As mentioned elsewhere, it has been a stumbling block for my readers to understand what drives my characters. I had thought I had communicated character desires through showing, and action, but it is not seeming to translate to the reader.

Example: One character wishes to follow the footsteps of her mother, who has passed away. This desire is to honor her mother, and she comes from this sort of culture. She makes choices towards following her mother's footsteps throughout the first half of the novel. In the second half of the novel she is unable to continue on this path, and this eventuality is distressing to her. I had thought both sides of this coin were communicated effectively through showing, but my feedback indicates otherwise. Readers don't know what she wants. She is making choices, and succeeding and failing, and I thought this communicated her desires.... but readers don't seem to understand why she is moving in the directions she is - (And, they don't know if they agree with her or not, because they don't have a clean sense of her desire - to hang their hat on, I suppose.)

Do my characters need to have their desires stated (presumably by other characters to keep it from being too on the nose)? Do these statements need to be quite explicit? If desires are not met, should this be called out as well? All my instincts scream 'No' but there must be a happy middle between what I've done and what my readers would like.

I appreciate that this is a hard question to answer in the abstract, but perhaps you'll have some insight.

As an edit: Thank you for the food for thought. I've further thoughts as well.

There are differences between short and long term goals, desires and ambitions.

An ambition for this character might be 'to emulate my mother' and ambition is typically reflective of a personality trait and longer lasting than a goal.

A goal can be easily attainable and highly concrete, such as 'Join the lady's auxiliary to which my mother belonged,' or broad (and vague) such as 'do many of the things that she once did.'

A desire might be 'to honor her memory' (In this story context, there are spiritual overtones for the daughter). This last one, the desire, is most intriguing to me and to perhaps the readers, I believe it is most illustrative of the daughter's character and therefore valuable, and it goes to motivation and what drives her.

Perhaps all three need to be understood by the author in order to have constructed a good character.

If my schema is good, then I presume goals can be easily shown through decisions and do not need to be stated outright, yet desires should be communicated and likely require more finesse. Ambition, perhaps, never needs to be articulated, tho' it should be clear to any engaged reader. Perhaps I was good with goals in my story but the desires are missing. As always, your thoughts are welcome.

  • Months later: Have you considered writing more enigmatic characters? To make it obvious that you meant them to be enigmatic — well, they need to be enigmatic. Show the peripheral characters discussing the enigma. Commented Aug 16, 2018 at 10:03
  • @can-ned_food Thanks for the Q. I'm past this hurdle now, and my answer to the question is that desire needs to be explicitly stated early. Additionally, it needs to be shown through character action and/or dialog early. When I wrote this question I was not doing all three, but have since learned that readers don't always see things unless you communicate it in several different ways, consistently and early. Also, be sure that there are not counter-actions/counter-dialog that communicates the opposite. If a character wants X, be certain that character is not acting in a way to preventt X.
    – SFWriter
    Commented Aug 16, 2018 at 23:26

5 Answers 5


I doubt the issue is whether the desires are stated explicitly or implied by actions. I suspect the issue has more to do with story shape. If we use the hero's journey model, and novel opens in the normal world, where we establish what the character loves and who they are. Then comes the call to action, the resisting of the call, and the crossing of the threshold -- the departure from the normal world.

The resisting of the call to action is vital in this because it reveals what the character loves, what the want, and what they are and are not willing to do to get it.

But from what you say, your character's departure from the normal world, does not come until half way through the novel. For the first half she follows her mother's path. Why? Without a call to adventure and the resistance of the call we don't have the crisis that reveals what the character loves and wants and these loves and wants are not proven by the ultimate decision to cross the threshold.

Everything works through the shape of the story. While the story does need to be competently told, individual show vs tell decisions are not going to make or break it. It is story shape that will make or break it. You want your readers to know what your character wants. You have to shape the story to show us what they want.

To be clear on this last point, this does not mean invent some incident to illustrate what they want. It means that the fundamental shape of the story has to tell us through the inciting incident, the resistance to the call, and crossing the threshold.

  • The inciting incident is being thrust from her settlement, around 15 - 20% into the story. She tries to remain true to her ideals in her new community and new culture, but her mother's ways are not compatible here. It becomes progressively more challenging, ultimately she finds that she needs to adopt the new culture and abandon her mother's teachings if she is to survive. She ultimately needs a final key of honoring her mother in a new way ...
    – SFWriter
    Commented Feb 4, 2018 at 16:45

You are on the right track, but apparently your showing was not explicit enough. A possible problem might be that you have a perfectly fine image of the mother in your mind, but you never communicated it clearly.

Have you described the actions of the mother? The choices that made her the kind of person she is? The things she valued and the things she did not appreciate in others and herself? Did someone show what she did for the people around her?

If the desire of your character is to follow her then she should try to think a very common phrase that you may of may not with to use in the following way:

What would my mother do in this situation?

Yeah, that's about as clichee as it can get, but that is not necessarily bad. She has to show which way she is trying to follow. And she has to show which problems she has with not accomplishing her goals of having to deviate from the path that her mother apparently had.

Possible ways to show this might be to have other characters talk about the deeds of her mother. Maybe older friends of the mother who have known her for a long time and can talk about the great things she did - and the not-so-great things that she always tried to minimize.

Your character reacting to descriptions of her mother or other people that follow a similar path might also be useful. Maybe someone is commenting that the heroic deeds of her were just a way to run away from her obligations, making her a coward - which might not be the way the daughter perceives the deified mother.

In a sense you therefore have to make it more explicit. You don't necessarily need to make her say "I am trying to follow my mothers path of always honoring pacts", but people commenting "You are just like your mother" after she did something honorable followed by a short internal monologue about how proud she feels about this comparison might go a long way.


I do not think desires should be communicated directly in exposition, and only rarely in thoughts, but they can often be communicated somewhat directly through dialogue, especially dialogue with new characters, lovers, or colleagues that want to get to know the prominent character.

"What made you become a cop?" (my brother's murder)

"How did you end up in Seattle?" (I went to university here, I wanted to be lawyer. That didn't work out, but Seattle did.)
"Oh. Why did you want to be a lawyer?" (I had ideals and principles, once. I realized they wouldn't survive being a lawyer, so I dropped out, to save my soul while I could.)

"How did you end up a call girl?" (I'm pretty. I'm not smart. My daughter is smart, and she is going to college, no matter what I have to do to get her there.)

WHY does your character want to follow in her mother's footsteps? I think "honor" is too facile an excuse for driving a life. What is wonderful about her mother's life that makes her want to sacrifice her own to living the same life? Or is it a lack of thought altogether, she doesn't want to plan a life, she is afraid of life, she just wants to survive it and this path is as good as any.

Answer the WHYs with something compelling, that makes a difference on a more daily basis, that requires sacrifice, or reveals character.

  • I'm curious for your thoughts you may have on differences between goals, ambitions, and desires. I agree 'honor' is too facile.
    – SFWriter
    Commented Feb 4, 2018 at 16:52
  • Interesting. To me, a goal is a concrete and "measurable" event that can plausibly transpire: "Sell a novel." An ambition is a less measurable but still achievable life style, "Earn a secure living as a novelist." You realize you have achieved it after the fact. Either could be a "desire", any state you believe would make you happy, temporarily or permanently. In a Venn diagram, "desires" are the universe, contained within them are "goals" and "ambitions" along with impossible fantasies. I desire to win the lottery, it's neither a goal or an ambition of mine: I don't play it!
    – Amadeus
    Commented Feb 4, 2018 at 18:02

One way to demonstrate a character's desire implicitly is to examine the consequences. What is at stake? What does the character stand to lose if she can't reach her goal? If the character fails to achieve her desire, then what will be the result? If the result is unpleasant, and the character wishes to avoid unpleasantness, then it's easy to fill in the blanks if done well.


It's a lot like the others have already said. If you want it to have an impact, you need to state it clearly. One tool ideal for this is repetition, like Secespitus mentioned ("What would my mother do?")

The trouble with this was also clearly pointed out: it makes your character flat, and flat characters aren't interesting.

While I agree with Mark Baker, that using a specific formula (like the Hero's Journey) would make it clear what the character loves, it also binds you to a formula, and not every story can handle that.

So here's take. It doesn't matter what tools you use, it doesn't matter what formula you use, and it doesn't matter what feedback you get for having used them.

"HUH?! That makes no sense!!"

Well. Let me explain how I write, and the feedback I get based on that. I write primarily in 1st person, though I do 3rd person close (meaning still 3rd, but so intimately close to the Point of View character that you're constantly in their head). So every word written is in that character's voice.

Readers connect to my characters, because they hear them, see through their eyes, and even with my current WIP, where the PoV character barely says a word, you are never left guessing where she is, or what she thinks. Because how they perceive things matters, and it colours how they experience it.

Look for yourself:

Name? Djara skipped that, being unable to ask her unconscious patient much of anything.

Species? Usagi, she wrote, wondering why they would still go by the name a madman gave them. Habit trumped logic once again, it would seem.

Race? Eyeing her patient, she wondered about that. She wasn’t positive, and there was no healer’s spell to aid her. Overall build was little different to Kitarou’s, though there were obvious differences. Not the least of which was him being a tundra usagi buck.

Bipedal, lean, two mammary glands on the chest—hinting at one to two offspring per pregnancy. Opposable thumbs, four digits per limb, and complex vocal cords at least suggested this one was of the sapient races, but… Four prehensile limbs and a fluffy tail. Really, the tail looked more like a deer’s little tuft than a natural rabbit’s scut. Average height for an usagi, so she was neither a dwarf nor a giant. Djara was dealing with a rabbit race, not a hare—the relatively short ears, and the less defined glutes and thighs confirmed as much.

I'm not saying I wrote it perfect, but had I presented this in any other way, it would be an info dump. Instead, I show Djara, my MC, as a doctor type, perhaps even a researcher. All the while showing that this character she is analysing is an anthropomorphic rabbit, while never once calling her that.

In writing that chapter in that tone, I either break rules or come so close to it that it's essentially the same thing. You, as a writer, have to know the rules, and know when to bend or outright break them. Because the only hard and fast rule, the only law that must never be broken is:

Captivate your readers.

Everything else is merely a tool to be used in adhering to the above mentioned law.

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