U is for Unfulfilled #AtoZChallenge

Post by Guest Blogger
Eric Sipple

It sucks when you don’t get what you want, doesn’t it?

You know what else sucks? Reading about characters getting everything they want. No, no! Don’t feel selfish admitting it. It’s true. You might not want to see the characters you love being denied their desires, but most of the time? It’s way better than the alternative.

A disclaimer: I’m not being a grump about stories writing happy endings. In fact, I’m not talking about endings at all. Don’t get me wrong. I could go on for hours about endings. Why do you think I’m not talking about endings? So I can be brief.

George R. R. Martin likes to quote William Faulkner when he talks about writing. I don’t have the patience to look up the actual quote (lie: I did, and it turns out GRRM misquotes it, and I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole), but the essence of it is this: The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself. Though I can quibble (writing about people stabbing other people through the heart can be quite satisfying), it’s a good place to start.

The human heart does crazy things when it’s denied what it wants – or what it thinks it wants. Its demands grow louder, forcing it into an escalating series of bad decisions in pursuit of its goals. It begs for substitutes, even poor ones, to spackle over the hole in itself. It goes crazy, mad, irrational, destructive. It finds hate in what it once loved, and failure where it once saw success. It goes, dare I say, into conflict with itself. In other words, the human heart gets downright dramatic.

If characters are the engine of your story, denying them their desires is your fuel. The worst thing you can do to a character (and thus to your story) is to jerk them around on strings, forcing them into actions to push your story forward. It’s boring, frustrating and it’s what happens when you don’t give your characters a reason to act on their own. A satisfied, happy character is a static one, and has no reason to learn to dance, go on that quest, risk her life, or whatever it was which you were hoping to write. When the world hasn’t denied your character something she really, truly wants, you’ve got no choice but to hook them by the nose and drag them into your story. Like I said: that sucks.

This goes doubly for your antagonists. As dull as a satisfied, emotionally fulfilled protagonist being dragged around a story can be, an antagonist who doesn’t really want something (besides showing you how evil he is) is never going to be more than a frustrating obstacle, like a car in front of you that won’t go the speed limit. An antagonist doesn’t have to be villainous to give your main character grief; he just has to want something that he can only get by going through her. It’s the wanting and not having that gets you out of your chair, into the world and into uncomfortable, risky and dramatic situations. It’s what makes you angry enough to fight, to hurt those you love and those you despise. If your antagonist is a problem because he wants something denied to him, he’ll drive the story to unpredictable places. When his needs and your protagonist’s needs collide…that’s the kind of friction that’ll cause a fire.

There’s no formula to getting this right. Some writers work backwards (starting from where the story might go and thinking really hard about what type of person would run in that direction) or forwards (starting with a character they can’t get out of their head and figuring out where she wants to run). Most do a mix of both. The point is to really understand the heart of a character and what it’s missing. From there, you’ll see what prods, whips and pokes will get them to do interesting things.

How I go about it changes from story to story. I spend a lot of misunderstanding a character before they click. For me, it comes down to writing down a lot of words about what they want and why (in a journal, on a napkin, whatever) until things sound right, as if I’m tuning a radio until the words stop being static and start being music. I’ve learned that when I’m pushing a character, it feels like work. When I’ve dangled the right thing in front of them and they push me to write, it doesn’t. It feels alive, exciting and out of control. It feels like drama.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying your characters need to be miserable, unsuccessful wretches. Not at all. In fact, a character who’s mostly happy except for that one, unignorable thing has so much more to risk and lose in their pursuit. What I’m saying is that a character striving for something out of reach – or gaining what she thought she wanted only to learn she misunderstood her own desires – doesn’t need to be begged, coaxed or forced into your story. She’ll plow into it on her own and make it something real in the process.

Dig into your character’s heart and find out what they’ve been denied. What it is they’d throw the rest of their lives away to gain or to become? When you’ve found a need so powerful that your characters will help you write your story to achieve it, you’re on the right track.

Eric Sipple is a writer. He does other stuff too, like directing films and making websites. This is his writer's bio, so he'll try to stay focused on that. His most recent short story, "She Says Goodbye Tomorrow", was published in Hot Mess: speculative fiction about climate change. If you want to give something of his a read, that's a great place to start. He also writes the films he directs, like for "Tomorrow" and "co workers". You can see those on vimeo. He's currently in mortal combat with his second novel and collaborating on a webseries with Rachel Brody. Find him on twitter as @saalon or on his blog, Saalon Muyo!

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