This is the cliché phrase spouted so often that is paints all actors in existence as narcissistic ninnies. Which is true, but this question is still very important when it comes to grounding your performance or the characters that you write.
What a character wants is often called an objective. Using this term makes this goal sound almost tactical and military. This is intentional. Theoretically, each action that a character performs is an extension of his objective. He wants something and he isn’t going to waste his time doing anything that gets in the way of his mission.
Now, you might be saying to yourself, “Well, that isn’t true. I’ve seen characters run away from what they want, and I’ve written characters that take all sorts of breaks before going for their objectives." You are half-right. While it seems like these characters are not 100% going toward their objectives, you may not be digging deep enough.
Say you have a female character that is in an abusive relationship. She has been in this relationship for years. Your first thought might be that her objective might be to get out of this awful situation. You have to take into account, however how long she’s been in this thing. Years. If she had wanted to get out she could simply have left. Since she hasn’t left and that means there must be some greater desire that is working below the surface.
Now, I know that you might believe that there is no deep down objective and that your story will show the triumphant day where her simple want, to get away from him, is fulfilled. I promise you that if you don’t account for what was keeping her in this relationship, her victory will ring hollow.
All the small things that a character wants in a story must fit under the main objective for the entire piece. It’s almost like an umbrella on top of all the other goals. Perhaps, for our example, the woman’s objective for the entire piece is to improve her life. She begins to exercise more, to learn more, and to work toward her daily goals (hey, sounds like she reads this site :)). As she improves, she realizes that she’s strong enough to leave this abuser and she emerges triumphant!
But wait. We still haven’t justified why she stayed in the relationship for so long in the first place. Our characters are rivers and there is a huge ocean-like source called their past. We must always take responsibility for our characters’ pasts or they will not come off as realistic.
Above the umbrella of the main objective is another umbrella called the super objective or the life objective. All of the main objectives and regular objectives must fall under and relate to the super objective. These super objectives are often basic almost subconsciously deep needs that are hardly ever discussed within the story itself. Often, a character seeks validation. This may be our heroine’s objective.
While twisted, she may have deep down felt that her abuser would not have gotten so mad at her if he didn’t care so deeply. She felt validated by these constant exhibitions of affection. Thusly, what changes in our success story is not her super objective but how she looks at her husband’s actions.
She has worked on improving her life and she learns how to be validated by her own actions. She realizes that she no longer needs this sick, horrible kind of validation and she leaves. Now, we don’t need to be told that she felt this way deep down, but if you keep it in mind when you write her story, your reader will understand as much as he needs to. He may not know why, but he’ll feel as though this character is believable.
Try to do this creative writing exercise from the inside out with an existing character of yours. What does he want right now? Don’t choose something as simple as getting food. If it’s that specific, step back a bit. Perhaps he just wanted to have a normal day. So that is why he’s getting food at his favorite lunch spot.
But why does he want to have a normal day? Well, his favorite lunch spot is the busiest place in town. One possible main objective is that he wants nothing more than to fit in. He goes to the popular gym and works at the biggest company in the city so that main objective seems to fit.
And why does he want to fit in? What is a super objective that will encompass his main objective. One choice: normalcy. Deep down he wants to be normal.
Now, the fun parts with an objective like that are to find out why he wants that and to place obstacles in the way of his achievement of that goal. Maybe he wants normalcy deep down because he has a strange disease (lycanthropy would be a perfect one for a sci fi story) or famous fugitive parents.
Isn’t an average guy who goes to his ho-hum day job made way more interesting with a pair of fugitive parents and a burning desire to fit in? That’s what I thought :).
This creative writing exercise is to form your objective, main objective, and super objective for one or many of your characters. At the least, you’ll gain a better understanding of your person on the page. At most, you will create a dynamic, grounded, and interesting character that will help to make your next story a success.
Bryan Cohen is the author of more than 30 books, many of which focus on creative writing and blasting through that pesky writer's block. His books have sold more than 20,000 copies. You can find him on Google+ and Facebook.