Ninie Hammon’s Blog for Writers

One Question: Answer It Well And Your Characters Will Be Unforgettable

Posted: November 5, 2013, 3:09PM


To find Nemo.

To save Jews.

To go home to Kansas.

To kill the great white whale.

To destroy the ring.

To catch the one-armed man.

To get back to Andy’s Room.

Every good story begins with a character who wants something.

Somebody Famous said that, not me, so you needn’t bother giving me a byline when you print it on a plaque and hang it on the wall. Which you should, because it’s a character’s overarching desire that will propel the action in your story. And there won’t be much action if you can’t come up with something more spellbinding than gee-I-need-to-get-the-oil-changed-in-the-Buick.

When divers scoop up the little clown fish and whisk him away, his father wants his son back. And all the rest of the action in the movie centers around his efforts to find Nemo. Dorothy and her rag-tag troop of misfits traipse all over Munchkin Land, down the yellow brick road to the Emerald City and into the castle of the wicked witch—all because Dorothy wants to go home.

Arthur Schindler wants to save Jews from the gas chambers. Captain Ahab gives his own life and the lives of his crew in his single minded obsession with killing Moby Dick.

Great novels are about characters who want something badly, something that’s massively important to them, and the conflict in those stories springs from the clash between what the character wants and whatever stands in the way of his getting it. That’s why there is no better way for a writer to create unforgettable characters than devising compelling answers to these questions.

What does the hero want?

What is he willing to do to get it?

What will it cost him to give it up?

Or, conversely, what does the character NOT want and what is he willing to do to avoid it?

All the forces of the Dark Lord stand between Frodo and destroying the ring. We only find out the fur-footed little dude is made of sterner stuff than anyone supposed when we see him persevere. Every police department in America plus the dogged pursuit of U.S. Deputy Marshal Sam Gerard stand between Dr. Richard Kimbell and finding the man who killed his wife. We come to care about Dr. Kimbell by watching him struggle through.

Sid, the plastic-soldier torturer, and his evil dog stand between the cowboy doll and the spaceman action figure and their home with the child who loves them. We watch Buzz and Woody bond as they win the day together.

The what-does-the character-want element in your story should be blatantly obvious. It can, in fact, be stated outright.

There’s certainly nothing subtle or tentative about Captain Ahab’s speech to the crew of the doomed Pequod as he stands wild-eyed on the deck, brandishing a harpoon. “I seek the great white whale and I’ll follow him around the Horn, and around the Norway maelstrom, and around perdition's flames before I give him up.”

Or about Anne Mitchell’s single desire.

Over the years, I’d cataloged hundreds, maybe even thousands of other people’s recollections and filed them away so I could pull one out, dust it off and pretend it was mine whenever people started talking about what they did as children.

Every time I listened to tales of other people’s growing-up years, I felt a tangled mixture of envy and terror. Envy because I ached to have a past, too, a mental library of sunsets at the beach, Christmas mornings, birthday cakes, chicken pox, spankings, hugs and most-embarrassing-moments that were uniquely my own. And terror because I understood that something profoundly evil lurked in the swirling purple of my recollections, in the deepest dark ditch there.

All I want, all I need, all I ask is to remember.

The Memory Closet

But the motivating desire doesn’t have to be stated so long as it is clear and Loyal Reader is never in doubt about what it is. If you’re a beginning writer and you're not sure exactly what it is your character wants, you might not be ready to write your story yet. Can you state her desire in a single declarative sentence?

Ron Wolfson in Sudan wants to photograph a slave auction. Anne Mitchell in The Memory Closet wants her childhood memories back. Sarabeth Bingham in Home Grown wants to stop the dope growers. Will Gribbins in Black Sunshine wants to confess what he did. Gabriella Carmichael in The Last Safe Place wants to escape the deranged fan. (Five Days in May—stating the real one would give away the switcheroo at the end.)

The hero goes after his goal and forces get in his way—how he deals with those forces defines who he is. But sometimes over the course of pursuing his goal, the goal changes. When that happens, it reveals even deeper layers of characterization. Michael Corleone begins The Godfather bent on remaining uninvolved in the family business, but his father’s near assassination changes what he wants and he ends the story as the family patriarch. Shrek wants to be left alone to live peacefully in all his glorious green orge-ness in his swamp, but as the story progresses, what he wants changes. He wants Fiona.

What the character wants will best reveal who he is if the cost of getting it is high. What Andy Defresne in the Shawshank Redemption wants is freedom. To get that, he spends 18 years chipping away at a wall with a tiny rock hammer, then crawls through a sewer pipe to the outside. The higher the stakes, the more compelling the character and there are no greater stakes than life and death.

In every Indiana Jones movie since 1981, Indy is constantly putting his life on the line to get the Ark of the Covenant/Sacred Stone/Holy Grail/Crystal Skull. And his character is defined by his dogged determination to get what he wants.

Well, that and his hat.

Write on!



Janice Preston February 11, 2014, 5:03AM

Great post, Ninie. Spot on!   Reply

Replies (1)

Jan February 14, 2014, 8:37PM |

Good blog - I'd never thought it that way.   Reply

Replies (1)

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"Oh, and about the 9 and the e beside my name. Say it fast, emphasis on the 9. That’s how you pronounce my first name -9e. (Think “rhymes with tiny and shiny, NOT with skinny and penny.”)

Suspense Author

I have soooo many stories I want to tell you, so many worlds I want you to see, so many people I want you to meet. People in trouble, most of them. Big trouble they didn't ask for but there it is. Ordinary folks like you and me who are forced by circumstances to fight for their lives. And then, smack in the middle of their everyday worlds they encounter the unexplainable. It's always the game-changer.

Welcome to my world. If you'd like to know more about me, I'm easy. Click on Meet Ninie and you'll see. My life isn't really an open book; it's more of a pamphlet, and you are cordially invited to read it. I'd love to interact with you on Twitter, Facebook Fan page, and Goodreads. Or come visit with me at 9e's Kitchen Table, a Facebook group where readers and I hang out. I think you'd like it.