How to write a story that works: Start with your character

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If you’re still struggling to figure out what your story is about, I’ve got some great news for you: just flesh out your hero and everything else will fall into place. Okay, you still have to figure out what that “everything else” is, but the fact is that none of that will matter if there is one crucial thing missing from your character.

So if you’ve ever wondered how to write a story that just WORKS, you start with this: what is your protagonist trying to accomplish?

Related reading: How to structure your story the easy way

How to write a story that your readers will care about

Essentially all stories are about someone wanting to do or have something, and the rest is just stuff that happens along the way. And will they get what they want? They might not! But what they will get is what they need, and that might be something completely different. This is the natural arc of almost all stories in the world.

Why your readers might not care about your story

What your character is trying to accomplish isn’t just the guiding light of your story as a whole. Their goals should be the point of any scene in your story and they should be the reason why anything happens in the story at all. (If there are multiple points of view, those characters will obviously have their own motivations driving the scene. For clarity’s sake we’re talking about just one protagonist here.)

Have you ever read a book or watched a movie just to end up wondering “yeah but why does this matter and why doesn’t he just go home”? When your readers don’t see what your character wants and why – or when you don’t know it yourself – your story will fall flat.

So now that you know why you need to have your character’s goals in place, let’s look into how to do it and how it will help you craft your entire story.

What is your protagonist’s ultimate goal?

To be clear, we’re talking about a goal that matters to the story that you’re trying to write. Maybe your character really wants to create new sources of renewable energy, but that probably won’t matter if the story you’re writing is about how she deals with the death of her sister. Real people often have multiple goals in life, but a story can’t be about all of them.

Good character goal examples

What does Elle Woods in Legally Blonde want? Get into Harvard Law and show the boyfriend who dumped her that she’s worthy of being his girlfriend. She might also want her own fashion line or seven more tiny dogs, but the story isn’t about that.

If we didn’t know why she’d bother trying to get into such a prestigious school and why she would want to suffer through her classmates mocking her, it would be pretty confusing for us and we probably wouldn’t care about the end result either. As much as “a clueless blonde trying to get through law school” can be a source for some very interesting and possibly funny scenes, it isn’t a story if there is no point to it.

To show you more examples from actual novels, in My Year of Rest and Relaxation the main character’s goal is to sleep through the year with the help of her sleeping pills and sedatives. In Lessons in Chemistry, all Elizabeth Zott wants is to be taken seriously as a scientist.

Before I started to write my novel What Birds Are Made Of, I didn’t really have a real story idea. What I did have was this image of an old house in the middle of the British countryside and lost adults trying to find their way in the world. If I had written just a series of incidents that happen in that house, that could have probably been a useful writing exercise but not a story.

Eventually, I came up with my protagonist Maura who ends up living with her sister’s family (in the house I mentioned) after losing her bookstore to financial troubles, and what she wants is getting her life back preferably in the form of a job that she doesn’t hate. (If you have similar struggles with planning your story, asking these plot questions will be helpful.)

Writing your next book starts here

What character motivation isn’t enough?

Beware these kind of character goals when writing your story

As you can see, in both of these examples the goal is something specific. It isn’t just “be happy” because that is the motivation behind pretty much everything we do in life. That’s why it isn’t enough for a compelling story. You need to think of something concrete.

What does your character think will make them happy? Are they right about it? Has someone or something taken away their previous happiness? How will they get it back? These questions will make the goal of happiness a lot more concrete and something you can actually write about.

In addition, totally humdrum character motivations don’t make a very good story either. Readers want to read about exceptional characters after all! For instance, any motivation to the tune of “going to the grocery store” might need some re-thinking on your part, unless there’s only one grocery store left in the world and the journey there is full of peril.

What is the conflict in your story?

You probably have also heard the term “main conflict”, and you should know it’s tied to the character’s goal. It is, in fact, the reason why they haven’t reached that goal yet or why it has moved out of their reach, or why they’re trying to reach the goal to begin with. Coming up with problems for stories is easy when you put your mind to it.

The conflict in Elle’s story is that her boyfriend dumps her because he thinks she isn’t good enough to be a lawyer’s future wife, so her goal is to prove him wrong. The main conflict in my book is Maura losing her business and everything else with it, which leads to her goal of wanting her life back. And our friend Harry Potter just wants to get through the school year alive, but every year there’s a whole new conflict making his life a little more interesting for the readers.

What your character NEEDS is what your story is actually about

How your characters' needs are tied to your story's theme

Throwing you a little curveball there! What your character WANTS isn’t actually what they NEED, and the thing that they need is what your story really is about. It’s the message or the theme of your story, the thing that you’re trying to say.

If this sounds a little too deep or preachy for you, you don’t need to worry. In fact, even lighthearted and funny stories have a message in them. Writing themes within your stories doesn’t actually require you to write anything epic or religious.

What are some of your favourite TV shows actually about? You might not think that many TV shows with their 25-minute episodes have a deeper message there, but they do, and identifying them will help you write better stories yourself.

I’ve currently got Scrubs in the background as I’m first writing this, and although it’s about a young doctor learning the ins and outs of his job at Sacred Heart hospital, it’s actually about learning to trust yourself and at the same time about how you won’t be able to go very far without the help of your friends.

And speaking of your pals, the show Friends might be about six adults living their lives in New York in their ridiculously cheap apartments, but it’s actually about finding your own way no matter what cards you’re dealt. Probably something about friendship too.

What if your protagonist doesn’t get what they want?

Like I said earlier, your character might not actually get what they want, but they will get what they need. Elle Woods doesn’t get back together with her boyfriend, but what she does get is believing in herself. Likewise my protagonist Maura doesn’t get a new job and she doesn’t get away from the dreaded farmhouse, but she does learn her real family will always be there for her even if her parents weren’t.

So when you’re wondering how to write a story that makes sense, play around with your protagonist’s wants and needs and what they will actually end up getting. Save the Cat! Writes a Novel calls these the A Story and B Story, and if you want to learn more about plotting your book successfully, that’s a good craft book to start from.

Your character’s goals on a scene level

There are many ways to define a scene in writing, but essentially, it’s a small part of your story where 1) your character wants to accomplish something 2) something happens that changes things, and 3) there’s a reaction and a decision that logically lead to the next scene. That is a super-condensed version of scenes and if you want to read more about it, you should read my post on creating scene outlines for your story.

As you’re wondering what scenes to include in your story, you should look at your character’s wants again. You shouldn’t include anything just because you think it would be cool, and instead, there should be a point to all your scenes. The point should be your character trying to get their ultimate want or solving some of the steps that lead there.

The important thing is that your reader should never have to wonder why your character is doing something, why they bother and what is the point in all of this anyway. In general, throwaway scenes will only weaken your story.

Don’t make things easy on your characters

Why you can't be too kind to your characters

Now you have a character who wants something but who actually needs something else. Then what? Will they just go after it and get it? Of course not! There’s a story to be told and the story is made up of all kinds of conflicts and obstacles. Your readers aren’t going to believe in your story if everything happens too easily and the story will be so boring they probably won’t finish it at all.

It depends on your genre and tone what kinds of obstacles your protagonist will face, but none of them should be so easy that it’s instantly obvious how they should be faced. In the very least, there should be an obvious reason why your protagonist can’t reach their goals “the easy way”. Your character’s flaws will help with that.

You also need to stay relevant to your specific story. If you’re writing a romance, the obstacles probably won’t be “getting kidnapped and being forced to become addicted to painkillers”. Likewise, if you’re writing a horror story or a thriller, the conflict probably won’t come from the protagonist’s love interest seeing her in a ridiculous outfit. Misery and Bridget Jones’s Diary are two very different stories even if the same storytelling techniques apply to them.

Still, remember your characters need to make progress, too

If you want your character to actually go somewhere and succeed at something, you can’t just pile bad things and accidents on them. Despite the obstacles, they do need to make progress. But don’t make it easy! Instead, make sure they have to pay for their success. Overcoming one obstacle will teach them something about overcoming the next.

Sometimes you have to make them go two steps back every time they take a step forwards even if it pains you as a writer to do that to your beloved character. There should be ups as well as downs while their problems get progressively worse.

How do you know when your story is over?

What happens when your protagonist gets what they need?

Now you might be wondering that it’s all well and good that you know what should happen in the story, but how do you conclude it? What should end the action?

Your protagonist does want something, but getting it isn’t necessarily the end of the story even if they do end up reaching their goal. Why? Because it wasn’t what they needed. The need is usually a lesson that they have to learn, and that lesson will help them solve the conflict.

Elle’s belief in herself helps her win the case and the respect of her teachers, and she didn’t really need her old boyfriend back. My protagonist Maura didn’t actually need a new job and new life, but her willingness to let go of her past allowed her to have a life where she already was. Because of those realisations, the story is ready to come to its end.

Examples of character needs

Let’s come up with an imaginary example and say you have a main character called Steve. What Steve wants is to write a bestselling book because he thinks it will finally earn him the respect he craves. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have any ideas for an exciting novel, so after several failed tries he decides to go on an adventure to get new experiences that could give him the material he needs for a riveting novel.

Steve travels the world, gets into trouble a lot and meets new people but he still doesn’t get the idea for his book that he wants. But what does he actually need? He needs to start living his life so that he respects himself, and this is what he learns during his adventures when he manages to get himself out of trouble against all odds. He then starts writing a book about his own life because your own story is always important even if it isn’t bestseller material.

And that’s how you write a story. Pretty simple, wasn’t it?

Do you need more help writing your novel?

Although your protagonist’s wants and needs are the most important elements of plotting your story, there are still many other things you need in order to write a story successfully.

If you’d like to kickstart your novel-writing journey the right way, my free 5-day course gets you sorted. You could start writing your next (or your first) novel in less than a week and the daily lessons give you actionable steps and not just theory.

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