All characters need a goal. That much is obvious, and something most writers already know all about. Without some kind of character motivation, there’s not much left to drive the plot forward.
But have you also given your characters dreams? Hopes and fantasies that they think about in daydreams? In a perfect world, how would this character be living?
And then what, in your story, is holding them back from those dreams?
In college, I had an amazing teacher named Carol Test. One of her lessons that always stuck with me was about “Swoons and Wounds” — the things our characters yearn for, and the challenges that are holding them back.
(P.S. Carol is still teaching writing today at her website, The Writing Cycle. She offers low-cost writing courses AND her blog is packed with amazing and insightful writing content. Please give her a click!!)
Your character’s dreams and fantasies. When they space off, this is what they daydream about. The swoon isn’t necessarily plot-related motivation, but is deeply embedded in an individual’s character arc.
There’s a major difference between goals and swoons. Goals are solid, achievable aims, like “get a boyfriend” or “overthrow the government.” Swoons tend to be deeper and more emotional, like “be loved” or “make a difference.”
Alice’s swoon is to have a happy family and loving friends, not to save the world from the rampant evil spirits she accidentally released. See the difference? Goals are typically more of an external plot thing, while dreams are internal personal desires that are waiting at the end of the rainbow. They’re directly related to your character development and progression on a personal level.
Stories overlap the two all the time, of course. But when it comes to weaving internal and external plot together in your story, it helps to distinguish between the two.
So if conflict is what keeps a character from achieving goals, what keeps a character from making their swoon a reality? The answer: “wounds.” Because then it rhymes nicely with swoons, and it gives us the idea of swoons and wounds.
The fears, insecurities, and personal obstructions that keep your character from progressing on an emotional level. Note that I said personal. This is an inner thing. Your character’s wound isn’t the bully; it’s the fear your character has towards the bully and his inability to stand up for himself.
All your characters, supporting or main, should have these. We’ve all got hopes and dreams. Falling in love, getting a novel published, winning the state championship, being like your role model, starting a chicken farm (note that some of these listed can be goals and swoons, if you twist something like “winning” or “getting published” into a swoon like acceptance, achievement, or affirmation of skill). And we’ve all got problems. You think your nose is too big or your ears stick out, you wish you had the courage to say hi to that cute girl/boy at school or work, you’re afraid of rejection, failure, death.
We don’t necessarily go around shouting these swoons and wounds to the world, but they’re there, and they shape our decisions. Also, from a story point of view, instant inner conflict. It’s a character arc just waiting to happen.
For today I’ll be sharing the swoons and wounds of my friend Remona, a tiny freshman at a new high school. This excerpt is from a short story so it just jumps right in (and tells! *gasp*), so keep in mind that in a novel-length piece you’ll want to spread this out through dropped hints in dialogue, action, and inner monologue. Remona’s swoons and wounds are pretty obvious though, so that’s why she’s our guest star this morning.
Five weeks into the semester, the bus was rowdy with laughter. I sat alone.
My mom said moving was an opportunity to change myself—to start over, to find the real me. I could call myself Remi or Mona. I could be outgoing or witty or worldly or aloof. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with just plain Remona, but what did I know? Remi or Mona might make a dozen friends and be nominated prom queen and cure cancer and change lives, and those were things plain old Remona hadn’t quite gotten to yet. Except I didn’t really feel like a Remi or a Mona.
But while the thought of being prom queen terrified me, filling the roll of the mysterious stranger held a certain romantic flare. A boy in the corner might be secretly entranced by my mousy hair and the way I’d chew my fingernails to stubs when I was nervous. I might bump into him and drop my books, and chuckle shyly as he helped me gather them and gave me his number and kissed me and told me I was perfect. And maybe then I wouldn’t mind so much that I hadn’t gotten around to curing cancer yet.
But I knew the difference between fantasy and reality. You don’t just walk into a boy and fall in love. Well, maybe Remi or Mona could pull off as stunt like that, but not Remona. Maybe I could have met a boy in a much less dramatic fashion if Mom’s job had transferred before the school year started, before the hot summer weeks ended and the school year settled into fall.
So, what’d we get?
Little Rem wants a fairy tale love. Something romantic and gooey and all sorts of clichéd like the next Romeo and Juliet. If she meets her soul mate, her life will just fall into place for her and everything will be happily ever after. In a nutshell, that’s her internal character motivation.
Remona’s uncomfortable in her own skin. She’s plain and shy, and she hates herself for it. She wants to be more, but she doesn’t know what or how. Remona lacks self-confidence and struggles with identity, as many teens do. She’s only in high school, but she’s put all this pressure on herself about her future and changing the world.
And here’s the treat: she’s got a hidden wound that she doesn’t know about, but we as readers might pick up on. She wants to find her very identity through falling in love, which maybe isn’t the best course of action. That’s the sort of thing she needs to discover on her own, rather than base herself off someone else.
What’s more, she think she views love logically. She thinks she knows the difference between fantasy and reality, but here’s a spoiler: she doesn’t. The girl is completely in the clouds and she doesn’t even realize it.
And what does that all mean?!
If she gets desperate enough, Rem’s swoons might drive her to make some ill-advised decisions. Instant drama. When it blows up in her face, more drama. And learning from mistakes = character development!
The contrast between her swoons and wounds is a place of instant depth and inner struggle that really develops her character as the story goes on. The way her character motivation clashes with her character flaws leads to a tension-filled journey. With a set mindset on love, identity, and relationships, she has to question her ideals when they’re challenged. If, say, you know, the boy she knows is The One (and everyone warned her against) ends up being… not the dream boy she dreamed about.
Give your characters some nice, juicy wounds. That’s where the meat is. Remona is riddled with wounds—she’s got more of them than swoons. Her entire idea of love and romance is unhealthy, and she doesn’t even realize it. Nailing down these swoons and wounds makes it much easier to track her character development over the course of the story.
Sometimes the characters know about their shortcomings, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it’s an unhealthy mindset that they aren’t aware of or have never really asked themselves why they think that way. Character development and growth is an expansion of thought and acceptance. It’s when your character realizes their set ways aren’t the only ways or maybe even the best ways.
If there’s nothing wrong with them, there’s no room to grow. That’s where we get into the flawless types like the Stus and Sues. Give them a healthy dose of insecurity, and that’s a start, at least.
On that note, here’s a homework assignment: 62 Character Flaws for Creating a Well-Balanced Character
Don’t forget!! If you enjoyed this way of thinking about character motivation, I encourage you again to visit the website of Carol Test, my writing teacher in college. She has AMAZING writing advice to offer, and I guarantee her tips can help you grow your craft!