What Does Your Character Want?


Guest post by Lisa Davidson.

An angry girl, an isolated castle, a secret power — what more did a writer of middle-grade fiction need for success? The answer is much more for the Lacie Spenser contemporary fantasy series.
As soon as I finished the first draft of the first installment I knew I had a big problem. The reader had no idea what my protagonist definitely, positively, absolutely really wanted. And I knew that until I delivered exactly what Lacie wanted, I would never be able to tell the kind of story young readers are frantic to follow from novel to novel.
What 10-year old girl, you might ask, wouldn’t want to visit her wealthy, doting grandmother, especially one who lives in a castle overlooking the stormy Pacific? And yet I had created her, that girl, the one who knows only what she definitely, postively, absolutely does not want: to waste one minute of her precious summer vacation with Nory Broussard.

The problem seemed insurmountable: how was Lacie going to know what she really wanted, when I didn’t know what she really wanted, either?
I tried everything to find out for both of us. First, I trolled the internet, finding that my favorite e-advice came, not surprisingly, from right here @ Fiction Notes. I read and re-read every writing-self-help book I could get my hands on (especially The First Five Pages and The Plot Thickens, both by Noah Lukeman). After several months of steady work, I thought I finally knew Lacie’s heart’s desire (it seemed so obvious): to escape her grandmother and get back home…

What Does Your Character REALLY want?

…which is what I thought Lacie really, really wanted, that is until I came across Want-ology, a life-coaching program by Kevin Kreitman oriented toward personal and career success. After reading the free Introduction to the Workbook and then buying the pdf file of the complete text, I realized that I had found the Holy Grail of character development–for me at least.
The essential principle of Want-ology is simple: “To get what you really want, know what you really want.” This is accomplished by distinguishing the difference between WANT and NEED through a series of questions. As I began to put Lacie through the paces of the program (adapting the questions to be age-appropriate), I realized, first, that the system really works, and, second, that I had been completely wrong about Lacie “on the inside.”
What Lacie Spenser really wants:

  1. Lacie, what do you WANT right now more than anything else in the whole world? Please try to state it simply: I want to get as far away from Nory, my grandmother, as fast as I can.
  2. On a scale of 1-10, Lacie, with 10 being positively WANT to, and 1 being desperately NEED to, would you say that you WANT or NEED to get away from your grandmother? If you put it that way, I’m at a 2 or 3. I had hoped to spend the summer at home with my Mom and maybe take riding lessons, but now I NEED TO to get as far away from my grandmother as possible.
  3. Why are you so focused, Lacie, on getting away from your grandmother? Even though I was only three the first time I visited Halton Castle, I can’t forget it. What a nightmare! My experience with Nory (aka the Wicked Witch of the West) was so horrible that I can only imagine it’ll be even worse now that I am older. And, come to think of it, my parents know exactly how I feel about Nory. I would really like to know why they dumped me on her anyway.
  4. So it sounds as though you just float along, going anywhere the current (or a jumbo jet) takes you. I wonder if you have the power to navigate (in other words, steer yourself) towards what you think you WANT, Lacie? The fact is, I really try to make my own decisions about what happens to me, where I go, whether I want to be there or not. So I guess I’m not exactly a ‘floater.’ But I’m not exactly a ‘navigator’ either, because I don’t see how I’ll ever be able to make my own decisions without people like my Dad and Nory making them for me.
  5. This is a 3-part question, Lacie: why would it be very important to you to know what you really WANT, on the inside; how you are going to get what you WANT; and when people on the outside will stop judging you? Let me answer the last one first, because I think it will help you understand the other two. I usually feel as if people (lately my Dad) don’t like me that much, but not just for what I want to do or what I say. Sometimes I feel like they don’t think I really belong with them. Sometimes they even make me wonder who I am, ‘on the inside,’ as you put it. I don’t trust people to stop judging me, ever. So the way I see it, if I’m ever really going to belong somewhere, it IS very important for me to know exactly WHAT I DO WANT and HOW TO GET IT.
  6. From your last two answers, Lacie, you seem deeply suspicious of people and their intentions. Beyond skepticism, what are your specific concerns about being able to get what you WANT, with or without their help? You mean ‘worried,’ right? Well, first of all, with Nory’s place so isolated, making escape practically impossible, I’m worried about being stuck with her forever. I’m also worried about my Mom (she and my Dad have been fighting a lot lately), and I know she needs me…I guess when it comes down to it I feel like those two things are connected.
  7. Remembering what you first said you WANTED, Lacie, which was to get away from Nory, and, keeping your concerns in mind, how are you going to do it? I’m not sure. First of all I’d have to hitchhike to San Francisco. Going back to Sarasota isn’t an option either because Dad’s out of the country, and Mom’s teaching at a Reservation school. I don’t know any kids I could stay with, and I’ve never even met my Mom’s family. I hear that plenty of teenagers hang out in San Francisco, in the Haight, but Nory would find me. I think the only other option is to beg my Mom to quit her summer job so I can come home, except I’m not speaking to her right now.
  8. So, Lacie, the odds are against you, but let’s say you do manage to escape. What then? What good would come of getting away from your grandmother? What would be better somewhere else, like home, than at Halton Castle? I know that plenty of people would give their left lung to live in a castle–but not me. Heck, I live on a college campus and go to a progressive school there. I know that means I don’t have many friends my age, but I like hanging out with my Dad’s students–they’re mostly cool. I can wear what I want, go where I want, talk to my Mom. Most of the time she listens to me. She lets me pretty much come and go as I please. I’m not sure why, but Mom trusts me.
  9. Good, Lacie, let’s try again. What is it you REALLY WANT? Although I still feel like I have to get away from Nory, what I REALLY WANT is to know who I am and where I belong…so once in awhile I can have some control over where I am going.

Lisa Davidson spent 25 years on the East Coast teaching college English, including 10 years directing an inner-city Freshman Composition Program, before moving to San Francisco, where she spent 4+ years with a non-profit K-8 tutoring program. Lisa is currently writing a contemporary fantasy series, the Lacie Spenser novels.

1 Comment
  • Angela Booth
    September 12, 2012

    What a fascinating way to dialogue with a character. Thanks so much.

    I’ve got a character in my current novel I don’t understand at all. He has goals. But I’m not sure what he really wants; I’ll be trying your questions today. I can’t wait. :-)