Have you ever read something and left like a character was just being pulled along by the plot? Maybe you couldn’t understand why they made the choices they made, or maybe you felt like the character wasn’t really making any choices at all. It may be that the character lacked agency because their fears and desires weren’t fully fleshed out. When a character lacks clearly defined desires and fears, it can lead to a lack of true conflict. Sure, the plot might have plenty of ups and downs, but if a character does not actually want something (or doesn’t have a fear that they are trying to avoid) they might as well be standing on a conveyer belt.
Your characters need to want something, because wanting things is what makes people get out of bed in the morning. By the same token, your characters also need to have fears because fear is what makes people stay in bed when they don’t think they can conquer the day. Wants and fears are a push and pull inside each individual character.
But stories are about more than just one character’s desires and fears. Stories are about many different characters who all have their own wants and fears. I’m sure someone out there has written a really compelling story where one person is alone in a room for 600 pages, but for the most part that isn’t how stories work. Your main character needs other characters to play off of because relationships create stories.
Relationships between characters are part of what move you from point A to B (and down many sideroads along the way). Even stories with an epic quest, seemingly the most plot driven of all stories, are made by character relationships. Where would Frodo be without Sam? And would we care about either of them if it weren’t for Sauron? Characters are your plot engine. When you get multiple characters together their wants and fears start colliding and magic happens.
What Television Can Teach Us About Character’s Fears and Desires
If you want to see great examples of fears and desires creating stories, I recommend looking to your television screen. When writings are trying to sell a TV show, it starts with a pitch. You tell a few important people in a room what your concept is and maybe you get to give them a one sheet or a series bible. With that brief period of time and maybe a few hundred words you have to show them that you have enough material not just for one episode, or 12, or 22 even. You want to convince them that there is enough story there for 100 or more episodes (100 episodes is a big deal in television because that’s when things go into syndication).
In that kind of environment you can’t (and shouldn’t) explain everything that could ever happen. Instead, you need a premise and characters that make those network executive start imagining all the things that could happen. You do that by creating characters that have strongs desires and fears which collide with other characters and the circumstances of the series. One character wants x, the other wants y, and around the two of them is a rock and a hard place.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: An Example
Think of something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy wants to be a normal, popular, high school girl. She fears never being accepted and having no life. Giles, her guide to all things supernatural, wants Buffy to be a dedicated enemy of vampires and other beasties of the night. He fears that maybe Buffy really isn’t cut out for fighting the forces of darkness, even if she is the chosen one. They also happen to live on a Hellmouth, a gateway to hell that bad things are always getting through.
What Giles wants from Buffy is in direct conflict with what she wants for herself, and plays right into what she’s afraid of. At the same time, for Buffy to get what she wants most would mean that Giles’ fear was right. Of course, if Buffy completely ignores her mandate to defend the world from the forces of darkness she and everyone she knows will die (and then she really can’t have what she wants). Evil doers keep popping up, and Buffy and Giles have to find a way to navigate.
Can you start to see all the possibilities that creates? You could throw those two into almost any scenario and see those dynamics come to light in a flurry of conflict. And that’s before you add in any vampire boyfriends or outcast best friends that think fighting the forces of evil is actually pretty cool. There’s almost an infinite engine of possibilities from just two characters and yet for each new character you add into the mix the possibilities still manage to multiply. As a series goes on what the characters want and fear will change, but you have to start with strong pillars of desire and fear.
Figuring Out Fears and Desires
While all well-rounded characters should have fears and desires, I suggest starting by building out 2 to 3 characters that create the story through their relationship to each other. What kind of relationships you should start from will be dictated by what kind of story you are hoping to tell. The characters you build your foundation on could be friends, or enemies, or family. In theory they could even be strangers, but they’ll need something that connects them. Then, get as specific as you can about their fears and their desires.
It can be tempting to make what your character wants a parallel of what they’re afraid of (or vice verse). As in, they want things to stay the same and they are afraid of change. I would challenge you to dig deeper. Why are they afraid of change? Is it because they think they won’t be able to manage potential negative outcomes? If so, what they’re really afraid of is more like failure or overwhelm or maybe even suffering. Think of your characters’ fears and desires as more of a venn diagram- they overlap, but they are also their own distinct entities.
Don’t be afraid of complicated desires and fears
On the surface, the wants and fears of your different characters might not always look like they’re in conflict. Here’s an example where the conflict between two characters is a little less straight-forward. The characters below are best friends about to graduate from high school:
Wants: For things to stay the same
Fears: Being like her mom
Wants: To feel like he’s moving forward
Fears: Losing people
You can probably see how Jamie’s desire to feel like he’s moving forward conflicts with Cassidy’s desire for things to say the same. An impeded graduation just ratchets up that conflict. You might already be able to imagine ways that would inspire a story. But how do their fears intersect? That makes things a little more complicated. In Jamie’s case, it’s a little more obvious. What Jamie and Cassidy want are opposed, but he is afraid of losing his best friend if he doesn’t try to give her the sameness she wants.
Cassidy’s fear of being like her mom is less straight-forward because it relates to other information in the story, you can’t see exactly what it means just looking at a character profile. While you want to be able to distill your character’s fears into a simple phrase for sentence, don’t worry about being able to convey all of its significance at first glance. In the case of this example, Cassidy’s fear comes into play with her relationship to her mother, but also to Jamie. Cassidy see’s her mom as selfish, demanding, and never satisfied. Cassidy doesn’t want to be that person. And yet for her to get what she wants, to get the sameness that makes her feel safe and comfortable, she has to pressure the people around her to also stay the same. Thus, pursuing what she wants is what sets Cassidy up to be selfish and demanding in exactly the way she fears.
Throughout the story, both Jamie and Cassidy have to choose whether to put their energy toward satisfying their desires or staving off their fears. Your characters will have a similar choice. Sometimes they will have more immediate needs or desires that might trump their overarching goals, other times they will choose the sacrifice immediate satisfaction in pursuit of a high level desire (or a strong fear).
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