6 Things Your Characters Want–and 4 Ways to Keep Them Frustrated

We authors are pretty mean folk. Here we are, creating characters whom we love almost as much as our family and friends–and yet every day, on every page, we make them suffer. We figure out what characters want and then refuse to give it to them. Actually, truth be known, we kind of enjoy making them suffer. So how is it we can grin at ourselves around our toothbrushes every morning and feel no shame for this blatant sadism?

Very simply, because if we did, we’d be out of a job. And our characters would have no reason to exist. Conflict fuels fiction, and frustration fuels conflict.

Think about a few of your favorite stories. How often, in the course of those stories, are the characters rewarded with something they want or need? Occasionally, they probably receive a token reward, a little encouragement to keep them from passing out with the hopelessness of it all. But, more than likely, that token is snatched right back, leaving the character either deeper in the depths of despair or fighting mad enough to do something about it.

That fighting-mad attitude is all about what characters want, what makes them tick and come storming off the page. It’s also what keeps the reader racking up chapters.

6 Things Characters Want–But You Shouldn’t Give Them

Fiction is a journey of many words, with the inevitable destination being some faraway, seemingly out of reach desire of one or more of the characters. That desire might be:

  • A thing (the Maltese Falcon in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon)
  • A person (Ashley Wilkes in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind)
  • A state of mind (peace in Milena McGraw’s After Dunkirk)
  • A victory (the defeat of the Shuhr in Kathy Tyers’s Crown of Fire)
  • An escape (from the oppression of the Japanese in Pearl S. Buck’s Dragon Seed)
  • A place (the Inkworld in Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart).

Maltese Falcon Gone With the Wind After Dunkirk Crown of Fire Dragon Seed Inkheart

Ultimately the goal will necessarily be unique to each premise. What matters and what isn’t unique is the necessity of the character’s burning, undeniable urge to reach that goal.

It’s the author’s enviable job to throw obstacles in the character’s path at every turn. Every time the character (and the reader) begins to think victory and happiness are around the bend, the author has to find some way to circumvent them. (Often, authors identify with their main characters, when really, we are always acting the part of the antagonist: helping him in his battle to defeat the hero.) This sort of frustration is obviously necessary in thrillers and action stories, where the characters’ lives must be under continual threat in order to maintain suspense. But even cozy romances and leisurely literary novels demand frustrated characters.

4 Ways Not to Give in to What Characters Want

So how do you go about keeping the stakes as high as possible for your readers?

1. Watch for Lags

If you find your character happy or at peace, chances are he’s not too frustrated. Unless you’re using a temporary lull in the storm to emphasize the disasters to come, avoid these quiet, happy scenes. Not only do they interrupt the dramatic flow, but they also tend to be boring.

2. List of the 10 Worst Things That Could Happen to Your Character

Jot down all your ideas, no matter how far out (but read this post first). If you haven’t come up with anything feasible by the end of the list, write ten more. As long as you can keep the characters guessing, you can also keep the readers in the same state of suspense.

3. Vary the Intensity

Don’t get so caught up in the need for frustration that you lose the necessity of variety. Even the most thrilling race ‘em, chase ‘em, shoot-‘em-up scenes will get boring and lose focus if they aren’t interspersed with more low-key scenes. Frustration doesn’t always have to be a code-red alert; sometimes it can be only a niggling murmur.

4. Evaluate Your Scenes for Frustration

Glance at the scenes in your work-in-progress and take note of what is frustrating the character in each one. If you can’t find a frustration—or if the source of the frustration seems weak—grab your list of the ten worst things that could happen and start bolstering.

Whatever your chosen genre, frustration is the key to keeping characters and readers—and yourself—on your toes. To give readers what they want, we have to deny characters what they want. Make ‘em suffer. And have fun!

Tell me your opinion: What is frustrating your character in your latest scene?

6 Things Your Character Wants and 4 Ways to Frustrate Them

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Marie W. says:

    I love your thought that conflict fuels fiction and that frustration fuels conflict, but when all is said and done I must admit that I love a happy ending.

  2. To have a good character and to keep the reader’s attention, he must be in some sort of trouble or battling something, either inside of himself or outside of himself.

  3. Anonymous says:

    You have the best pictures – I always look forward to the picture you add to your post.

  4. Thanks! I find most of them on Flickr.com.

  5. Good post. Conflict is probably my second favorite topic in writing.
    I think readers love conflict (and as you point out, frustration–good word!) because it reminds them their not alone. Non-fiction and more importantly our own lives are rife with aggravation as all of our best laid plans fall flat repeatedly. That’s how we learn best to better ourselves.
    So as it is in life, so it should be illustrated in our fiction.
    Again, really great post. I’m going to have to add the top ten list to my writer’s toolbox!
    -C. Michael McGannon

  6. That’s so funny. If you find that they’re at peace then we should totally mess with them. Its true though! Sometimes I just feel mean though. =)

  7. @Michael: Fiction is a distillation of life, so it generally packs in more conflict per square inch than we find in real life. But because the moments of conflict in our lives are the moments that provide for great growth and change, they’re the ones we remember. Same goes for fiction.

    @Raquel: Poor characters. They just never get a break with all of these sadistic authors around!

  8. I just found your blog and I must say this is a very insteresting and inspiring post. I’m sketching a lot for what I hope turns into my first novel, and this was really helpful. Thanks for these writing tips!

  9. Sketching for that first novel is always an exciting time. Have fun!

  10. That part of the writing is always deliciously cruel. 😀
    Well, at least you know the reward you are going to give him at the end. So the great reward doesn’t come without showing yourself capable of it. Tell it to the character and keep him shut.

  11. thomas h cullen says:

    With ‘The Representative’, what’s brought to mind with this question is the specific situation in play between Croyan and his counterpart: the other Representative, he’s in current wait for.

    Never mind Krenok, and the goal that he represents. Never mind the other Prime Governor, and the goal she represents. Never mind the whole Troka system at large, and the vast amounts of luck and conveniences at risk of being lost it represents:

    Here, in this very hall….there’s a source of frustration being represented!!

    (Personally speaking, I’ve felt this way: like life’s been perhaps teasing me, allowing me that bit of encouragement to hope for The Representative when there’s been so much reason to not to.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s true that frustration for a protagonist can come from all kinds of angles – not just the main antagonistic force but even from among friends and allies.

  12. Leto Kersten says:

    This article reminds me of a YouTube video I once saw about how to frustrate characters in Harry Potter. As it then just hit me how important just knowing that is to know your character in the first place I clicked it and found it very helpful simply because each of these annoyances were as I was expecting indeed very personal for each and every of these characters. A random comment about the absense of a nose might frustrate a Dark Lord here or there, but you’ll better come with something better to upset Hermione; hide her study books or whatever.
    Nobody likes to suffer, that’s what we all have in common, but personal frustration, … those are the key.

    The ten worst things that could happen to your character should be personal as well, something I would love to read more articles about.

Trackbacks

  1. […] wrong and has wonderful luck.  The character needs to overcome obstacles.  K.M. Weiland notes the types of desires a character may have trouble obtaining, and ways to be sure they don’t achieve them too […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.