The Power of Want: A Look At Creating Believable Characters

Creating believable and interesting characters is an important part of writing.  While it is not as important as the plot, it is undeniably crucial.

The power of “want” is necessary for every character, and even more essential for the protagonist.  Want is the pre-cursor for action.  Without desire, a character will not convincingly respond or act.   The protagonist is essentially driven by their need or desire. This can be physical, emotional, financial, conscious or even unconscious, and always evident to an audience.  In addition, the protagonist’s desire must be believable.  In the book Story, author Robert Mckee says, “The protagonist’s characterization must be appropriate.  He needs a believable combination of qualities in the right balance to pursue his desires.”  Such qualities are an amalgamation of character and characterization — it’s what makes the character appear human.  The spectrum is wide and encompasses attributes like:  personality quirks, values, attitudes, speech, sexuality, age, intelligence, etc.  While these attributes are helpful in building the uniqueness of a character, these traits are not character.  Character is revelatory.  “At the heart of his humanity, what will we find?  Is he loving or cruel? Generous or selfish?  Strong or weak?  Truthful or a liar?  The only way to know the truth is to witness him make choices under pressure to take one action or another in the pursuit of his desire. The interesting thing about this creative reality is that a protagonist does not necessarily have to be a nice guy (we’re talking flawed), but he will be a transformed guy in the end.

In the real world people respond according to desire or need.  For example, the guy across the street recently got stuck at the supermarket.  After trying to reach his wife, he called a neighbor to see if he could get a lift back to his house.  He had a need, and that need prompted him to call his neighbor.  It is imperative that a writer create a character that not only has a need, but who has the ability to pursue his or her need convincingly.  Simply put…if it is not true to life, an audience will never buy it.  McKee says, “An audience has no patience for a protagonist who lacks all possibility of realizing his desire.”  Part of the reason this holds true is because the audience must connect with the protagonist.  There is something within this character that the audience relates to.  McKee believes a protagonist should be both sympathetic and empathetic.  “Deep within the protagonist the audience recognizes a certain shared humanity (…) there’s something about the character that strikes a chord.”  Because of this, the audience wants the character to get what he needs or desires.  This connection with the protagonist is paramount, if it isn’t present, the audience will not connect with the character, and possibly get bored.  When we identify with the protagonist and his need, we inadvertently root for the fulfillment of our own desires.  Even if an audience does not care for the protagonist, if they recognize a certain shared humanity, they will connect.

Part of the reason that want/desire is vital for the protagonist is because a story cannot be told about a protagonist who isn’t driven by desire or need.  That is what will cause him/her to make decisions [good or bad]. The power to choose actually helps the character to arc.  It really does not matter what the need or want is, but this character must possess the power to go after his or her want [take action], which will ultimately cause some sort of transformation.  Plain and simple…the audience needs him to win!

Think of some of your favorite characters.  Guaranteed, they all desire or need something.  Remember the movie, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone?  An orphan, brought up by his aunt and uncle, Harry has issues with inferiority and a lack of confidence, which makes him timid.  However, as the story progresses, and he becomes a powerful wizard, it never goes to his head, nor does he use his powers in a selfish and controlling way. Once he acquires the magic stone, he does not want to use it to acquire more power, but he desires to protect it from getting into the wrong persons hand.  Harry is humble and noble, and his desire is what makes him such a endearing and believable hero.

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