Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Wound and the Want: How to Breathe Life into Your Characters

It’s January 4, which means I can still wish you all a very Happy New Year! It seems fitting that this, my first 2014 post, centers on the writing concept that had the most effect on my book, BECOMING JINN, which I teased on this blog last year. (Well, in November but that still counts as last year!)

As a reader and as a writer, nothing matters more to me than character. So it shouldn’t be particularly surprising that an exercise to create a character profile is what kicked my writing brain into gear.

Last month I discussed how having both an inside story and an outside story gives your novel a firm foundation and touched on the concept of “the wound and the want.” This surely goes by other names, but I love the way “the wound and the want” rolls off the tongue.

The idea is simple: The primary characters (and even most of the secondary ones) have a wound that makes them want something. This want is the guiding force of your story; it is what your character is striving to achieve. Essentially, the want is the purpose of your novel.

Wait, and that’s simple? Pretty heavy stuff there, isn’t it? For one thing to be the purpose of your novel?

Well, it is and it isn’t. If you don’t know your character’s wound and want, you will flounder while writing, your story will lack a depth that makes the readers care, sympathize with, and follow your characters, and your novel may not be as strong as it can be. It may not live up to its potential. But once you figure out the wound and the want, everything flows from it and your job is easier, not harder.

Need, hope, wish, call it what you will, but your characters must want something and they must want it intensely. The want doesn’t need to be some spectacular thing. It’s the intensity of the wanting that matters and that instills doubt in your readers that the character can achieve his or her goal. This gives you tension while you toss obstacles at your characters that thwart them from fulfilling their want. And the wound that makes them want? That gives your character depth, motive, and backstory.

One-dimensional characters usually lack a wound and a want. Ditto for cardboard villains. Your main character’s wound and want must be fully fleshed out and must be able to change and deepen as the story progresses in order to sustain an entire novel, but your supporting characters should also have a wound and a want. You don’t have to explore it as fully, but the wound and the want makes them who they are just as much.

So many key aspects of a novel come from these two words: the wound and the want. That’s all good right, but how do you figure out what your characters’ wounds and wants are? There are likely many ways, but I’ll share what worked for me, what I learned in the novel planning course I took that turned me into a proud (and somewhat obsessive) plotter.* It all goes back to those writing exercises I used to scoff at.

As I’ve said previously, the best part of writing exercises is that they have the capacity to surprise you, to spark an idea that may form the core of your book, something you might never have thought of (or only thought of after multiple revisions). This is because they make you think about your characters.

Character profiles can be developed in many ways: writing a letter or diary entry from your character’s point of view to help discover their history and voice; interviewing your characters and answering as if you were in your character’s head; jotting down responses to a series of simple to complex questions about who they are.

Is this hard work? Not really. But it’s more thinking than writing. And we all know how much we writers are just dying to put fingertips to keyboard and start, well, you know, actually writing our stories. As much of a believer as I am in plotting, even I feel that pull and that desire to shove all this aside and just write. But I know in the end how much better my work will be if I put in the thinking time first.

To dissuade myself from giving up on these exercises too early, I go old school: pencil and paper. I take a brand-new, spiral-bound notebook and start writing the answers to these questions by hand. I actually do almost all of my initial plotting and writing exercises by hand. Doing them this way separates them out as a distinct task. I associate notebooks with plotting, so when they are in front of me, I don’t feel that pull to write the same way I do as when I sit at my computer. (If you give it a try, let me know if it works for you!)

So finally an end to the teasing! What’s the one question that gave BECOMING JINN its unexpected backbone? The thing I would have never expected to fuel my main character Azra’s wound and want?

What is the worst thing your character has ever done?

That’s it. I won’t tell you what this thing is because that’d be a spoiler. But the worst thing she did was to her best friend. And the reason she did it is because she wanted what that friend had. And why she wanted it was because of the wound she has had since she was a little girl. Wound, want, story. From one question. Powerful stuff.

Here are some of the other questions I most use when creating character profiles. If they don’t work to spark your imagination, find ones that do. There are many books and Web sites listing these kinds of character-building exercises. Browse through, pull out the ones that get your brain churning, and customize your own character profile exercises. Then grab that notebook and start plotting!

* The writing course I took was at Grub Street with author James Scott as instructor. After two long years of waiting, his first novel, THE KEPT, is debuting on January 7. Congratulations James! And much thanks again!

** Lori is holding an ARC giveaway for Jessica Khoury's VITRO, which will be released on January 14. Enter to win by January 6!

Wound and Want

What does the character want (primary and secondary characters must have wants)?
What are his or her motives for wanting this?
Where in the story is this made clear to the reader? (And it should be.)
How do we learn what the central character wants? Dialogue? Actions? Interior thinking?
What or who stands in the way of him or her achieving it?
What does that desire set in motion?
List five things that are obstacles to what the character wants: can be inside or outside character. Rank their intensity, how hard is it to get past each one?

Who Is this Character?

Key strength               
Key flaw (and consequences of failure, which is not as important for secondary characters; but for secondary characters, do need: relationship with main character; history with MC; purpose of character in story, how affect MC)
Where live geographically? Describe.
Physical description    
Fashion sense: What would character wear in summer? winter? To a wedding? funeral? bed?
Nervous habit
Family history/relationships
Key friendships
Role models
Social status                                   
Academic performance
Special talents/hobbies         
Favorite hangout
Favorite phrase
What does he/she do on weekends?
For work?
Favorite meal? What would dinner with them be like?

Deeper Questions (for MC and antagonist)

Moral compass
Is he or she a giver or a taker?
Introvert or extrovert and how manifest in life?
Most secret yearning?
Childhood dream that never came true and why?
Worst thing ever done?
Secrets? Secret life?
What has held him or her back in life?
How many people would come to his or her funeral? Why might someone decide not to attend?
Most unlikely or most contradictory aspect?
How strong is character under pressure?
What is their character arc? How change and grow? How apply toward overcoming final obstacle? Tip: at the bottom of every page, write what you know about the character from that page to see if the character is changing over course of the novel, if new information is being given or too much is repetitive.


  1. Wow-- thank you for these worksheets!

    The Wound and the Want is such a handy little phrase that packs a big punch. Great article.

    -Christine @ Better Novel Project

  2. It really is a great concept and something about calling it that made it hit home for me. Glad you enjoyed it!

  3. Brilliant post! Sorry I missed this earlier in the year - absolutely love this 'wound and want' concept.