The Importance of Change: What Does Your Character Want?

10 May 2017 on Blog, Fiction   Tags: , , ,

Last year, our fiction team brainstormed what Barnstorm looks for in a short story.  The outline included strong, specific writing and surprising plot points. Our strongest desire, however, was for stories that “center around believable characters with some sort of emotional need.” This need should prompt a change in their behavior, should drive their actions and ultimately leave the readers feeling like they’ve journeyed with them. There should be a character arc. More often than not we find ourselves writing and reading stories where characters either have no driving desire that gets us from the first page to the last, or we reach the final moment and find ourselves asking, “What changed?”

Being students of fiction ourselves, we understand that there are times when half of a story is written and the writer is still not sure where the story is going, where the pivotal epiphany will be. The easy solution is to open a blank document and start again, but what if that character doesn’t leave you? What if you can’t shake that writerly feeling that you owe it to your character to figure out where he or she is going and where he or she has been?

Here are a few writing exercises that might help you move forward:

  1. Ask your character

This seems obvious, or even foolish, but it works every time. Our professor Ann Williams was the first to suggest it, and it’s become a go-to exercise ever since.

Author: Hey, Ray.

Character Ray: Hey.

Author: How’s your relationship with Lily going?

Ray: Not so great. She hasn’t spoken to me all morning.

Author: Why not?

Ray: Because I got in late last night? Because she smelled perfume on my sweater? I’m not having an affair; a woman came up to me at the bar and was ready to do me quick. But I have Lily. I love Lily. I want Lily to be happy.

Author: What can you do to make Lily happy?

Ray: Drink less. Surprise her more. I don’t know, take her on a trip? That’s what I’ll do—take her on a trip.

This exercise not only strengthens your understanding of your characters, but also their voice, their needs, and their plans and actions moving forward. Now I, the author, know that Ray’s emotional need is to make Lily happy and he’s willing to do whatever it takes. Even if Ray’s almost-fling at the bar doesn’t make it into the story, I, the author, have that piece of backstory filed away, ready to influence their next action.

  1. Start a discussion between your characters

This could look like the first exercise, or it could take the shape of texts, emails, or letters. At the AWP conference last month, a young adult author revealed that he had his father-daughter characters exchange letters to better understand their relationship. What they wrote or purposefully left out of the letters allowed the author to understand what they were comfortable talking about, how this could affect the way they treated each other, and how they could change.

  1. Map it out

Books often include maps of a character’s hometown or brackets of a family tree. If you’re stuck, try sketching out the neighborhood and distinguishing relationships, favorite spots, and the character’s history with the surroundings. In order to fully understand your characters, you need to know where they live, what they see, what their apartments look like, whether or not they walk to work in a city or drive 30 miles on country roads. Understanding your surroundings helps create a complex narrative.

Does Brandon like that he still lives in his hometown? Or does he hide travelogues under his mattress and worry what his parents will think if they find them? Does Rachel have a thing for her older neighbor? Is Carson planning on quitting his job? Doing a bit of world-building could reveal a side of a character you weren’t expecting and prompt an emotional need that will drive him or her to change.

The number one thing to remember when writing a short story is you as the writer need to understand your character, who they are, what sort of heart they have, and why we're reading this story. Having little exercises to help you discover what your character wants is key. Don't be afraid to step back from the keyboard, grab a pen and paper, and ask yourself and your character, "What do you want?"

We hope these tips help and we look forward to reading your work!


Shannon Slocum is one of Barnstorm's 2016-2017 fiction editors.

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