Clark Chamberlain is joined by Writership’s Leslie Watts. They discuss what character desire is, how to use and abuse it, when desire changes in the story, being true to desire, when desire and plot clash, and how to edit each situation.

Leslie also wrote an excellent article with some activities you can do to find what motivates your characters.

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Clark: Welcome to The Book Editor Show. Today we are discussing how to edit and understand your characters’ desires.

If you’re ready to move forward with your professional editing, stop by We can help in every stage of your work, from pre-production, developmental editing, copy editing, to proofreading, stop by today and let us know how we can help you build a better book.

I’m Clark Chamberlain, and guess what, Peter is out today. He’s traveling in Paris, where you know they don’t have any Internet. But fear not, dear listeners, because I have a special guest host.

No matter how large or difficult the job might be, she’s never once backed down from an edit to a delectable dissertation. Please welcome, the Acumen of Austin, Leslie Watts.

Leslie, how’s it going today?

Leslie: It’s going great. Oh my gosh that was fun. I understand why Peter is always so thrilled when he starts the show. It’s cool.

OK. I’m doing well. How are you Clark?

Clark: I am doing pretty good. Doing a lot of work; finishing a lot of editing jobs coming up.

But I’m really excited this next week at this time, I will be at the Salt Lake Comicon, which is going to be awesome. So I’ve got a booth down there, will be selling Hank Hudson books, doing all that kind of stuff.

Leslie: Awesome. You’re going to have such a great time.

Clark: It will be. It will be so much fun trying to figure out… I had someone making a cosplay — like a costume — of the suit that’s worn in the new movie for the Harry Potter, the Fantastical Beasts and Where to Find Them. But I do not believe it’s going to be done in time, which is a disappointment.

Leslie: Well there’s always next year, Clark.

Clark: That’s right.

Anything new going on in your neck of the woods?

Leslie: I’m sure there is, but I’m a little tired today so I’m having a hard time remembering. I’m focusing on character desires, and right now that’s sleep.

Clark: [laughs]

Leslie: I’m thinking about that a lot. But I’ll try to hold up my end of things here.

Clark: I really appreciate you taking the time to be the fill-in for Peter.

If you don’t know, Leslie Watts is from Writership. I’m also helping her co-host that show now. We have a great time over there. A lot of editing in action. So if you haven’t checked that out yet, you’ve got to go do that, because it’s a lot of fun, and you’re going to learn a lot too.

So — just like today — learning about characters’ desires.

The topic for this came up when we were doing, on the Writership program… Do you recall the name of the book?

Leslie: It was “The Wolf and the Ravens” I believe was the name of the story.

Clark: It’s episode 75?

Leslie: 75. Yes, episode 75.

Clark: And it was an historical one, and there was a part that I kept getting hung up on with the character and what the character was trying to do, and what their desire was. Because making sure that the character desire matches what’s going on in the story is really important.

Leslie: Why is that important, Clark?

I’m sorry, I’m just going to lob softballs at you. [laughs]

Clark: Well, Leslie, the reason why it’s important, is because when the character’s desire doesn’t match what… So the problem is, is that the character interior desire — sometimes the author wants a character to do something else — it actually would go against their desire. When those two events happen, the reader feels it to be not genuine, and it makes it difficult for them to believe what’s going on in the story.

Leslie: Kind of like a cognitive dissonance that you can feel.

And it makes sense, because you sometimes will read a story, and you’re going along and everything seems fine, and then it’s like — why did he do that? Why would he do that? — and it’s more than just — well I wouldn’t do that if I were in his shoes — like, it’s more than that. It’s that — well this seems inconsistent, or it seems our of character.

Clark: Exactly.

You hear that term — it just seems out of character.

That’s really what we’re talking about — is that the character has a desire.

This is how we all are. We all have something that we desire that we’re going after, and we become… Maybe people become obsessed with it; other people, they set goals and work towards it. But most of the time, we do everything according to the desire of what it is that we’re trying to accomplish.

In your situation right now, that’s sleep.

Leslie: Yes. That’s my scene goal, is that I want to sleep. It’s not my usual goal. Usually at this time of the day I have other things that I want. Then my overall plot goal would be something like — I want to take over the world, or something like that.

Clark: Exactly. So as we’re going through your manuscript, you’re taking a look at this, and just like Leslie said — “a scene goal.”

This is where, and we’ve talked about them before, the MRUs — the motivational reaction units — and how that’s put together, with that the scene there should be a goal.

But then also you have an over-arching goal, that takes place, whether it’s over the entire book, or maybe it’s in smaller sections, like from the beginning to when the character enters the main section of the plot, or when the turn happens and they get pulled into act 2, or when the great sorrow and everything is getting beaten down and maybe it changes again.

There’s these point where things can change. But there’s also this desire that needs to happen during a particular scene.

Let’s talk about these, and how we can do this.

Let’s talk about first — why? Why would we have a change happen in a story?

Let’s say Harry Potter — we use Harry Potter a lot — let’s say that Harry Potter… Like at the beginning of the first book, like his desire, is kind of just to… He wants a better family and he wants to find a place where he belongs.

Leslie: Right.

Clark: He doesn’t want to become a wizard and fight bad guys.

Leslie: No. He doesn’t want to be famous. That’s very weird for him. So he’s kind of thrust into that role, but that’s not what he’s wanting.

One of the things that’s interesting to me is the way that the desires kind of correspond to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. So… Kind of a brief kind of thing —

We have this hierarchy of needs. It starts with survival and then moves up into the higher orders, like love and belonging, and that kind of thing. Then a sort of enlightenment or fulfillment.

Depending on what kind of need you have, your desire is probably connected to that, even though it might be connected sideways. Like you might be using some pretty dysfunctional means of getting your needs met.

But I like that, that idea to connect up what that need is with what the want is, and how they’re trying to make that happen.

Clark: I hadn’t even thought about using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. That’s a great way to look at it. Because that’s what we want you to do. You’ve taken your manuscript and you’re taking a look at the character arcs.

Whether you’re talking about your major characters, like your protagonist and antagonists, and then down to some minor characters as well, because that helps them be more multi-dimensional when they have desires and are trying to do something.

Leslie: Everybody wants something. That’s — like you said — I think it’s even a Buddhist principle. Like, to be human is to desire something.

Clark: Right.

Leslie: Everybody’s got that.

Even if you have a, say, a barista who’s a minor character, you can still add something like — what does he really want? Does he want to… Like, is his big thing so make the best cappuccino ever? Or is he like — I want to get out of here.

It’s going to change what he does and the attitude that he brings toward what he does.

All of that is great fodder for conflict, of course. It makes it more interesting, because somebody who doesn’t really want anything, and just kind of floats through the story, isn’t… There are those people in real life, but they’re not very interesting, and we are not perched on the edge of our seats wanting to know what’s going to happen to those people next.

Clark: Exactly.

I have just recently finished editing a manuscript, and it’s a shorter story, so it doesn’t lend itself really well to having a lot of subplots and a lot of tie-ins, that having 100,000 words would.

Let’s say that you’ve got that 90,000- 100,000-word book, and you’re going through it, and you’ve realized really the only plot line I’ve got going through here is just the main one, and that’s it. I have no subplots, I’ve got nothing else going on. It’s just — the character is trying to get this goal, and has got this desire.

This is a great way to start looking at if this is another way that you can look at your minor characters and other characters and say — well, if this guy’s trying to do this…

Let’s give an example here. Let’s say that this story is about someone who is trying to stop a city council from rezoning and destroying an entire subdivision, is going to kick everyone out of all their homes or something like that.

So you’ve got a character who wants to stop that, and that’s what the main plot is through the whole thing. Then what happens when you have other people have desires. You’ve got other people who live in that neighborhood; maybe they want to sell out. Maybe you’ve got other people who want to stop just a portion of it, like how far are they willing to go for his desire through the story and where do those conflicts happen? Where do desires clash against each other?

That can be a very easy way to find subplots that you didn’t have before in your story.

Leslie: Yes. Because everybody is going to be fighting for their own little thing.

When I was thinking about this issue, I was thinking about the fact that different people might have the same desire, but go about achieving it in different ways, in different ways that cause conflict.

You could even have two people who want to stop the city council, but one of them wants to stop them by peaceful means, and the other one wants to do damage and commit violence and… Because it’s that serious.

Then you can have two people who are doing the same actions, but they have completely different desires.

There’s all different ways you can play with this, and have different conflicts and thing.

— But wait a minute. I thought you wanted this.

— No. I didn’t. I was just doing this for some other independent reason.

So you can have misunderstandings, which are so fabulous, and — well not in real life, but — but in stories, they’re really fun, because you want all of that conflict and tension and for things to be really hard for the character.

Clark: Desire. If you feel like you’ve gone through your… You’ve written your manuscript, and you’re looking through it, and you’re like — I’m not even sure what my characters actually want. I’ve written this story that happens to have characters in it, but I’ve never really taken a look at why this character would do this.

This is where you can end up where you look at the character and you say, like we talked about earlier — why? Why would the character actually choose to do these things? It doesn’t make sense; it feels out of character.

This is when your desires and plot are actually clashing together. Because you want to tell the story a particular way. But your character doesn’t want to be part of that story — really when it comes down to it.

So it’s either — do I change the plot of the story to match a character? Do I just throw the character into it anyway and just make them do it? Which is the least desirable of course — or…

Leslie: Uh… I’m sorry — you used “desire.” [laughs]

Clark: [laughs]

— or do you end up changing things in a way so that the reader understands this desire or this shift in desire.

So for instance — Another Day, Another Name, which is the first book I ever wrote, at first it was really confusing why the assassin in the book would put herself at risk for someone else. It really did seem out of character.

So I had to go back in and change scenes, so that we could see her making small changes. Because those changes and desire had to occur so that it felt realistic and it didn’t feel like the plot and the desire were clashing.

Leslie: I think that’s a really good point.

I was working on a story recently, where the character… Her desire wasn’t fully developed. So in the beginning it was kind of this one thing, and it didn’t really make a lot of sense, in light of the story. The character wanted to please other people in the beginning, it seemed. But it was more like she was just kind of going along, not really having a desire, and then as soon as we hit the turning point at about 25%, that when we’re moving into act 2, then it suddenly became clear what she really wanted was to be a certain kind of dancer.

Then the plot just took off and everything kind of meshed. It was clear that the author had really hit her stride there at that point, when she figured out — oh, this is what this character really wants.

She just needed to go back and edit that first portion to make sure that there was evidence of that all along.

Clark: Yes. Because we would want to make sure that we’re showing this desire, and that it’s clear.

I’m really big, when you first sit down, I’m really big into the idea of plotting along the lines of the overall story, and understanding what you’re going to do.

I’m not a huge proponent of really spending a ton of time with my characters in pre-production before I get into writing, because I want to kind of explore them a little bit more. But once I have the first draft done, once I’ve got that manuscript done, then it becomes time to really evaluate the characters and make sure that I understand different desires.

We were talking off air. You’ve got this fantastic way to go through and really start identifying desires and can give some practice. Do you want to go through that now? Want to talk about that?

Leslie: Yes. Sure.

I’ll go through it.

I was thinking — oh, we should tease them and make them go to the book editor show site and check out the post on this. But it will be up, and you can get the details there.

But just to give you a little —

Clark: Just a little taste.

Leslie: — taste.

But first, can I say one more thing about this — is that conflict… I was — I think “riffing” is an OK word to use in this context — where I was thinking about desire and conflict and I was just writing, kind of letting things flow.

It occurred to me that the obstacle — is the opponent of the desire, and that creates tension, which creates interest and all of that.

Then I thought — well, if you’ve added some juicy stakes to the mix, then chances are you’re going to have a really rollicking good tale. And by “juicy stakes” of course I’m talking about — there’s something at stake for the character. Not that you’re cooking your steaks rare.

I’m sorry, I couldn’t help myself. It just came out. Yeah. OK.

So enough about that… [laughs]

Clark: But when we were talking about it, you definitely have to go and check out the article because it’s going to give you a lot of great ways to evaluate what the character’s desires are and then to exploit those desires, if you will, to see how far that they’re willing to go, to get what it is that they want.

Leslie: Right.

So I’ll just do a little summary.

Are we OK on time? I just want to make sure we’re not…

Clark: Yes. We’re good.

Leslie: OK.

So you want to take one of your characters. I recommend the protagonist or your main antagonist. But you could play with some of the minor characters just to kind of flesh them out as well.

Ask yourself — what does this character want more than anything? — and then go beneath that — what’s beneath that? — what’s beneath — that?

Just keep digging down under those layers and go for… Write for ten minutes or so, to figure out — what is it that this character really truly wants?

Then ask yourself — why does the character want it? What does the character hope to gain? What does the character hope to feel?

And then again, write for ten minutes so that you’re really getting down into that, their messy soul parts.

Then what actions? — this is the next part. Make a list of all the actions that the character could take to achieve this desire. Again, write for a while — ten minutes, or more — and exhaust every possible option. Don’t judge them, because this is discovering, and recording your thoughts.

Any action that could possibly — that the character could think could bring them closer to their desire.

Then, for every one of those desires, you want to think of five to ten obstacles that could get in the way. That’s a lot, but part of it is digging below the surface stuff, so that you can innovate.

Then once you have five to ten obstacles for each one of those means to achieve the desire, then you take three of the most compelling actions, and you write a scene where the character is pursuing his desire to the end of the line. He is going for broke.

In the course of that, you throw every obstacle you can think at him, until you bring him to his knees. Just absolutely destroy him.

Then — and this is the twist — you give him thought, the tool, the means — don’t do the deus ex machina — but give him something, the thing that makes sense, and that fits that causes him to succeed or fail utterly.

Clark: I love that. I really do love that, because this is a great way — let’s say you’ve finished your book; you’ve sent it out to some beta readers and they’ve marked some slow spots, or parts getting a little bit boring or out of place — this is the type of stuff that you can go in and be able to really figure out what your character’s after and that’s going to just amp up every one of those spots, because when you can throw in what they’re after and throwing in obstacles on how they’re not going to get it, that just brings it forward, and brings it so that people just get really excited about reading that and seeing how they’re going to be able to overcome it.

Then the best thing to do of course, is once they’ve overcome one thing, is to throw something else in the way that stops them.

Leslie: Oh, yeah. Kick them while they’re down.

Clark: Kick them while they’re down.

Because at the end of the day, that’s why we really want to understand all of our character’s desires so that we can manipulate them and destroy them with it.

Leslie: Bwahaha!

Clark: I do the same thing with my children.

Leslie: Oh, noo. I don’t believe it at all.

To me, this gets to the very heart of what fiction and storytelling is. It is a little experiment. Like — what happens when everything falls apart, and this character is taking action, trying to get what they desire, even though their world has turned upside down — their ordinary world, from the beginning.

I think that we, as people, are so attracted to this because we want to know — how do you deal with adversity? How do you deal with challenges?

When we watch a character and everything has been thrown at this character and he is just about to give up, and then something, like one little thing, helps him or hurts him, then it’s like — OK, that one didn’t work; throw that one out; we’re not going to use that one.

But it’s a way of kind of making sense of the world and strategising for your own personal problems, which hopefully, are not as bad as the characters you read about.

Clark: Having all those problems is so important.

I remember this last spring in the creative writing class at the college that I teach — I was talking about this. I was — look, you are just going to pile on the problems; you’re going to pile and pile and pile them on all over.

I’ve got this one student, she raises her hand, and she’s like — why can’t we just write a nice story about a day at the beach?

Because a nice story of a day at the beach is boring. Instead, a nice day at the beach turns into Jaws attacking somebody. That’s what’s interesting about the beach.

Leslie: Right. Or these amphibious soldiers come out of the water and attack everybody and…

Because that’s interesting. It’s like — oh, what would I do in that circumstance?

Clark: It doesn’t have to be that far. You could have —

Leslie: Oh, sure, Clark. Come on.

Clark: I love having it that far, but I know some people don’t.

But these are great ways to have — they forgot to bring the sunscreen to the beach; this causes a fight; they go to try to take care of this thing, and then another problem ensues; they get the flat tire, or they’ve gotten stuck on the beach with their car and now you’ve got to find someone to dig it out.

You’re just throwing problems at them, and that’s what it is. Because as they’re trying to get that desire, and then of course they’re getting more frustrated, and see what they do. See how they handle it.

Leslie: I know.

I stumbled upon this “motive generator.” Have you ever seen one of these?

Clark: I don’t know that I have.

Leslie: I’ve seen character name generators and all kinds of different things. But this actually a motive generator. It was fascinating, the stuff that came up.

So if you’re having a hard time with that, coming up with — well I don’t know what my character wants — just randomly generate some. Then I bet, when you see it, you’re going to be like — oh, it’s that.

You’re going to know.

Then I also like for that, the “anyagram” which is a personality system. Whether you think that it actually is — this is an accurate depiction of people — or not, it still talks about what people’s basic fears are, and a lot of times I think their basic fears will indicate what their desire is. Their desire is to avoid that at all cost. So it’s another way to enter that, and discover what that is for your character.

Clark: The desire that a character has — they don’t need to be able to achieve it. Desire can change during the story — those major desires — as things happen. But scene desire, you need to be very careful of switching out of a scene desire too quickly, or switching out of those other things too quickly. For instance, if you’ve got a character who’s in the middle of a crisis situation, and they’re continually switching what it is that they’re trying to do, that becomes… It just doesn’t make sense. It’s like — if you were there, wouldn’t you be doing this? Because this is who you are.

So those are the things you want to watch out for, again, as you’re editing your work through here. You’re going to be able to come up with some really amazing characters. They’re going to be able to enhance your plot overall, and to give you more problems, and to give you more conflict between your characters as they differ in their desires.

Leslie: I stumbled upon something about that that was cool. It’s this idea that… It’s a shift in thinking about characters. Characters are not just a collection of traits and characteristics. There’s a difference between describing a character, this is about a character, and this is the character.

I’m reminded, and I didn’t find the source for this quote, but I think it was a Greek philosopher —

— We are what we repeatedly do.

So your true character is… He is the thoughts, the action, the speech, and all of that is what drives the story.

So everything they do should be connected to that desire and that should be connected to the plot overall. Then the individual desires, motivations within individual scenes, should in some way be connected to the bigger desire as well, so that it all makes sense, so that it all fits.

Clark: It’s easy, right? We just made it sound so easy. Now go and do it.

Leslie: I know. [laughs] Just go do this.

Clark: [laughs] Just go do this.

Leslie: Just bring that character to his knees. Come on.

Clark: And just weave all these lines together and it’s no big deal.

Leslie: Right. So, good point.

I don’t do this well. I’m owning that it’s a lot easier to edit someone else’s work for this kind of thing than it is for me to correct it in my own.

I’m so glad you said that, because it isn’t that easy. It’s challenging, and that’s what separates a mediocre story from a really great one, is getting this down.

It’s a worthy goal. It’s a worthy desire on your part, to really improving that, and mastery.

Clark: Exactly. You can start this at any level through your manuscript, whether you’re just adding in one desire and then adding in obstacles over that, and making sure that it gels well with the plot, to then adding in more as you go along to additional characters, until you get to the point that — yes, you’re going to be doing this, and it’s just going to be this huge tapestry that you’re going to create and it’s going to look awesome.

Do you have anything else you want to add, Leslie, before we close up?

Leslie: I want to say — check out the post on The Book Editor Show that will have the… That will be editing in action, and then you can try that out. And please, if you try out that exercise, let us know, because I’m always curious to see how that plays out.

Clark: And I think that one sounds like a lot of fun. Then also, don’t forget, if you want to see this actually done live [laughs] or after the fact, go to Writership and take a look at episode 75 where we talked a lot about this and showed how we could change some things in an actual manuscript.

Leslie: Right.

Clark: If you, dear listener, enjoy the show, please leave us a review on iTunes, a Like on YouTube, or a Plus on Google, and also come by and Like our new Facebook page, and share the show with all of your author friends. If you’re an editor who’d like to be a guest on the show, please drop us a line at

I’m Clark Chamberlain, and for my co-host Peter who is in France without Internet, and for my special co-host Leslie, keep writing, keep learning, and build a better book.