Why You Should Know What Your Characters Want and Need
It’s vital that we, as storytellers, understand what ALL our characters (major and minor) want and need. If you have a cast of passionate characters, passionate about willy-nilly things, a story can get befuddling and difficult. Unless their passion circles the same topic the story wanders off in too many directions and then a reader gets lost.
For example, I recently read a manuscript wherein one character was passionate about rebuilding old cars, another passionate about remodeling kitchens, and a third passionate about going to day spas. Okay, interesting. Unfortunately these three passions never intersected in the story. I suggested to the writer that if all three could meet as a result of vintage cars, remodeling, or at a day spa, then they could bond over that single shared passion, the crime could have something to do with that, and so on. But instead the reader was sent in three different directions, down three separate roads only to wonder why and then quickly get tired of the story.
When I realized that the cast of characters in my upcoming novel, all of whom are holocaust survivors, all had the same needs (safety, community, nourishment, etc.) I had to write them with conflicting wants or the story would be boring (remember, wants and needs are VERY different) – some want to remember while others will do anything to forget. Some seek justice while others have lost hope in the jurisdiction of this world. Some seek the truth while others see only lies – and so on. These conflicting desires surrounding the same topic (the holocaust/concentration camp survival) create conflict no matter what else is happening. That tension filled topic is at the core of my story and keeps the spokes of my story-wheel spinning all in the same direction.
So remember, know the wants and needs of your characters and ALWAYS create conflict on every page.
Here’s a great article from K.M. Weiland on The Thing Your Character Wants VS The Thing Your Character Needs.
Fight or Flight – Life Lessons I’ve Learned
We all land on one side or the other of the ‘flight or fight’ issue. And anyone who knows me will likely say I’m a fighter. And anyone who knows my mom will tell you she’s a flighter. It’s been a long standing joke in the family, ‘Mom’s on walk about’ always meant she may be gone for a day or two, or a year. We, my three brothers and me, grew up knowing she may disappear at any point, so we took care of ourselves. I think I became that fighter because someone had to stay and take care of things.
When she was 80 years old I had to take her driving privileges (keys and car) away before she crashed THROUGH another Arby’s drive through window, or hurt herself or someone else. Mom has always been active and on the go, so ending that part of her life was difficult and sad, no more garage sales, no more Value Village and no more senior breakfast specials at Denny’s or their dueling rivalry, Shari’s Restaurant, and no more ‘flight’ capabilities. I wasn’t sure how she’d handle not being able to escape.
Soon it was evident that living on her own was no longer a healthy situation: despite her youthful face and attitude, mom has never liked vegetables or exercise and so was in poor health for a modern day 80 year old. We soon found a retirement home in her area. My brothers and I hoped that the retirement center would provide ample activities to keep her socially, mentally and physically active, like in high school. After all, she always said her happiest time in life was high school: of course, as her child that’s gratifying, ‘thanks mom’.
And though mom spoke of the other residents as if they were old people and she couldn’t figure out why she had to live with them, at first it seemed like it might work out. At least the socially active part kept her fully engaged. And by fully engaged I mean that she and her new cohorts in the ‘home’ became like any high school’s gaggle of mean girls. And in her early 1950s high school, my mom – a beauty queen, entertainer and one of the prettiest girls in school, sadly, was a leader of one of those toxic packs of mean girls. So mom finally returned to her youth, her happiest time; gossiping, mocking and making fun of some of the other (80 plus year old) girls. This regression was unexpected (though not surprising) and sorely disappointing – proof that even old leopards do not change their spots. Obviously, who we truly are is revealed in stressful situations, and apparently times of boredom.
I soon realized that much of their gossipy activity was due (not entirely) but largely to monotony. The home she was in did not manage a lively activities calendar, which I have since learned is critical to a retirement community. This means that there was very little outside stimulation or visiting entertainment, so mom and her cronies created their own. And left to their own diminishing devices meant mom FREQUENTLY asked me to come in and read from my novel or do a talk on travel to Europe with my ‘fancy gadgets’ – her words to describe my laptop and Power Point. She’s always been proud of me, so, I did do presentations, talks and even sat in on a few of their ‘happy hours’ with them.
Mom called their happy hours the ‘dark times’ due to the substandard music and or other entertainment during their oft-failed attempt at one scanty hour of happiness per week.
I always brought a good bottle of wine and we smuggled it in so we could have a decent glass of wine instead of the boxed mystery elixir they served. Mom often invited her closest friend to sit with us, a one-time (and lifelong) airline stewardess who still dressed the part; small silk neck scarves from Paris tied in a perfect knot at the side of her neck, trinket jewelry from Asia, and sweaters and vests made in Ireland, red lipstick and short bleached blonde hair. She was 90, never married, always a beauty who traveled the world and who somehow landed in this home with no one to visit her and restricted to traveling with her walker only as far as the front lobby. The only thing that truly bonded these two women was their fading beauty, their tendency to be mean girls and their STRONG desire to escape the place, the age, and the circumstances where they now found themselves – like Alice after falling through the rabbit hole – shocked and surprised at their surroundings, wondering, how did this happen?
I’m confident that if either of them could still drive we would have had a Thelma and Louise state of affairs.
Things were copasetic for about three years, and during those years my brother who lives in Portland handled a great deal of what it takes to manage her healthcare and weekly shopping trips, and I handled the rest from here in Seattle. It took years and a great deal of paperwork and financing, but we finally had her set up where she was safe, had a nice place to live, meals, meds, personal care aids, and lots of caretakers on duty 24-7.
Still, mom constantly complained about everything in the home, begging me to come down (from Seattle to Portland) to entertain her friends, and constantly tried to find ways to bust out of the place, the ‘big house’ she called it. One year, after we had argued on the phone about her moving out on her own; which would have meant no one to cook for her, check her insulin, give her the correct amount of her meds, and no alert button to press if she fell, I agreed to drive down and take her to a local Halloween party at a neighboring retirement home. When I arrived, she came down to the lobby of her building dressed as a prison inmate (black stipes, hat and a chain around her ankle). Ever the actress, and always one to make a theatrical point.
That day I realized she never has been and never NEVER will be happy, so I’d settle for keeping her safe. My mother makes most people feel helpless because she is never happy or satisfied. Trying to please someone who will never be pleased is exhausting, and helplessness is soul sucking, so I stopped trying to make her happy. But safe, safe I can live with.
Anyway, during the last two years her stewardess friend grew weaker and weaker, no longer able to even travel from her room down the long hallway to mom’s apartment. Then two of mom’s other friends died, which is not uncommon in a home for the elderly, but remember, in mom’s mind she was still an imprisoned teenager trying to find a way out.
But then the stewardess died. Mom went silent for several weeks. Barely any conversation at all, not even complaining, which had me worried. But I should have known better, after all, mom’s a runner.
All of a sudden, I got a call from my two brothers who live in a small town on the Oregon Coast. Mom had somehow convinced them she should live in their house and that she could take care of herself, it would be no big deal. She swore them to secrecy, and covertly made all the arrangements to break out of the big house. Those two unsuspecting (ever culpable) brothers had never been involved in all the doctors’ appointments, and overall healthcare mom required, like my other brother and I had been. So now they have their hands full and because they went along with her secrecy, I wish them well. I can’t help them, but I wish them well.
As I said, mom’s a runner. Not a fighter, but a flighter. The death of her comrade in mean girl affairs stunned mom’s teenage sensibilities to her core, disturbed her naïve sense of mortality. When her friend took her final journey from this world, mom absolutely could not comprehend what was happening – Alice lost in (what’s the opposite of Wonderland?) anyway, mom’s flight reaction has always told her to run. And run she has. But this time there’s no running from old age. You have to befriend aging, I always told her, eat your vegetables, take your walks, work out, laugh, enjoy life, don’t resent it, and treat others as you would like to be treated, and so on. And though this is not and never will be mom’s credo, it is mine, and for that I owe her a debt of gratitude for always showing me what not to do. She’s a great life guide.
As a writer I always observe others, trying to figure out why they do, say or act the way they do. It’s all material, right? I’ve formed most of my theories on life based on how to not be like my mom in most ways. Don’t get me wrong, she is loving to her children, and as far as I know has never killed anyone (I feel the strongest urge to type ‘yet’ right here, but I won’t.)
Anyway, additionally I learned three life lessons from mom’s retirement home experience; people do not change their spots as they age, and people who live in those homes can get bored, and that I can do something to help them – because when you help someone else it assuages your (eternal) sense of helplessness.
I can’t do anything for my mom who is already calling my other brother begging him to rescue her, but I can be a little comfort to others. I volunteer at local retirement homes to read to residents, talk about my book, or the history that went into the back story, or talk about being a cancer survivor, or my travels, or even gardening, whatever else I can do to alleviate their boredom for one afternoon.
When I did a presentation about my novel last week at a local retirement home there were three Korean War veterans in the audience, which is rare. One man patted my hand as I left and thanked me for writing about the Korean War. He had tears in his eyes. He said that while listening to me talk about my protagonist (a Korean War Hero) he felt like a young man again, a soldier, he recalled the beauty of the Korean countryside. He said that part of him had been asleep for a good long time, and said thank you for waking him up and reminding him of things long forgotten. He warmed my heart and confirmed for me that just visiting with people can make all the difference on the world.
There’s nothing I can do to change my mom’s experience with aging, but I can add a little happiness to the dark times others may be experiencing on their final journeys. That much I know for sure.