I always like to have a writing craft book nearby for whenever I might have a chance to read a couple of pages. It gives me a chance to absorb what the author is teaching and consider how the topic might apply to my own current work. Recently I started John Truby’s The Anatomy of a Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller.
Right in the beginning I was struck by one of his observations that I spent the rest of this week pondering. Mr. Truby starts out by discussing the story world where the protagonist will live and grow or fail. He says that world only exists for the character to act. This is not the philosopher David Hume stating, “I think, therefore I am.” Instead, the character’s motto is “I want, therefore I am.” According to Mr. Truby, unless a protagonist greatly desires/needs something, he cannot exist. The whole purpose of the story world is to see if the character will achieve his goal. Even in a short story that might appear to be only a slice of life, a character wants something. It may be minor or not. But there is a goal.
This dovetails with one of my favorite craft books Goal, Motivation and Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction by Debra Dixon. This is such an influential and basic craft book, that the terms are often abbreviated among writers as GMC. She talks about determining your character’s goal in concrete terms. If it’s not specific, then the reader won’t know when the goal is achieved. Of course, Ms. Dixon also talks about if the goal is not successful. The important thing is the character has a goal. It may be short-term to get the story started and change later in the book, but the character must want something at the beginning.
Of course, why a character wants something goes to motivation and is the topic for another post.