One of the standard questions writers ask ourselves is: What does my character want?

As we design our plots, we come up with answers: A friend to trust. The elimination of a disease. Equality. Healing from loss. Parental approval.
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Asking my characters what they want, and finding the answer has been in my author toolkit for a long time. But I’ve gotten predictable results, which has made me decide to look at the idea from a different angle.

First, let’s start with precision of language. When I say I “want” a cookie, I am really saying that I desire a cookie. To go deeper with our characters, many writers have learned to ask: What is her heart’s desire?

Hearts desire many things. Most of them are intangible. The kid who wants a friend to trust desires safety and companionship. The teen that wants the disease to go away desires physical wellness and the ability to be “normal.” And so on.

These kinds of desires drive much of kid lit plotting, including my own. But today I am thinking of wanting from the point of view of lacking, rather than desiring. And I am seeing it from behind a longer lens.

The main character in my work-in-progress is really different from most everyone in his backward little village. He wants to belong, to be accepted for who he is. So what does he lack, other than a sense of belonging and acceptance? If I think more deeply, I find that he lacks skill in adapting to his village’s prejudices. He lacks the strength required to be different, to be rejected. These lacks are driving my plotting. I need to give him opportunities to try to adapt (and fail, of course). I need to put him in circumstances in which he can learn (painfully, of course) strength in the face of rejection. He may or may not get what he desires, which is acceptance. But if I give him enough opportunities, he will evolve into someone who can live through that.

Looking at characters from the point of view of what they lack, rather than what they desire, can help writers go deeper and help their characters evolve in unpredictable ways. If you plot this way, or want to try, I’d love to hear from you.

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