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Tips For Creating Characters: Discover their Driving Desire

Updated on October 17, 2014
Burn Notice is more about Michael rebuilding his burnt life, than figuring out who burned him from his dream job.
Burn Notice is more about Michael rebuilding his burnt life, than figuring out who burned him from his dream job. | Source

Creating Memorable Characters

How do you create characters that stay in people's minds forever—characters so real that your readers or audience think that they actually exist?

Don't let your characters join the ranks of forgettable c-class movies. Instead, home in on what they desire most, and let the action evolve naturally from the movement of the character towards his or her goal.

One Driving Desire: The Ring That Rules Them All

From Monk with his compulsive cleanliness, Jerry Seinfeld and his absurd girlfriend qualifications, Michael Westen and his obsession with yogurt, to Dr. Bones' inability to understand human connection apart from science, television has seen some very memorable characters. Character like these not only carry award winning shows, but seep so deep into a viewer's consciousness, that they will be remembered decades after they take a final bow on the silver screen.

One thing that makes a character memorable and successful is the writer's ability to shape the character, and his or her world, into one solitary focus. Underneath every character sits one defining desire that supersedes all others. It is what drives them. Even the most complicated characters are driven by one solitary thing. Other desires may compete with, or compliment that one desire, but that one desire is the fuel that propels them forward.

Great characters have a surface desire that is apparent, and an underlying main desire. Often the driving desire is masked from the character, and it takes the entire journey to see it come to fruition.

Characters wear several masks, that when pealed away, reveal what they really want.
Characters wear several masks, that when pealed away, reveal what they really want. | Source

Character Studies

Jack Bauer

Eight seasons of Jack Bauer in the show 24 can be summed up with one line spoken on Day 7 7:00-8:00am.

"I can’t tell you what to do. I’ve been wrestling with this one my whole life. I see fifteen people held hostage on a bus, and everything else goes out the window. I will do whatever it takes to save them – and I mean whatever it takes. I guess maybe I thought if I save them I could save myself…"

Every action, every moment, every decision, drove him to that line. On a deeper level, the show isn't about Jack saving the world, it is about Jack saving himself. He wants redemption and forgiveness. The action of the show is just the means for Jack to get there.

At the end of Day 7, Jack is meeting with a spiritual leader, on his deathbed, and the spiritual leader asks Jack to forgive himself. Jack tearfully replies, "You don't know what I've done."

Michael Westen

A superb example of desire layering is in Burn Notice's character Michael Westen. On the surface, Michael is trying to figure out who burned him, as the title suggests. As the series progresses, the viewer is shown more of Michael's family background, and a desire for domestic intimacy.

Can he care about another person? Can he get close to another person? He is forced to face his past, right his wrongs, and forgive those who have hurt him. On the surface, all he wants is to run away, but what he really needs, to obtain the thing he desires most, is to stay.

Chris McCandless

In the film Into the Wild, Chris McCandless' surface desire is to get to Alaska. He meets several interesting characters along his journey, but can never get close to them, because it would jeopardize his obsession with testing himself in the wilds of Alaska.

He finally gets what he wants, solitude, freedom, and a chance to test himself, by making a home in an abandoned bus out in the bush. However, the last thing he writes before dying was "Happiness only real when shared."

It took an entire journey of solitude, for him to realize that the pinnacle of human experience is sharing it with someone else, to love and be loved. Unfortunately, he paid the ultimate price for that realization. He would be considered a tragic character, a character who never obtains the one thing he wants.

Some of the best characters spend the entire journey chasing after the one thing they can never have.
Some of the best characters spend the entire journey chasing after the one thing they can never have. | Source

Examples of Driving Desires

  • To be loved
  • To be forgiven
  • To gain redemption
  • To be initiated
  • To be capable of loving another person
  • To feel safe
  • To find home and belonging

These are all things that every human being on the planet wants. They will sacrifice anything to get them, some will even kill or die for them.

Just like in the real world, a character's world is complicated. It is full of conflicting and complimentary levels of desires. Sometime the characters don't even know what it is they want. Don't be afraid to make their lives messy.

In the real world, you might buy a car to impress a girl. On the surface it looks like impressing the girl is the driving desire. However, if you're honest with yourself, there are way deeper layers than impressing a girl. Maybe your father never showed affection towards you, so now you are driven to gain the affections of others to fill that void.

You see, it is not about the desire for the car, the desire or the desire for the girl, but to make amends with the past; to feel something you should have been given. You think the world is unfair, and somehow the car levels the playing field. However, a car, or the affections of others because of that inanimate object, can ever replace the one thing that you want: the affection of your father.

In many cases, the character won't get the one thing that they want, because it's just the way the universe is set up: You can't eat the forbidden fruit, but you'll give up anything trying.

If stories are about the human condition, there isn't anything more fundamental than selling your soul for a piece of fruit.

Do you think that the best characters have one driving desire?

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Does your life have one driving desire?

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© 2014 Jennifer Arnett


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    • lifegate profile image

      William Kovacic 2 years ago from Pleasant Gap, PA

      Interesting thoughts. thanks for sharing them with us!

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 3 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama


      Great piece of writing and reading. Voted up plus all of the choices. I loved your thoughts and ideas on this subject.

      I am a former playwright for a community theater my three friends and I formed to raise money for charity. That was in 1993 when I was still working at our local paper.

      This hub is similar to how I got so involved with writing for as high as 12 various characters--having to be one and in a few seconds jump back to another character. Challenging but very stressful.

      But our pay-off was hearing the laughs from our audiences and giving our monies to those who cannot help themselves.

      Keep up the great work.

      Kenneth Avery

      Your Friend for Life

    • Availiasvision profile image

      Jennifer Arnett 3 years ago from California

      Thanks for bookmarking it. I'm not familiar with enneagrams, I'll have to look into it.

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 3 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      I have bookmarked this under Writers' References and Tools.

      With the primary desire or emotional need comes the primary fear or cause of anxiety. An enneagram 3 needs to be admired for achievements and performance and fears being belittled, shamed, revealed to be insignificant and inept. An enneagram 1 needs to be acknowledged to be correct and attacks alternative positions. And so on.