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I often feel that we fall into a trap of believing that we must provide a driving goal for a main character at the outset. And yet, as I look at compelling fiction, main characters do not have the same simplicity of a single defining characteristic as does the supporting cast. Main characters are main characters. They are complex. There is room to explore their inner conflict. We are often in their point of view, and everything--the entire world--is seen through them.

At the end of the day none of us 'real people' have single goal--life is messy. And so, distilling a main character to one goal seems like a bad idea.

A few examples:

  • The main from How to Stop Time. He purportedly wants to 'find his daughter.' Well, he's doing nothing about that. He's lived for 500 years without taking out a single want ad or filing a single missing person's report.

  • Frodo. Does he want to carry the ring? I don't think so. If anything he wants the ring. The ring 'wants' more than Frodo does.

  • Harry Potter wants his parents. That's stupid--they're dead. On the other hand Dobbie, a rather two dimensional character, wants to keep Harry safe and also wants to be free.

  • Luke Skywalker wants a bunch of stuff, in just the first movie. To save the princess. To kiss the princess. To join the rebellion. To master the force. To blow up the death star. Etc.

  • The protagonist in A Fault in our Stars either wants the boy, or wants the boy to live, or wants to meet the guy that wrote the book she likes (and the boy likes too), or wants to live herself. I'm not sure. Love the story, though. What is the girl's initial want? I could not tell you.

  • What does Rose want in Titanic? Jack? To rebel? To get away from the man she is engaged to? If the answer to this example is that her want changes through the story, then what is her initial want?

  • The Martian may be the clearest example of a main character 'want' and driving need. He wants to get back to Earth. Funnily enough, all he can do is survive. (And he does a fantastic job at this.) Getting back to Earth requires everyone else.

I understand that 'character' has room to develop (and wants have room to change), but the idea that we must shoehorn stories into a main character that has one driving want (or even one starting want) seems counterproductive to good fiction.

Question: Does it really serve a main character to give them one driving want? Please explain why, or why not.

  • Someone seems to be going through my contributions and down voting them. Pro-tip: You can find all of them if you click my profile. Good way to take me down a notch, here in the internet backwaters. – DPT Mar 14 at 22:08
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    Not just you. Somebody has been going through all my posts too. Not the old ones, but half the time I post something new. Doesn't trigger the automated restore, since it's only a few every day. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Mar 14 at 22:14
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    People are petty. Many more of us appreciate your contributions. – AGirlHasNoName Mar 15 at 1:00
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    @Galastel and DPT: I just posted a meta question about this pattern. Maybe someone can find an explanation for this behaviour. It feels weird that so many good posts are being downvoted, but maybe I am simply missing something. If you want to chime in you can check it out here: writing.meta.stackexchange.com/q/1883/23159 – Sec SE - clear Monica's name Mar 15 at 13:47
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    I've gotten the same. Check out @Secespitus 's Meta post. And note that every answer on this post that isn't brand new also has one downvote. – Cyn says make Monica whole Mar 15 at 14:34
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I think it's like this: a normal person wants a lot of things: a new car, a raise, sex, some peace and quiet...

When something dramatic happens, a person suddenly realises what's really important in their life. It sort of crystallises, and everything else becomes less important. For example, if there are rockets falling on my house, getting that new dress is not a priority.

The higher the stakes of your story, the more one goal is going to be important, while more everyday wants - not a priority. For example, Frodo is stuck with the Ring, his goal is now "saving the world". There are things he wants, like coming home alive after saving the world, but those are not a priority compared to the magnitude of the goal. (And Frodo slowly realises that his is a one-way journey. He still wants to come home, but doesn't believe it's going to happen.)

If the stakes of your story are lower, it would make sense for the protagonist to want more things - he doesn't need to be so single-minded. For example, it would have made sense for Harry Potter in the first books to want to learn magic. I mean, magic is awesome and new to him, he's just discovered this whole world, as far as he knows Voldemort is gone (so no grand goal). Or he might have wanted to succeed in Quidditch. Instead he's busy wanting only his parents. (Not saying he can't also want them, but he should have wanted more things besides.)


Or you can look at it differently. You're not really recounting events as they are - you're telling a story. That is, you're taking the events, and stringing them in a way that makes narrative sense. You're putting themes that are important in the spotlight, you are omitting things that are unimportant to the narrative. (See The Law of Conservation of Detail tvtrope.)

So wants that lead to nothing are omitted. On the other hand, wants that are important to the story are strung together in a way that makes some thematic sense. For example, as @Wetcircuit points out, Luke Skywalker wants adventure. Everything that follows fits into the overarching desire for adventure.)

If we accept this premise, it's not that the character has no wants, it's that we choose to tell the story focusing on one overarching desire, because it creates a more focused narrative.

  • Pft... forget my house. That new dress is mine, girl! – Sora Tamashii Mar 16 at 1:39
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I think the problem is you misunderstand what a "driving want" is, based on many of your examples. A driving want is the compelling desire that moves the character through the story. It doesn't have to be the entirety of their existence though, and most of the time it isn't. It's just a foundation that you build into your character to make them realistic and have a purpose. Let me use your examples for simplicity:

  • How to Stop Time: Tom Hazard is looking for peace of mind more so than anything else. This is why he eventually moves back home to London and tries being a teacher. He's looking for his solace in the past. As a result, the events of the story help bring him towards looking to the present even if the antagonistic group keeps trying to force him to stay in the past.

  • Frodo: His driving want is to protect the Shire which requires him to leave so long as he has the ring, leading him to take it to Mordor to be destroyed.

  • Harry Potter: Harry wants a normal life, a better life, something that Voldemort stole from him. So Harry works hard at Hogwarts only to find out that now Voldemort is threatening to take even that from him. The entire story of the series is about a boy constantly trying to cling to that which he treasures at any cost, often being put into troublesome situations because of another man's sins.

  • Luke Skywalker: Luke just wants to be respected and free. Everything he does is a means to meet that end because different things come up that block his path. In the case of saving the princess, consider the freedom you can get by having royalty in your debt.

  • A Fault in our Stars: Hazel wants to be able to be a normal girl, even if just for a short while, but she struggles because she knows if she falls in love, she'll only hurt Augustus because she will die from her cancer.

  • Titanic: Rose wants to be allowed to choose her own path in life. As an upper-class woman of that time period, she had some choice, but much of her life was predetermined. Since her family went through financial issues, though, she accepted the engagement out of obligation to her family and because it would allow her to continue the life she knew. She did it because she thought maintaining that high-class lifestyle was what she wanted, but we see through the movie what she really wanted was the ability to decide for herself.

Just because a character has a driving want, that doesn't mean that is all there is supposed to be for the character. Your character can have other wants, but those aren't the character's core. That's like saying, "I'm hungry, so I want food, therefore my existence is now only to eat." It doesn't work like that. Just because you are hungry and have that as your present want, that doesn't mean the rest of your wants disappear. In fact, a driving want will only change if the want is fulfilled or something significant happens causing the MC to realize that what they want goes against their core beliefs. For example:

-In Fate/Zero, Kiritsugu Emiya wants world peace where nobody has to die through violence. Kiritsugu is simultaneously an assassin who gets hired to fight in a war for a supposedly omnipotent wish granting device. He intends to use that device to bring about his wish.

He then finds out that the only way the grail (the device) can grant his wish is by killing literally everybody else in the world because the only way Kiritsugu knows how to bring peace is through killing. This disturbs Kiritsugu greatly who is led to believe there is no other way, so he destroys the grail which still causes a great deal of fiery death and destruction because of his wish, thus forcing his want to shift from wanting world peace to wanting to live a life where he can atone for his sins which reach the heavens.

Also, you don't "shoehorn" the stories into the character. There are 3 main story-writing methods:

  • Character-Driven: Where you make a character and the events are influenced by them. (Character creates the stories)
  • Story-Driven: Where you write the story and your character responds to what happens. (Stories mold the characters)
  • World-Driven: Where the world is designed so that your character's actions still matter, but there are so many events happening off-screen that limit the range your character can influence at a time. (World molds the stories and the characters)

In none of these do you force the story into a character. This core misunderstanding may be why you think it is counterproductive when it's not. So, in short:

YES. It does serve the character to give them one driving want. Just because they have one driving want, that doesn't mean they can't have other momentary wants that influence their actions. The driving want just happens to be more critical to influencing who the character is at their core.

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    I like this but it feels thematic. In query writing, we are instructed to communicate the character want at the outset, and something the reader can visualize. Freedom, honesty, anything along these lines is not as easy to visualize as something like winning the Super Bowl. I prefer thematic, but it becomes circular when advice is to give the readers a hook, something they can cheer the character toward. Hope that makes sense. – DPT Mar 16 at 15:15
  • It's worth noting every rule has exceptions. Query writing is no different. Besides, most of the best stories have goals that are intangible. Even in One Piece, Luffy wants the One Piece, but not for the treasure itself, but because it would make him King of the Pirates: the freest man alive. He wants the presumably physical treasure for the intangible benefits. He has no care for what the treasure itself is. One Piece is easily one of the most popular stories world-wide with millions of readers/viewers. I get where you're coming from, just don't assume all the best works followed the rules. – Sora Tamashii Mar 16 at 23:33
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Yes, Main Character may (and probably does) want more than one thing in her life.

What Is A Story?

However, what you're really banging up against here is the ultimate question of, what is a story?

Is Story Everything That Happens To A Character?

You are telling a story that is a portion of a character's entire life. You are doing this so you don't bore your readers into a coma.

It's A Snapshot

Instead, story is a snapshot of the thing that is very important to the character at the time of the story. Otherwise you are simply journaling everything that happens to the character and that is boring.

Of course, there are nuances of character and interesting things that the writer adds to the story in measured ways and that is what makes the story compelling and interesting.

Who's To Say The Novel Should Only Be About One Particular Thing?

Take this idea and stretch it a bit. You are asking if limiting elements about the character really serve the character.

However, what if you did that with your novel and said, "Well, should this novel really be about the captain of a ship that is bent on killing a white whale?*"

Maybe the story should include the captain hunting down a huge shark that is terrorizing the town of Amity+?

And while we're at it maybe we should make it about a young boy who is recruited into a fight with the Galactic Empire by an old Jedi knight++.

Plus, it could include a mystery on a train that is bound for the Orient+++.

Limits Are Good

Limiting the character and what we tell about the character is for the reader.

It is the same with the story. We tell one story about a moment in the main character's life.

+ Jaws

++ Star Wars

+++ Murder on the Orient Express

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For me, my main characters want a dozen things; but the story is about them pursuing one thing that is important to them for one reason or another. Often this is a semi-existential reason.

By "semi-" I mean she likely won't be risking her life (but maybe), but what is at risk is her normal life, at least as she thinks of it.

Just making this up on the fly, let's say one of her best friends is her brother, and he gets arrested for something and may go to jail. She has a quest, to find a way to keep her brother out of jail.

In the story, this is not the only thing she wants forever. She wants to finish her PhD in chemistry, become a medical research scientist, cure diseases. She wants to fall in love and have children.

She hopes that keeping her brother out of jail is something she can do and forget. For her, the ideal outcome is only to return her to her normal world.

But in this story for this moment in her life, keeping her brother out of jail is the only thing she really wants to do, while juggling her other somewhat demanding responsibilities.

The mechanical necessity is to give the reader a novel-length thread for the story, so the novel doesn't dissolve into just a series of short stories that themselves are not quite complete stories. In any story, there is a beginning, middle, and end, and these are defined by the introduction of a problem: It starts, it evolves, and it is solved.

I think you are taking the "wants more than anything else" too literally, as if the MC wants something more than anything else for all time. I would say the MC needs something she "wants more than anything else at this moment". My girl above is not going to intentionally risk her life, or her university position, to keep her brother out of jail. But she is going to put aside her idle entertainments, school friends, and spend all the time she can possibly afford saving her brother. She may alienate a boyfriend, or piss off her advisor by missing a paper submission deadline, etc.

The quest to free her brother may actually change her life, so she lands in a "new normal". Maybe she abandons her quest, because her brother is revealed to be guilty as hell, and not somebody she thinks should be free after all. Maybe on this quest she meets the love of her life.

She doesn't want just one thing for all time. But a story is about a singular crisis, that (for her) has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

You should certainly be showing, in the opening chapters of the book where we get to see her normal world, all the other things she wants, before the crisis rears its ugly head.

Because her normal world defines the stakes for her: If her "normal" is good, fun, and fulfilling, the crisis threatens to take that all away from her. If her "normal" is miserable and heart-breaking, then the crisis (even if it seems like it will make it even worse) is likely going to trigger an escape from that miserable normal that lets her find a new one.

  • there's a lot of chewy stuff here. Thanks. – DPT Mar 16 at 15:18
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A single want is reductive, but yes there should be a reason these people are willing to walk away from their lives to go on the journey. Assuming they are not Arthur Dent on a hapless accidental adventure, they should have a reason why they are willing to leave everything behind.

Rose in Titanic wants to die. She is about to jump off the ship when Jack starts chatting with her. He doesn't talk her out of jumping, he just distracts her. She doesn't want to jump, she just wants to be free from her life. Jack buys time entertaining her, and she travels with Jack as her guide to the "underworld" of the lower class parts of the ship where she sees hundreds of alternatives. Rose tries to bring Jack into her world but that shows Rose it's actually her life that is bad. Now she has the strength to leave it, but that isn't tested until she has to choose. Rather than get in a lifeboat and locked in her old life, she jumps on the sinking Titanic to die. This is something she was already prepared to do, except now she has a reason to live. At the end she is presumed dead, and poetically, that's how she is able to escape her life. She got her one desire, but it wasn't how she expected.

That's how this is suppose to work. It helps if you remember what the character wants most at the very moment they divert from their normal life. (Well, hopefully it works like that.) Rose meets Jack at the moment she is most sure of what she wants (to be free) but it seems the farthest away.

Yes, it serves the character to have a well-stated desire because it explains the start of their journey and what they need to learn.

Harry Potter spends the whole story wanting his parents and then he finally meets them (they say they were there all along). It is not the big exciting battle, but it is his final resolve, the reason he is able to face his enemy when he expects to die. No one else is motivated to sacrifice themselves. Harry has to acheive his biggest desire before he can sacrifice himself. It is his "reward" but also his source of strength.

Luke Skywalker wants adventure. It's not a very deep desire, but Star Wars is not a deep story. Arguably he finds it, rather than stay and mourn his murdered foster parents and take over the farm like a normal person would. Luke doesn't spend a second looking back. We understand why because we have seen his greatest desire is to go have adventures and now he is free to do so. He doesn't even feel bad.

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    I like the idea of defining it as the thing that makes them leave their life. And the caveat of 'wants most' is freeing. – DPT Mar 16 at 15:17
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Maybe one way to think about it is like thinking about your resume & cover letter: you are a vastly more complex person than what can fit on a few pieces of paper, but you re-arrange the order of things (education or work first? which duties/achievements to stress in the bullet points?).

Your past is still the same no matter how it's presented. But you are targeting the presentation of that experience to fulfill the needs of the potential employer.

Inigo Montoya may have also wanted to taste a really good curry and to find the love of his life and become a father himself, but in The Princess Bride - he wants revenge on the 6-fingered man, and as a subgoal of that, he wanted to become the best swordsman ever. That's the main thing we know about him, and that's ok. (In the book, there's more room for the love he had of his father and his friendship with Fezzik, but still no space for other wants.) Vizzini didn't care about Inigo's revenge-desire, just saw how it led him to become the swordsman HE wanted for his own quest.

My employer doesn't care that I want to do several podcasts, what my favorite ongoing webserial is, my love of my husband and cats, my cooking goals: they want someone who can learn new tech and write about it in the way this specific set of end-users needs it. So for THEM, I also want to learn how to use our agency's specific applications while using a keyboard&screenreader, and also write up that process. In my cover letter, I called that desire something like "refine my technical writing skills with the challenges of AT, so my work truly benefit a user community." (something like that, anyway.)

So your characters may have a bundle of needs and wants, some of which may conflict with one another, but for now, for the story, only certain ones really matter.

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