories in my slush, but those conflicting wants belong there, too!

Ink said...

Marilyn, that's a nice little book list there. I loved Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, hated House of Leaves, and both Cloud Atlas and The Gold Bug Variations are on my To Be Read shelf. Though I might go for Powers' The Echo Maker first, as that sounds great. And I applaud you for getting through House of Leaves, as the only way I'd get through that book was if it was written by David Foster Wallace. Sadly, it wasn't. Though I did admire the idea of it in the abstract... (I had the same reaction recently to Bolano's The Savage Detectives. I'm hoping 2666 is better.

My best, as always,
Bryan Russell

Melanie said...

THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU for this post! I've been having trouble with my main character's motivation (though everyone else's seemed abundantly clear). So I wrote out everyone's arcs, just to see...and I finally realized what hers was, and how they all tie together with the main plot. My problem is solved, and it's because of you!

Dara said...

Mira, I would totally participate in that character blog! Let me know if you do start it :)

Lots of great comments here; I love reading all the suggestions!

Anonymous said...

For YA I'm trying to think of secondary characters who "want" things.

Mostly, I come up empty. Or if they do it's something so superficial it's like getting a date with someone, and then, miraculously, they do, in a totally unbelievable fashion.

Great in theory, but not many books have it in practice.

MaLanie said...

Several books have been suggested. I am overwhelmed. If you have to pick one (for a new writer) which book would you pick?

Marilyn Peake said...


It's so cool that you've seen Watchmen! I can't wait to see it. Have you read the graphic novel? I heard a reviewer say that the movie was especially made for fans of the graphic novel. It's amazing, even won a Hugo award. It goes incredibly into detail about the psychological makeup of each character. In the movie, there's a boy reading a comic book at a newsstand. In the book, the reader gets to read the actual comic book; and the writing in it is so incredible, it reads like a classic novel.

Marilyn Peake said...

Hi, Bryan/Ink,

I read House of Leaves as part of an online book club. It seems to be a book that people either really love or really hate. It's definitely...very different. LOL. :)

jnantz said...

Yep, definitely stealing this for my high school creative writing kids. Thanks Mr. Bransford.

Teri said...

Great post, Nathan.
Alan Rinzler has a wonderful post about "Falling in Love with Your Characters". Certainly worth a look.

Anonymous said...

So when are you going to be teaching creative writing?

Anonymous said...


One of my esteemed critique partners asked me what, besides lust, drove my MC to solve a murder mystery. :o) I had to stop and think about it. A good sign to do some major re-writing.

Kevin said...

You may be a bit too general here,
"Every good book begins with a protagonist who wants something."
I do agree with,
"What Do Your Characters Want?"
If for instance you were writing historical fiction and covered 200 years, you may not start with a single protagonist. The characters that would come and go, however, should be trying to achieve some goal--even if it is just to survive to the next day.

lotusgirl said...

Great description! Thanks for getting to the bare bones.

Anonymous said...

Wow! Nathan must love getting his ego stroked by all of you suck-ups!

Aaralyn Montgomery said...


I haven't read the graphic novel yet, but the great things about books and movies is that they can go both ways. (Books can make me want to see movies and movies can make me want to read books.) The movie was interesting; it gave me a lot to think about.

I thought I had put in a lot of work for the characters of my story, but I have nothing on the characters and motivations used in
"Watchmen." The movie was really interesting. I am just trying to
figure out why I like the Comedian so much. I still rooted for him even though he could never be defined as a good person. I hope you enjoy the movie! Email me and let me know what you think. :)

Taire said...

Yes, but Nathan, what happens when those darling sub-characters and their tasty subplot arcs threaten to derail your main plot arc? Trimming a good sub-character and taming his/her arc can feel like amputating a toe. Sure, you'll survive, but your balance will never be the same again.

I'm looking forward to Thursday's post about conflicts. :)

Melanie Avila said...

This is great, thanks Nathan. As you said at the beginning of the post, this should be obvious, but it helps seeing it written out. And I love the SMB examples.

Marilyn Peake said...


Hope I can see Watchmen this week. Heard the movie ending is different than the one in the book. Loved the book ending, so am very curious to see how the movie ends. Also, can't wait to see how Jon looks.

pjd said...

OK, I'm jumping on the bandwagon to say this is very useful. Motivation is something I've always thought deeply about with characters, ever since I was a kid--you can tell when the characters lack it when the story feels contrived. Also, improperly understanding characters' motivations is, I would guess, the biggest contributor to plot holes. I.e., the reader asks, "Why didn't that lummox just do X?" If the answer is, "Because then he wouldn't be in the right place at the right time for the exciting conclusion," then you've got a problem.

What I most appreciate about this post, though, is the reminder that all minor characters need motivations and should actively pursue their desires. Sometimes I forget to ask my minor characters why they're in the story at all. If they don't have a good answer, they get chucked out.

holly cupala said...

Quote from BSG:

"Just because you don't know your direction doesn't mean you don't have one."

Words to live (and write) by.

Anne McCrady said...

I am coming late to the conversation, but what great comments. I would add that every person we meet is just like our characters: everyone wants something that conflicts with other desires they have and the desires of the people around them want. When we interact socially with that in mind, we can understand why people (and characters) do the things they do!

Micky said...

Does it count if what my character wants is to figure out what she wants??

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