Six impossible things

What They (Don’t) Want

When I was in high school, one of the rituals that came along during senior year was called something like Career Inventory Day, when you spent the morning taking a battery of tests that was supposed to tell you what career you were most likely to be suited for, personality-wise, and then you spent the afternoon listening to a series of lectures on how to figure out what you really wanted to do. Neither bit was particularly helpful to me in choosing a career – if I remember correctly, the test indicated that I wouldn’t really be happy doing anything, but my best match was 39% for computer data technician (which at that point meant being the person who ran the punch card machine, i.e., a very specialized sort of typist). The afternoon was even less helpful, except for one thing.

Near the very end of the day, one of the counselors had us do an exercise that I’ve since seen about a million times in different contexts: picture yourself in five/ten/twenty years, and describe your perfect, ideal day. About three-quarters of the class immediately began writing industriously, but the rest of us sat and stared at the page, minds as blank as the paper. After about five minutes, there were still five or six of us who hadn’t managed to write anything. The counselor, being reasonably good at his job, then said something I’ve only seen suggested once or twice since then: “If you are having trouble writing down your ideal, perfect day…write about the opposite thing. Write down the day you would hate to have to live through, in every most horrible detail you can think of. Describe your Day From Hell.”

I covered three pages in three minutes.

It wasn’t much help to me in choosing a career at the time, but the technique turned out to be extremely useful thirty years later, when I was trying to figure out the motivation of a character. For the life of me, I could not think what the guy wanted, and certainly not what he wanted enough to drive him to do anything story-worthy. And then I remembered that counselor…and I started looking at the stuff my character didn’t want, his “day from hell.” Not what he was afraid of, but things he’d purely hate doing or living through. Sure enough, that was a lot easier to figure out – boredom, repetition, somebody else being his boss, somebody else stupid being his boss… Knowing what the guy would hate to have happen to him gave me a lot of really good ideas about what he was secretly looking for but wouldn’t admit to.

I hasten to add that I did not go on to use any of that “day from hell” in the story itself. (I would have, if it had fit in, but it didn’t, and I wasn’t going to twist the story just to make it fit.) I wasn’t trying to figure out the worst thing that could happen to the character, so that I could then shove it into the story somehow. I was trying to understand him better. Specifically, I needed to know what kind of outcome he wanted from a particular situation and why, because it made a difference in exactly what actions he would take next.

This comes up all the time in writing. The princess has been kidnapped, and the writer knows, in a general sense, What Happens Next: the hero goes off to rescue her. But if the hero is rescuing her because she’s his ticket to eventually ruling the kingdom, he’s not going to behave in quite the same way as he would if he was riding to the rescue of his One True Love, which would, again, be different from how he’d act if he’s simply Doing The Right Thing so he can finish up this job and go back to his sweetie at home, or from what he’d do if the princess needs to be rescued because she has some obscure bit of knowledge he needs for his real quest.

Sometimes, the differences are subtle, a matter of the hero choosing a slightly riskier tactic, or being willing to wait a few minutes for a better opportunity to sneak into the dungeon. Sometimes, the differences are major and obvious. The main thing, though, is that if I have a certain level of understanding of what, exactly, the character wants or is trying to make happen and why, I’ll know what actions he will and won’t take, and I will be more able to write them out convincingly even if I never explicitly say, in the story, what the character wants.

This is not true of all writers. I’ve known at least one who never bothered with what her characters wanted or didn’t want. She wrote complicated action-adventure-puzzle stories that turned mainly on plot and ideas, rather than on depth of characterization. She’s one of the few writers I know who not only did fairly elaborate plot outlines, but stuck to them exactly. Her characters never surprised her, not because she knew them so well, but because she didn’t need to know them well – she kept them so busy putting out obviously important fires (“While we were dismantling the bomb at the spaceport, the villain kidnapped the ambassador’s daughter; if we leave right now at top speed, we can catch up and rescue her before the armada arrives!”) that they didn’t have time for anything else. It works for her, so there are undoubtedly others for whom the same thing is true.

Me, though, I need to know more about my characters than which fire they have to douse next. Sometimes, I get to that by writing about them for a couple of chapters; other times, they walk into my head in all their glorious complexity; on still other occasions, I’ve cast them from my favorite stories (“I’ll make this character a cross between Chrestomanci and the Dowager Duchess of Denver, and the sidekick can be Hamlet crossed with Han Solo…”).

And sometimes, I get into the character by figuring out what they don’t want.

13 Comments
  1. What a useful idea!

    I have done letters from a character giving me permission to tell the story; interviews by a psychiatrist – even though I know she would never, ever, talk to one; one character asking another, long after they were married, what actually happened on an important day.

    But I’ve never tried asking my character specifically or by thinking about it what their absolutely worst day five years later would be. I’m itching to go try it. I have this character, see…? If she’s not careful, she’s going to get that day.

    Positively fascinating.

    Alicia

  2. boredom, repetition, somebody else being his boss, somebody else stupid being his boss…

    I think I have a lot in common with your character!

    Y’know, in a completely different context, I’ve been saying that defining what you don’t want doesn’t work as a foundation… but maybe there’s something in it after all. Off to ponder….

  3. I hadn’t thought of that. I’ve got a particularly recalcitrant protagonist right now who might even think of this as a threat, too (and he’d be right [g]).

  4. Thank you. Very useful post.

  5. “The hero is rescuing her because she’s his ticket to eventually ruling the kingdom, he’s not going to behave in quite the same way as he would if he was riding to the rescue of his One True Love, which would, again, be different from how he’d act if he’s simply Doing The Right Thing so he can finish up this job and go back to his sweetie at home, or from what he’d do if the princess needs to be rescued because she has some obscure bit of knowledge he needs for his real quest.”

    Edgar Rice Burroughs either never quite grasped this or never managed to implement it fully. He could write an action-adventure story about a hero and the heroine he would marry at the end of the story. He was a lot weaker about the stories with the same hero rescuing the heroine he had already married. Because there’s a difference between rescuing the woman who may or may not love you, or marry you even if she does, and the woman who does and did.

  6. Hamlet crossed with Han Solo. Yes. This.

  7. OMG, Chrestomanci crossed with the Dowager Duchess of Denver? Best thing ever!

    • The first time I heard that Amberglas (from The Seven Towers, in case you don’t know her) was the result of that combination, I thought “No wonder I like her so much!”

  8. Now I’m really curious – which character was this? My best guess is Lan – “someone stupid being his boss” sounds like his feelings about that professor who was involved in his magical accident, except that you said none of the day-from-hell things got into the story…

    • Hmmm. Assuming she was talking about Frontier Magic at all, I’m going to guess William. Who, more than anything else, did not want to do what his father did/what his father wanted him to do.

      • It might well be something other than Frontier Magic, but thinking about her various male characters, Lan was the one who came to mind as most likely to dislike those things – at least as far as I know the characters as a reader.

  9. I’ve never thought of doing it this opposite way before – of thinking of what they don’t want. But it’s so true that those are motivations too.

  10. Late-breaking news: I just tried this for a character who’s been unusually obstreperous about letting me into his head… and wow. The story just acquired a level of emotional content that’s been sadly lacking.

    So thank you; this asking the right question thing has a lot going for it!

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