Glass of Water
Updated: Apr 17, 2020
One of my all-time favourite writers, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., claimed that every character should want something, even if it's just a glass of water.
That's sound advice, and good news for us character-creators.
Witnessing someone strive to get what they want is the fun - and the function - of good dramatic writing.
But how do we go about credibly conveying what a character wants?
A simple line of dialogue stating a story objective could do it. On its own, however, it can be quite dull.
"Water!" Penny blurted, parched and exhausted. "Please help me!"
Action is often the preferable choice, employing the age-old mantra "Show, don't tell." It also allows writers to strengthen their craft.
Penny staggered from the dunes onto the highway, drifts of scorching sand stretching onto the pavement as if to subdue it. In the distance, waves of heat beckoned her onward with the promise of some vague salvation. She lurched forward, tripped, scraped her knees and hands on the hot pavement, black pebbles grinding into her skin. As she rose unsteadily, Penny inhaled pure heat. Her throat was all fire. Her lungs were all dust.
Another indicator that the character's desire is being adequately conveyed is the action itself.
By what the character is doing, will the audience know what the character wants?
Such an important clue when editing.
There exists a fine line between overt statement and associated action, and finding that balance is the writer's job.
Too much on-the-nose narrative robs the piece of dramatic opportunity, and often comes across as lazy and uncreative.
Too much obscure action risks alienating the reader, leaving them to wonder (heaven forbid) why they should care.
On special occasions, exposure to action without understanding intent is a prudent choice - great reveals can make a stretch of uncertainty retroactively delightful - but typically, readers prefer to be placed in the heart of the character's world, thrust into the midst of their turmoil, riding side-by-side with them on their epic journey.
Understanding where that journey is going - what the character wants so badly but is having difficulty getting - requires considerate navigation and occasional sign-posts.
What your character does should indicate why they do it (i.e. their want / need / desire).
Conveying this early on allows you, the writer, to focus the rest of the scene / chapter on what readers truly care about most: how they go about it.
That is the fun!
You want us to know she needs a glass of water?
Then show us just how thirsty she is.