Thanks to fellow SCBWI-Carolina member Joy Acey, I just learned that the modern sculpture artist Henry Moore once shared a bit of silver wisdom in an interview he granted poet Donald Hall when he was 80 years old. He said,
"You must have something you want to do more than anything else, that's at the center of your being, the center of your life, the one thing you really want. The most important thing about this desire is that it must be incapable of fulfillment." *
This seems to me a pretty good definition of the most important quality we writers must give our characters if they are to grow and change and be as fully dimensional as you or me. The core desire.
This is the thing your main character wants. That she will not be satisfied living without unless she at least makes the attempt to attain it. This is, as Les Edgerton puts it in HOOKED, “the story-worthy problem.”
My trick is to ask my MC “why?” As in an interview. Hang with me a moment here, while I do a bit of excavating.
Me: So, _______, why do you want to win the championship?
MC: Because I want to get a scholarship to a college with a prestigious soccer program.
Me: Why do you want to be part of a prestigious soccer program?
MC: Because I want to play at the professional level.
Me: Why do you want to play at the professional level?
MC: Oh. Honestly?
Me: Please. The more honest you are, the better I will know how to write you. How to properly give you voice.
MC: Okay. Um…well, I want to play pro because I want to be famous.
Me: Why do you want to be famous?
Me: Do you want to be wealthy? (An understandable reason). Do you want to use your fame and money to find a cure for cancer?
MC: Nothing so noble as that. *sigh* I want to be famous because I want to be known. I want to be noticed.
Me: Okay. So why do you want to be noticed?
MC: Because…I don’t know, I mean, maybe…finally…somehow my sister, the one who went off the deep end and disappeared when she was 17, will notice and come back.
Me: I’m sorry, I have to ask this, but why do you want your sister to come back?
MC: Because it will make my parents happy again.
Me: *wincing* Why do you want your parents to be happy again?
MC: Because I can’t stand it when people aren’t happy and I’ve lived everyday for the last three years with parents who ache every minute for their lost daughter. I want them to be happy so that I can be happy. So that they will have answers, and I will have more than what is left over. So we can all stop wanting and be at peace.
Me: Okay. So, just one more question. Why do you want to be happy?
MC: Who doesn’t? I mean, come on….
So, from this little exercise, I’ve found my main character’s core desire – to be happy and to make others happy. Pretty basic, actually. But if this is what she lives for, it will be the reason for every action, every decision, everything she says or doesn’t say.
Because if she believes she will only be happy if her parents are happy, she will do whatever it takes, day to day, to achieve that goal. Winning the championship in order to get a scholarship to a college with a prestigious sports program…in order to play professional soccer…in order to become famous and use her fame to bring her sister out of anonymity is simply the “Grand Scheme.” But everything else she does will also align with the goal of making her parents happy.
So what happens when she meets someone or something that tempts her to do things she knows will not make her parents happy?
And that, my friends, is Story.
What are your tricks for digging and sifting through your MC’s wants? Please share!
*Found in the May/June issue of THE AMERICAN POETRY REVIEW