Sunday, January 20, 2013

Repetition is the boon of good advice

I’ve read--you've read--many times that memorable characters have both an inner and an outer goal.  Laurie Hultzer, in her power-packed little e-book, “How To Evaluate Stories,” says a solid story is framed around what the main character wants—and what he or she actually needs.

A character’s Want is a clear, simple, ego-driven, and obtainable goal that directly benefits this main character. It is concrete and specific. A character’s Need is a deep inner ache, yearning or longing that the character is unaware of, denies, suppresses, or ignores. 

The action of a story is based on the conflict between the main character’s Want and Need. The tougher the choice the heroine has to make—the greater the risk she takes—the more satisfying (and probably more marketable) the story.

The resolution of a romance can vary. For example:

  1. The main character gets what she wanted, only to find that it is not satisfying. Reese Witherspoon’s character in Legally Blonde wants her boyfriend back. She follows him to college, takes his courses, interns at his firm, bests him at ‘lawyer-ing.’ When he sees her as desirable again, she realizes he is not what she wants anymore. In the comedy House Bunny, the heroine is kicked out of the Playboy mansion on her birthday. She lands at a sorority house for misfits and teaches them how to succeed socially. In the process, she learns to value herself, so when “Hef” finally invites her back, she doesn’t want to go back.  She doesn’t want her original Want anymore.

  1. The main character gets what he or she wants, only to have it destroy him. In Dangerous Liasons, John Malkovich’s character wins the bet with Glenn Close and seduces Michelle Phillip’s character. By doing this, though, he destroys the only woman who has ever truly loved him, and ends up dying, too.

  1. The main character can abandon his or her original Want and embrace a deeper Need. Like a childless woman who finally adopts, falls in love with her adopted baby, and then gets pregnant, a character can discover a better Want—or end up getting the Want after all. When Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman refuses to become Edward Lewis’ mistress, she abandons her original Want for financial security.  She gains the self-esteem she’s needed all along, and then in a true HEA, gets the whole enchilada of man, love and security.

The advice repetition in Laurie’s book prompted me yesterday to verify that I had clearly defined (in my head) my new heroine’s Want and her Need. I want to make sure I open with a solid presentation of my heroine's want even as I plant the seeds of her need. 

I have already outlined the basic plot twists and individual chapters. Today I will review each scene and target its POV character, that character's goal in the scene, and how the scene ends. I want each scene to make it harder for the heroine to achieve her want. I need to track how the hero and the villain get in her way (for different reasons). That way I will make sure my plot follows the escalating tug-of-war between her want and need. She will be a #3 type character--not be able to get her Want. She will get more. 


  1. An interesting posr, Ana, and a good analysis of different wants and needs. I must adnit I tend to let my characters discover these as they work their way through the story. I don't analyse them in advance, but let them tell me about themeselves through their words and actions. At the end of writing the story, I can usually pinpoint those wants and needs.

  2. You are very good at that, Paula. I am trying this all-in pre-plotting. Just to see how well it works for me.

  3. As I've said before, every writer works differently, and what works for one doesn't work for another!

  4. I love the stories where the heroine's wants change. Those are the ones that really show character growth. Ironically, I was just watching Private Benjamin.

  5. I love that movie, Joyce. I also like the one where Goldie Hawn is an unhappy, snobby rich woman who cheats Kurt Russell out of his carpenter fee. When she falls off her yacht and loses her memory, he tricks her into thinking she is his wife... and falls in love with her.

  6. Ana, that's an interesting premise you have and some great examples! I'll be interested to hear how all your plotting works out.

  7. I'm feeling good about it, Jen. Lots of freedom to pick a restaurant to eat at, yet a trusty road map to get me to the finish line.

  8. Ana, a fellow chapter-mate used your Pretty Woman example for a program about how the goal for some character's changes throughout the course of the story. This is a great way to show the character's arc and growth.

    Great post.