Monday, June 3, 2019

What Does Your Character Want?

Guest Post by Claudia Mills

            One of the most powerful questions for launching a story is: what does my main character want? So simple and obvious - and yet even experienced authors can forget this.

            As I was writing my most recent book, Nixie Ness, Cooking Star, set in an after-school cooking camp, at first I focused only on Nixie’s predicament. Now that her mother has a job outside the home, Nixie has to attend an after-school program, which means she’ll no longer be spending afternoons at home with her best friend, Grace, which means Grace will be spending afternoons instead with Nixie’s nemesis, Elyse. But what should happen next? I was stuck until I asked the crucial question: what does Nixie want? Well, she wants her life to be the way it used to be. But this is such a vague and hopeless desire. The story came into focus for me when I gave a different answer: Nixie feels she is losing her best friend, and she wants to get her best friend back again.
            Once we know what our character wants, the plot is driven by what she does to get it. If her first attempt succeeds, we have a very short and skimpy story. But if her first attempt fails, and her second attempt fails, and even her third attempt fails, her ultimate success is much more satisfying.
            If your students are stuck for a story idea, encourage them to think of what a character might want. They might start by thinking about what they want. A bike? A dog? A sleepover with a friend? A special family vacation?
            Then lead them in brainstorming how someone could try to get this thing. With brainstorming, even preposterous ideas are welcome. Remember it’s good if the first ideas end up failing! One of Nixie’s failed friendship-saving ideas is to get fame and fortune by starring in the cooking-camp video. Another is to bribe her friend with yummy camp-baked treats. A third is to pretend to be sick at camp in order to guilt her mother into quitting her job.
            For young writers, simple wants, simple strategies, and simple failures can work best.
            Your character wants a bike.  How could he get a bike?
1.     Find a job and save up money to buy one.
2.     Win one in a contest.
3.     Get a friend to trade his bike for something he wants even more.
Then, the really fun part: How could each of these ideas go wrong? Failure can be one of the most comical things to write about – and one of the saddest. And then the success that follows is sweeter still.
Nixie ends up keeping her best friend, but in the process she realizes Grace can still be her friend even if Grace is now friends with Elyse, too. It’s fine if a story ends with a character coming to a new understanding of what she wants.
But knowing what your character wants is where a story begins.

Claudia Mills is the author of almost 60 books for young readers, including most recently the Franklin School Friends series from Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and her new After-School Superstars series from Holiday House.  In addition to writing books, she has been a college professor in the philosophy department at the University of Colorado at Boulder and in the graduate programs in children’s literature at Hollins University in Roanoke. Visit Claudia at

No comments:

Post a Comment