Episode 113: Establishing Desire

On September 19, 2020, Kasie and Rex took on the question of how to motivate your character. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Establishing Desire


  • Join our community on Patreon
  • What your character wants
  • Needs and wants are different
  • Tropes and cliches
  • How to introduce it
Photo by Ihsan Aditya on Pexels.com

Link to the podcast

Segment 1

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Last week we talked about antagonists and the key to a good antagonist is that s/he gets in the way of the character getting what they want. So this week we’re going to talk about what your character wants.

Let’s start with the basics: Why does the character have to want anything at all?

Your character’s progression is why people are reading the story. They want to see how he’ll change, for better or worse. They want to know what choices he’ll make in pursuit of the goal and what obstacles he’ll face on the same journey.

When do you introduce this want for the character? This link talks about what the character wants before the story begins. It should be something s/he has wanted for a while, like decades. Ask these questions:

  • What does she want before the story begins?
  • What does she think life will look like after she achieves that thing?
  • What does she falsely believe about herself or others that prevents her from getting what she wants?
  • What has she been doing to achieve what she wants before the story begins? Will she try a new tactic after the story begins? 

Here’s the summary:

  • It’s something that your protagonist has wanted and has been striving for probably since childhood, although not necessarily in the same form as she wants it now.
  • It has the capacity to fuel the protagonist’s story-specific agenda, from the first page to the last.
  • It has two layers:
    • Externally, it’s the surface, plot-based, concrete thing that the protagonist wants.
    • Internally (which is what matters most) it’s what getting it will mean to her.

This link talks about plot arcs and how to craft them (there’s a purchase link there but you can just types of arcs and the basic beats to achieve them for a summary.

Here’s a link to a “Motivation Generator” you can use like a game to determine what your character will want:

  • Bring XX world back to its former glory
  • Avenge his/her spouse
  • Get rich
  • Stop criminals
  • Be entertained
  • Cure a major villain from a fatal illness
  • Fit in, make friends
  • Find employment
  • Lift a curse
  • Break an addiction
  • Seduce an angry sales executive (huh? yup)

I got a little click happy on the motivator. 

Segment 2

The difference between the want and the need can be the source of the character’s fatal flaw. For example, if the character wants to be rich because he grew up impoverished and classmates made fun of him, but what he needs is validation and acceptance, then blindly pursuing money may not actually earn him the love he desires (Gatsby).

This link talks about how once the character faces his/her fatal flaw, they come face-to-face with what they actually need and can now choose to deny that for the want, or to accept what they need as a substitute. “What I knew all along,” a la Dorothy.

How can you decide between the want and the need? Try this link’s questions:

  • What would they want said at their funeral or sung at their wake?
  • If they could marry/partner/hook up with the entity of their dreams, who would that entity be?
  • How did they end up in their current job? If they were born into their occupation (e.g., Gilfa was born a peasant in a village that raises goats, so she works with goats), then if they’d been given other options, what would they really have liked to do? What would they be best at (may be different from what they like most)?
  • Why would they be excited to get up in the morning?
  • What, in their mind, is the worst thing they’ve ever done? What’s the best?

Segment 3

So how’s it done, this “desire” thing? Here’s four steps from this author:

  • work out what your character wants versus what they need
  • see how the two are intrinsically linked
  • investigate how their want creates their flaw
  • demonstrate how their choice between their want and need leads to direct consequence

Why does the character’s desire matter? This link talks about motivation and how the character’s behavior is driven by their desire. Everything they do is in response to the resistance (or cooperation) they receive in response to trying to achieve their goal.

When do you, as the writer, know what the character wants?

What happens when the desire changes? Should it? What causes it to change?

Segment 4

The easiest way to approach the “how to do this” is to start with a short lesson on Maslow. This link does a good job talking about the hierarchy. 


According to the hierarchy of needs, our most basic needs are met when we have food, shelter, and air. You can deprive a character of the physiological needs to create drama and you can make attaining those physiological needs the character’s main desire.

Gone With the Wind’s impassioned “I’ll never go hungry again,” monologue is an example of a character’s willingness to “lie, steal, cheat, or kill,” to prevent the loss of these physiological needs.

Safety / security

Next up is the need for safety or security. This is about protection against injury, adequate money, employment, or good health. YA novels love to put their main character in danger — threat of death — but that can sometimes feel forced when we know the character will not die.

More compelling is the threat of being discovered or “found out” as the character has established safety under false circumstances.

Love and belonging

If just the phrase “love and belonging” makes you roll your eyes, you’ve probably read one too many books where this is the character’s primary preoccupation. Love and belonging can be trite and border on hyperbole (looking at you, Heathcliff) but it can also be compelling when the character sets out to attain this and will do anything to get it — especially those things that belie it. 

Esteem and Recognition

Once they’re safely loved, characters can desire recognition – glory, fame, achievement. This is a great preoccupation of a lot of authors. Ambition can be the tragic flaw but the desire of recognition can also be a powerful motivation. Characters who want to feel as if they’re doing a  good job, earning respect, compensation, or gratitude, can be motivated to sacrifice others, to reach for something just beyond grasp, or take on more than they can handle.

Self-actualizationWe talked about this in the Moral Imperative episode when we said this is a unique time in civilization when more people are preoccupied with the work at the top of the hierarchy than ever before. For a character to pursue self actualization is to have achieved the other levels of the hierarchy and this condition of wanting to fulfill one’s own purpose can come off as a little arrogant or privileged.

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