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Figuring Out What Our Characters Want

October 12, 2019 by in category The Writing Journey by Denise Colby tagged as , ,
Blog title page Figuring Out What Our Characters Want by Denise M. Colby. Black and white background faded photo of people walking around

When writing a story, writers need to ask the question “What do we think our characters want?”

On the surface that may sound like an easy question, but when I was a new writer, I found it very challenging. Probably because I had a hard time knowing what I wanted for myself. 

Never one to make decisions quickly, choosing what to wear or what I wanted to eat for dinner was not always simple. Deciding on what restaurant to go to or what movie to watch was a loaded question in our house, since my husband and I usually came from opposite ends and had to find a compromise. For some reason, as a younger me, I would discount my own desires or not really care. I even had a ex-boyfriend ask me what I wanted once, and even though I had basic goals and dreams, things I liked to do and be a part of, I was unsure how to answer specifically. 

Maybe I was too afraid to be so definitive. Or I wanted to make sure I would be really happy with my decision. Or I liked to blend in with whomever I was hanging out with. Who knows. All that’s to say, asking “What does our Hero want? What does our Heroine want?” over and over made me realize I had to dig deeper in defining myself as well as my characters if I wanted to write a story.

So how do we get inside our characters head and ask what they want?

Background pic of helping hands with words overlaid saying Five Different Techniques to Help You Dive Deep in figuring out what your characters want. Blog post by Denise M. Colby

I worked on five different techniques to help me dive deep:

1. Pay attention to the world around you. Not just in general, but to each individual.

I started paying deeper attention to the different nuances in my friends and family. Never wanting to judge, I purposely didn’t focus on differences or quirks, but as a writer, that’s what makes our characters unique and special. And it’s those quirks that we love in our friends and family, isn’t it?

2. People watch.

Take a look and watch people’s faces for reactions and try and guess what they are thinking. My husband and I love to do our date nights at Disneyland. It’s a great place to people watch. There are so many different personalities to watch and observe and try and figure out a background story for them.

3. Pay attention to what vehicle someone drives. 

I don’t know why, but I love trucks. And when I see a vehicle I like I tend to look at who is driving it and what their story is. I probably could make up a lot of stories this way, but right now I’m focusing on time periods without vehicles, so I’m packing away these observances for a later time. But the exercise has helped me practice defining characters. If it’s not a vehicle, you could pick some other item such as a house, a pet, or clothes. What type of person would choose…

4. Make a decision and stick with it. 

I don’t know why, but this has been difficult for me. I ask too many ‘what ifs’. Just pick one and write from that perspective. If you need to change it later, that’s okay. Decisiveness helps you move forward. Originally, I couldn’t decide on any particular personality and so my heroine was everything. There was no uniqueness that I could specifically use to forward her story. I had to go back and be more clear-cut and unambiguous. Which leads me to my last point.

5. Be more specific with the smaller details.

In the beginning I was really vague with what I thought my characters wanted. It made it harder to write a scene. When I started my second book’s draft, I had defined my characters more before I wrote and had a stronger idea who they were and what they wanted. I found it was so much easier to write from their point of view that way. All those decisions made a difference!

faded picture of people standing in circle with different shoes and title overlay It's All In The Details Blog post by Denise M. Colby

So as you work on your first book or your twentieth, I hope this gives you some fresh perspective in helping you flush out your characters. I had jotted notes down about this blog topic early on in my writing journey. It was one of those aha moments that really helped me break through a hurdle I had in flushing out my story.

Since then I’ve learned more about myself, too. 

Thanks for reading,


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