Shattering the “every character must want something” rule

writing notes idea class

Time for another article in our occasional series about ignoring rules about writing.

Okay, that’s a little flippant, but you get where I’m coming from here. This one, I think, is easier to ignore than the rest. I’ve written about it before, but I’ve heard it so much again this year that I wanted to return to it as an issue. You will hear in writing classes that on every page, your protagonist (or other characters) must want something. In my humble opinion, this is another sure-fire way of guaranteeing that you’ll get stuck, right while you’re in your flow of writing something brilliant.

I can’t think of anything more destructive to a writer’s native talent that have them stop mid-flow and go “oh, hang on: that’s a beautiful piece of prose, and it really ties in well with the narrative I’m going for here, but I just realised, it’s not suddenly clear to the reader what the main character wants at this moment.

Writing so that characters constantly tick a rule box will produce boring content. Everything will be boring because it just moves the story on and nothing else. It ends up being just about the destination rather than the journey. If the destination was all that mattered, you could skip the book and go directly to the last page. Where would the fun be in that?

The madness of these rules. It’s almost like some of them were created just to make a writer’s jobs harder. And believe me, it’s hard enough!

Okay, so seriously, as with other “writing rules”, this one has come about for fairly good reasons. You don’t want your story – and indeed, your characters – to start meandering off into pointless areas. Your readers will get bored, and frankly, so will you as you’re writing the thing.

But to start suggesting that on every page your characters have to want something and that this needs to be clearly expressed is just going to lock you into a difficult corner creatively.

I have a better rule. And this is just a rule of thumb, one to ignore whenever you feel it’s right to: The READER wants something on every page. Give the READER an excuse to want to keep reading. That’s no way near as creatively stifling. It’s not specific about any given thing. Maybe there’s a plot twist, or a really powering piece of dialogue, or an question raised that demands an answer.

Deliver for your readers, not your characters. The characters are designed to serve you and your intended audience, not the other way around.

Sorry, rant over! 😉

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