Tag Archives: building a better story

Building a better story: three elements to character building

You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you just might find
You just might find
You get what you need

So goes the chorus from The Rolling Stones song, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

Those are perfect lyrics in which to briefly discuss the three elements that can help a writer build a character.

When creating a main character, ask yourself three questions:
1) What does your main character (protagonist) want?
2) What does your character need?
3) How can these two things be brought into conflict?

Despite what advertising might try to convince about having hunger pangs that only a certain hamburger can cure, there is a difference. Hunger is a need. The body needs food to live. The hamburger (Or whatever other food you wish to insert) is a want. Hunger can be alleviated by a wide range of foods, not just the one being advertised at the moment you feel hunger.

Dear Dorothy

What a character needs is often more important than what she wants.

You can also think of this way: want is often an external thing; need an internal thing. The hamburger is an external manifestation of something that is an internal need: hunger. They come into conflict when you find out you don’t have enough money for that hamburger, or if having that hamburger will cause you to break out in hives, due to an allergic reaction you may have recently developed to ground beef.

The same is also often true of your story’s main character. There is something he wants. There is something he needs. The want and the need to come into conflict.

Take for example, Huckleberry Finn in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

What is it wants: to escape his alcoholic father who has kidnapped him and locked him in an old cabin in the woods, because the father wants the money that Huck is entitled to. He escapes from his dad and hides out on an island as part of his plan to keep from being kidnapped again. What he needs, though he is not willing to even admit it to himself, is an adult who will accept him for how he is (and won’t try to civilize him), but still be willing to take care of him, even guide if not raise him, and love him. Huck finds that in the runaway slave Jim, and at the point of the novel where Huck should turn Jim in as runaway slave, Huck decides not to do what society wants him to do, he sides with Jim because Jim is somebody whom Huck needs, and who also needs Huck. Much of the rest of the novel from that point on is about handling the consequences of that decision and the temptations to still turn Jim in.

There are many other examples in fiction and in film, on the stage and even sometimes in long story poems.

You can have your protagonist side with what he wants over what he needs. This often leads to more trouble or even tragedy. You can have you protagonist win by losing. He loses what he wants, but wins what he needs and is the better for it. He can find a way to make the two work together, with the want being a true outward manifestation of the inward need.

So, decide what it is your character wants (that job promotion, the girl next door, the pot of gold) and what he needs (validation of his self-worth, love, money to buy the thing he always wanted), and then bring those two into conflict.

[Editor’s update/note: click on “building a better story” in the Category listings to find several other blog pieces of information I have put together from classes, books, and other sources (including my own experiences).]



Filed under building a better story, cartoon by author, character, writing tip

Building a better story: Tension

In the last installment, I said there was a difference between conflict and tension. Conflict, as Bob McKey pointed out, is the gap between expectation and result. The gap can be small, such as being overcharged a dime or great, such as losing a loved one when you thought he would survive.

The best way to explain tension is to refer to a small book on writing by the writer and editor Algis Budrys, Lithuanian for “Gordon John Sentry, more or less.” His book, Writing to The Point: A complete guide to selling fiction is only 64 pages long, and may be hard to get. But this Strunk and White-sized guide to writing is worth your time (and it even covers manuscript formatting).

For Gordon John Sentry, more or less, a story consists of seven parts: 1) a character 2) in a context with a 3) problem, who 4) makes an intelligent attempt to solve the problem and 5) fails, tries a second time and fails, tries a third time and finally 6) succeeds or completely fails, and whose actions are then 7) validated by another character in the story.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? That is the allure of telling a good story. But the execution is often more difficult, for writer as well as story character. Step 4 – 6 above is where in a story you find tension. The key is that the character makes an intelligent attempt and fails. With increased knowledge, he or she tries again, and fails. The increased knowledge increases the stakes in the attempt and thus increases the tension. After all, it should succeed, right? Then there is a third and final attempt. This is, in essence, all or nothing, so the tension should be at its highest here.

Grimm reaper and man

Tension, while often confused with conflict, is not the same thing.

Tension, then, is something that builds over the life of the story, fueled by and feeding into the conflict. A well known love story may provide the clearest example. Romeo and Juliet loved each other. Their families, however, were adversaries. Romeo and Juliet attempted to find a way to manifest their love in the midst of this conflict, each time failing until each makes one last effort that leads to both their deaths. In this example, the tension builds in opposition to the conflict, which is fairly clever if you think about, and because of that opposition, the conflict works to heighten the tension.

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Writing Tip: Conflict

In the last installment of this feature, I put forth a little paradigm about writing that started off with “Drama is conflict….” But what is conflict? Is it open hostilities between two armies? It can be. It is the harsh words a husband has for a wife? It can be that, too. It is dealing with opposing desires or wants, such as deciding between love and honor? Yes, it can be that as well.

But all three examples listed above and in a host of others there is a common thread, something unspoken, and as important as words are, it is often the unspoken or unwritten element that defines a scene in a story and sometimes the story itself.

As I said in the previous article, I learned the paradigm that begins “Drama is conflict …” in 1993. Some twelve years later, and even though I wasn’t looking, I learned from author, screen writer, and teacher Steven Womack a definition of conflict that adds depth and, dare I say, meaning to the word conflict and the entire paradigm. He credits learning it from Bob McKey, a script doctor. McKey has made a living and a small fortune fixing other people’s scripts though he often doesn’t get screen credit for it. All scripts need conflict; conflict drives the story forward. How will the protagonist react? What will she do? But conflict is not car chases, gun battles, or galaxies spiraling out of control. Conflict, McKey said, is the gap between expectation and result. That’s it.

Pen chasing man

Conflict can be a small thing, or a large one, real or imagined.

Conflict can be as small as being overcharged a dime and how your protagonist reacts or as great as losing a battle when the protagonist fought hard to win. In both examples, there is a gap between expectations and results. How your protagonist deals with that gap and what steps he takes to close it are what drives a story forward, whether the story is a script, a short story, or a novel. The obstacles in the way preventing the protagonist from easily closing that gap are what are called tension, but that is a discussion for another time.

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Filed under advice, Bob McKey, building a better story, novel, Steven Womack, tension, words, writer, writing, writing tip