“Make your characters proactive instead of reactive.” Many writers learn this advice fairly early on. Have your main characters make the decisions and they’ll become much more interesting than those who let the minor characters call the shots (the latter scenario of which is a common pitfall).
But how do you make them proactive? You establish a goal for your characters to work toward. Now, writers will hear this advice, implement it, and successfully establish goals in their story. However, they might still find that readers struggle to connect with the main character. That’s because writers need to go one level deeper. They have to establish why that goal is important.
At face value, this advice is painfully obvious. But what’s less obvious, and what many writers don’t realize, is that the importance of a goal is never self-evident. You might have your characters strive to find their soul mate, fame, fortune, to help a loved one, etc., because readers generally might want these things for themselves, right? So the nature of these goals should help the reader relate to the character’s desire for them, right?
That’s not how it works, sadly.
This is because at the end of the day, readers will view your characters as characters and not as literal people (though some writers have come close in their stories). If you see in the news a seven-year-old whose parents were murdered in a robbery, you may feel a small tightness in your chest. That’s called empathy. But if you read that news story in the first page of a novel? The sympathy you experience will be a fraction compared to real life, if that. Now, such an opener could be good for other reasons, which brings me to my next point.
Backstory and its juxtaposition to a character’s goals is how you establish desire. It’s not enough to say fortune is what drives your character just because your readers may dream of being rich too. You have to contrast that desire in your novel, perhaps with a backstory of extreme poverty. In the earlier example about the kid with the murdered parents, a newer writer might decide the murder itself is enough of a driving force for the kid to spend his teenage years hunting down his parents’ murderer for revenge. A seasoned writer, however, would show the relationship between the character and his parents beforehand so the reader could understand what that character really lost. The seasoned writer wouldn’t assume the parents were important to the character, just by virtue of being parents.
Before page one, your main character has led an entire life which hosts an array of motivations that justify why they do what they do. This backstory, and its role in establishing what the main character will strive for, is often why the beginnings of stories have the MC leading a normal life before the inciting incident. It shows the status quo, or in other words, what’s important to a character when everything goes to shit and what they stand to lose. There’s a popular trend to start a story in medias res, where immediate action can sweep a reader up with the strength of pacing, but often times what a story gains in pacing, it loses in character motivation. There’s a lack of that juxtaposition mentioned earlier – action packs less of a punch if a story contains it from beginning to end, but on a deeper level, there has to be motivation behind why a character would engage in an action instead of remaining in the status quo. Stories with in medias res will oftentimes use flashbacks to establish motivation, which can can be a useful workaround to avoid starting with the status quo. What’s important to remember is that while action can drive a scene and hold a reader’s attention temporarily, it can’t drive a story arc.
When it comes to the beginning of a story, a good writer searches for that sweet spot where they can show the status quo but keep their story well-paced. They also recognize, however, that creating a character with an interesting life before the inciting incident isn’t enough. They have to dig deeper and show why the goal they’ll eventually work toward is important to their character, which is woven into the status quo. These goals can involve fame, fortune, finding a soul mate, to help a loved one, etc.
This is why I’m a proponent of outlining, at least to some degree. You can set a goal toward the end of the story for your character to strive for, then construct a status quo that directly contrasts this goal. Have your character encounter roadblocks as they strive for their goal, and that’s how you create pacing. This advice is terribly simplified, but it works as a starting point.
I’ll use Ready Player One to illustrate how to establish need. On a superficial level, Wade Watts wants to win the hunt to escape his life of poverty. The fame that comes with it is an added benefit after years of living as a nobody and as one of the least likely people to win the hunt. Winning the hunt in Ready Player One is a version of a plot called The Quest, which is one of The Seven Basic Plots.
To accentuate this character goal though, Wade Watts has spent his life using The Oasis to protect himself. This virtual reality world let him forget about his life without any real family and was a place where he at least felt special to some degree. When a company called IOI Industries comes along and wants to win the hunt so they can monetize The Oasis, which would force him, and those like him, out of The Oasis, Wade’s backstory of using The Oasis as an emotional crutch suddenly makes the goal for fame and fortune much more compelling.
It isn’t a stretch to say your story can be stronger if you create unique goals for your character, or at the very least add a unique spin on established tropes. The bones of Ready Player One come from one of the oldest plot ideas out there, but Ernest Cline used his interests as a gamer to put his own spin on it. How often have readers seen a character save a virtual reality world that was used by the character to escape his terrible life? Although there is no such thing as a truly new idea, a skilled storyteller would hardly consider that an obstacle.
Recognize that readers will relate to your character’s desire for fortune, or true love, or what have you, even if those desires have been explored a million times in other stories. But never forget to keep your attention on the North Star: you have to make the reason for that desire clear.