“Whaddaya want?” Asks the barkeep. The cowboy across the counter flashes a winning smile.
“Nothin’.” He says with a smile. “I’m perfectly content, I am. Don’t have any cows to herd, chickens to feed, farms to run, criminals to apprehend, friends to save, princesses to rescue from dragons, battles to fight, or wars to win. Hell, you can put away your liquor, mister, ‘cuz I don’t even want a drink.”
“Well, I guess that sucks.” Said the barkeep, switching to a northern American accent. He pulls a sawed-off double-barreled shotgun out from under the bar and levels it at the carefree customer. “I supposed this adventure isn’t going anywhere. The reader doesn’t want to read about a character who doesn’t want anything.”
The man is perfectly content as the barkeep (who is in fact Van Ghalta) murders him in cold blood. After all, he wants nothing: not even to live.
*wipes hands off*
Ah, you there! Yes, you in the reading glasses. Come on over. I’m not gonna hurt you. I only hurt boring, worthless characters who want nothing. But you…you don’t seem like a character. There’s another air about you, something else. You’re not from the fictional world, are you? Ah, that’s right. You’re a reader.
Well then, what do you want? A blog post? Well, bless your soul, kid, ’cause we don’t have those around here. Would you like to hear a story instead? Ah. I thought you might. And I assume you’ve got taste: if it’s a boring story, then you’re the kind of person who’ll just up and leave, won’t you? Don’t you worry, I don’t hold it against you.
But what’s a story without–y’know, I’m gonna break immersion here and now because it’s hampering my ability to concentrate. There we go; much better. Now, where was I? Oh yes. Well, my alter ego basically murdered our poor cowboy hero because he was a trashy protagonist. How did I know that? Because he didn’t want anything.
“Make your characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”– Kurt Vonnegut
Simply put: no one wants to read a story about someone who wants literally nothing. Someone who wants nothing gets nowhere and does nothing. The scriptures say, “where your treasure is, there your heart is also” indicating that what you like/enjoy/chase after are very much part of what forms your character.
Someone who doesn’t want anything is never going to be able to appeal to anyone. You ever wonder how two friends connect? It probably was something along the lines of “Hey man, you ever heard of Elden Ring?” “I love Elden Ring, bro!”. The “I like X, therefore I’m interested in you” formula works for friends just as much as it does for characters your reader’s supposed to connect to.
A character who’s just kind of there is interesting to no one. I had this problem with my first book, as it starred a main character who initially had no stake in anything, no interests or desires, obligations or relationships. If I’m honest, he’s a total charisma vacuum and probably always will be to some degree.
So I haunted him with mysterious dreams and a troubled childhood. A good start, but it needed to be developed further. I added a love for the city and a villain to wanted to destroy it all. Then I put him in a place where heard his friends were the only ones suitably placed to stop it all from happening. Then I embroiled him in a magic-centric plot against his will, and by the time he knew it next, he was trained in the arts of magic, using powerful spells to vanquish his opponents. In the beginning, his goal was more nebulous: he was confused by his dreams and by his past. Then a mentor offered to help him with that–and train him in magic to boot. But by the time all was said and done…well, you can read my book if you want to know more about that.
The point is that we are defined–at least partially–by what we want to do. Someone who wants to do nothing is more or less an undefined entity, or in other words, has no identity at all.
A movie I recently watched (Puss in Boots: The Last Wish which I’m going to make a video reviewing in a week or so) embodies this perfectly. The movie stars three main factions: Puss and his friends, Jack Horner and the baker’s dozen, and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. If you asked me what any of these characters want, I could point you to direct evidence for the following:
(Minor spoilers follow, please skip if you haven’t seen the movie yet)
Puss – Wants his lives back
Kitty – Wants someone she can trust
Perrito – Wants to be a therapy dog
Goldi – Wants a “real” family
The Three Bears – Want Goldi to be happy
Jack Horner – Wants all the magic in the world
Each character has their own distinct, obvious goals and desires. Without these goals and desires, your characters become unlikeable planks of wood completely lacking personality and charisma the world over. Always make your characters want something, even if it’s something as small as a drink of water.
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 2 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!