The One Thing

28, May, 2020

Writing a story involves the complex interactions of characters and plot. The writer also has to worry about other aspects such as dialog and setting. All these elements combine together to build the story. But, every story comes down to one question. Actually this question is so universal that every story could be summarized by asking it. What do the characters want? Pretty simple right? Think about it. In every story the character wants something. Perhaps it’s Jim Hawkins looking for treasure, or Sherlock Holmes looking for the criminal. But each story is dominated by what the character wants.

What’s interesting is many stories (excluding those that are classified by setting) are grouped by how you answer this question. Mysteries and romance are obvious. Thrillers usually involve saving someone or possibly everyone.

But remember every character tends to ask this question. Some stories are less about what the protagonist wants and more about the antagonist’s desires. Sauron desires the one ring, and once Frodo becomes aware of this Frodo wants to destroy it. But it is Sauron’s desire that is a constant theme throughout The Lord of the Rings.

Take some time and think through the desires of the major characters in some stories. Likely you will start to see some patterns emerge. Genre is one, but there is another pattern as well.

The next pattern is the relationship between the protagonist’s and the antagonist’s desires.Most conflict arises because those desires are in conflict or in alignment. Furthermore there really aren’t that many unique scenarios. Sure the stories are unique, but typically the characters are in conflict because one wants to survive and the other wants to kill or capture. Or perhaps one desires to build or attain something and the other is trying to sabotage the process. Scenarios where the goals align are also few but common. Love triangles are always popular. Desire for wealth, an item of power, position of authority are some of the other familiar themes.

Of course there are other types of conflict. Primarily there is inner conflict and conflict versus nature. However, both are still related to that desire that drives the protagonist.

These desires and conflicts are relatable because they happen all the time in the world around us. But, just like in the real world people don’t just want things there is an underlying intangible need. Love, revenge, power, peace, avoidance, challenge are all human desires that stories are built around. In fact most stories are centered around those six things. What does a character want and why? Those questions are universal. Thousands of stories have been written based around just a few possible answers, and yet stories continue to be new and interesting.

As an author identify what your characters desire and why. Identify how that interacts with other characters’ desires. Look for ways to combine different types of conflict. For instance if the main character is seeking revenge that creates conflict with the target, but perhaps the main character also has inner conflict on the morality of revenge. Also, consider how a character’s desire might change throughout the course of a story. Or how the intangible desire remains the same, but the physical desire changes.

I’d like to specifically point to the desire for peace. This is actually the underlying desire of many epic tales. For instance Frodo wants to destroy the one ring, but the reason is to remove the threat to his world so that the Hobbiton can remain safe and secure.

Hopefully this helps you understand characters better both your own and others. If there is something you think I missed or you want to expand on the idea be sure to leave a comment.

  1. Avatar for Geekyegg Geekyegg Avatar for Geekyegg

    Tuesday, September 21, 2021 - 09:01:12