Strengthen your Story Through Your Character's Wants

Jan 4, 2011

Over the Christmas holidays, I watched Disney/Pixar's Up with my in-laws. I'd seen it before and loved it, and since the story was no longer new to me, my brain did what it always does with a familiar story. It dissected it.

One of the biggest things that stood out to me was how the story was driven so clearly by the character's wants-- their desires. Those are what motivates them to action. It's one of the most common pieces of writing advice: define what your character wants in order to drive the story forward. It creates a stronger story to have characters who act rather than react all the time.

But let's dig a little deeper. I'm going to be using examples from Up, and there may be spoilers, so if you haven't seen it, you have been warned. Let's break down wants into smaller, more useful bits.

Unique and specific wants - Say your character wants to find adventure in South America. Cool. Say instead your character wants to take his whole entire house on an adventure to South America to fulfill a promise to his wife. Way cooler. A lot of the uniqueness of Up is in the uniqueness-- and specificity-- of Carl's wants. What he wants drives him to find a fantastic and original solution: he flies his house to South America with helium balloons.

Emotional wants - Carl's desire to fly his house south isn't just a whim. It's a very deep, emotional want. He feels as though he broke a promise to his wife by never taking her to have an adventure in South America. The guilt and sorrow he feels strengthens the emotional ties to the story, and makes the ending that much more cathartic. It makes it easier for the audience to be connected to the story when there's emotion involved.

Complex, multiple, and hidden wants - Russell, the young stow-away on Carl's flying house, has one initial want: to be of service to Carl so he can earn a badge for his Wilderness Explorer group. As the story progresses, Russell also wants to help Kevin (the giant bird) get back to her babies. This want echoes the deeper desire underneath Russell's initial want-- he wants his final badge so his father will come to the badge-pinning ceremony. The intertwining and hidden wants make Russell a more complex character than just a boy scout trying to do some good.

Changing wants - Near the end of the story, Carl finally acheives his want: His house sits in Paradise Falls, just where his wife always wanted it. However, feeling somewhat unfulfilled, he pulls out an old scrapbook his wife made and realizes their adventure was in their lifelong relationship. At that moment, Carl's wants change-- he wants the adventure of an unselfish relationship again, starting with his new friend Russell. This change of his want is the change in his character that drives the satisfying end to the story.

Every character in Up had desires, from Kevin's desire to get back to her babies to Dug's desire to bring Kevin in so his doggy-friends would like him. (I can't even tell you how long it took me to catch my breath after laughing over Dug's "please, oh please be my prisoner!" line.) All of these wants are what made this story-- one that could have been small and unimportant-- into a story I fell in love with.

So, my friends, what do your characters want? Is it unique, emotional, complex, or changing? Is it strong enough to drive your story? How do you determine your character's desires?


Amparo Ortiz said...

Amazing post!! Love this movie so much, and it's great to see everything broken down like this.

My MC thinks he wants something, but acts in ways that lead him to an opposite direction--the one he's trying to avoid. It's a lot of fun to see how he's fooling himself :D And yes, his wants change as he comes to terms with who he really is. Hopefully, his evolution is complex and unique enough to drive the story!!

Kari Marie said...

Hi, I'm a new reader of your blog and I'm so glad you wrote this post today. I've been struggling a bit with a character. I just had a lightbulb moment that makes ms want to smack my forehead and say "duh!" I think I need a stronger understanding of her motivations. thanks for the gentle reminder of something I should have realized a while ago.

P.S. I love this movie.

Shallee said...

@Amparo-- Your character's complexity through his wants sound great! I love complicated, fascinating characters. :)

@Kari-- Welcome! I'm glad you stopped by, and that the post was helpful. Good luck with your character!

David P. King said...

An important post! Character wants is the motivation behind their actions, and thus, the story. Great use of UP to break it all down, too. Happy New Year :)

Marieke said...

Great post!

For Jaime, one obvious 'want' is wanting to understand the world, but hidden beneath is wanting to understand why her father died, why her mother is depressed.

She wants to be able to draw. She wants to be wanted.

She wants to be normal, but what she really wants it to know who she is when everything is taken away from her.

So, I guess it's pretty existential... Hm. Don't worry, she wants the boy too. :P

Emy Shin said...

Love this post, Shallee! I haven't watched UP, but I feel I can understand both characters so well through the way you've described and analyzed their desires.

My novel is defined by my main character's desire for revenge. What is difficult, however, is to show how her desires change as the novel progresses, as she herself changes. I definitely think I need to watch UP.

Thank you so much for this post!

Shallee said...

@David-- Yup, you nailed it on the head!
@Marieke-- I think existential wants can work out pretty well. It sounds like you know your character!
@Emy-- Up is totally worth watching! Showing changes in desires is hard to do; good luck!

Meredith said...

Love this analysis! As I dive back into revisions, I need to focus more on what my characters want and how that drives their actions, and these are great examples! Thanks, Shallee!

Jessica Silva said...

This was a great post :) I'm constantly thinking of my character's motivations--which in some degree is a surface-level "WANT." I loved UP. I think I cried AND laughed.

Anonymous said...

"My brain did what it always does with a familiar story. It dissected it" - glad to know you do this, too!

Unknown said...

You broke this down so clearly--thanks! I feel like I need to be reminded about this every time I start something new.

Margo Kelly said...

Today is a revision day ... so your post is very helpful. THANKS!

Anonymous said...

The Pixar writers are SO amazing. This was a delightful analysis of a delightful film.

Anonymous said...

P.S. For a perfect example of how to not respect your characters or your audience, here's a remarkably awful Up remix. (That's a link to a post at my blog with two embedded YouTube videos.)

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