A Pirate's Resources

Character Desire

Exercise 17 :: Ticking Clock :: Why isn't my story moving forward?

You are in your story world, telling your story, (or reading your child’s story ideas) when suddenly, you are starting to feel a bit bored by it. Or it feels like it’s taking forever to get on with it. What’s going on? Why isn’t the story moving forward? Your student’s story has characters, those characters have desires (hopefully dramatic desires), and the plot is moving forward. Slowly. And not really getting there. Why?

It sounds like the story might be missing a valuable element - the
ticking clock. Take a moment, and sit still, and listen. Can you hear a clock ticking? Not so much anymore (though I do have a really loud clicking decorative clock in my library, which I either find comforting, tick-tock-tick-tock, or totally annoying, Tick-TOck-TICk-TOCK!), but when you do, a sense of timeliness pervades. A happy ticking clock is the countdown to New Year’s, or a scary one could be a ticking countdown on a bomb. Whatever it is, knowing that the time is short and when it’s up, it’s UP, develops a sense of movement and the need to press on.

In a story, a
ticking clock is very specifically the pressure that is on a character to accomplish their desire before time runs out. This means that the character NEEDS to act before the time runs out. This pressure gives the character motivation to act and generally drives a story forward. Sometimes, as your student is working on a story, they might need a bit of help seeing the need for a ticking clock, and finding what it is that gives their character motivation to move forward. Of course, this is where you’d want to help them make sure that their characters have a dramatic desire (exercise #17 in A Pirate’s Guide), and once they do, that there is some kind of ticking clock to help them achieve it.

In Real Life :: And, to be honest, we all need a little ticking clock in our lives. “You can’t eat your ice cream until your dinner is done” is one simple example. “I can’t check my social media until the kids are in bed” is another. “I want to run a 10K at the end of the summer” gives you a time frame for doing that couch to 10K routine. So what motivates you? Your student? Maybe a little ticking clock can help everyone move forward!

Finding it in the Story :: the clock in this chapter is simply that they need to see it before they get to the island.


Exercise 17 :: Stakes in a story :: Do I have to?

Your student is writing their story - or living their life - and they’ve identified a dramatic desire. They want to run a 10K by the end of summer. That gives them a dramatic desire and a finish line (see what I did there? Total accident, but it works). But to write this story, or live this out in real life, we need to know what the stakes are for the character. What happens if they fail? What will happen if they don’t run a 10K by the end of summer?

stakes are what is at risk if the character doesn’t achieve their desire. In the 10K example, they are probably not big stakes, though they could be. Maybe not running the 10K by the end of summer just means they will be lazier and not as fit. Maybe it means they will miss running a race with their friends. Maybe they put a $100 bet with a friend that they would, and they’d lose out on $100. Or maybe they have been contacted by a talking beast, and if they don’t run the race, the talking beasts will take over the world. Different stakes, different stories.

Knowing the
stakes in the story will direct how the story is told, what the story is about.

In Real Life :: As an aside, as a parent, knowing the stakes that are motivating your child will help you know how best to help them. If they made a $100 bet, you might need to have a conversation about betting, or wasting money. If their stake was “my older brother ran a 10K at my age and won the race, and if I don’t at least run the race, I will be made fun of or feel terrible,” then you might have some emotional work to do to help them be their own person, or deal with sibling rivalry. If their stake is “I want to do this because I am planning on joining cross country and it’s a lot of work and this will get me in shape” then you know how to encourage and support them. Knowing the stakes in reality and in our children’s minds helps us to love and care for them the best ways we can.

Finding it in the Story :: the stakes are not immediately apparent in the chapter right before this - if the monkeys don’t see it the island, it means they don’t want it and potentially won’t reach the island/treasure. But you can see the stakes in other sections of the story - for Yogger, the stakes are that he won’t find the beans and his breath will continue to be bad (or so it would seem). If the monkeys don’t want to do the work Yogger has for them, they will have to leave the ship (and not learn story). Encourage your student to keep their eyes peeled for more evidence of “stakes” in the coming chapters (and when they find them, they can send them in to me!).


Exercise 17 :: Dramatic Desires :: Specific Character Desires

Partway through the section on character desires we come to a very, very important concept in A Pirate’s Guide. We have already seen how characters (people!) all have desires. These desires lead us to actions. I shared how I had a desire to get better at drawing, and so I purchased a how to draw book. The next action would be to do the lessons and get better at drawing. But how would I know when I had “gotten better” at drawing? When would I have achieved the object of my desire? At the end of the lessons? At the end of several books? After filling a sketchpad? When my dad said I was an artist? When I sold a sketch? How will I know when I’ve done it?

dramatic desires. These are desires that are specific, very specific. A dramatic desire is a desire that can be achieved because it has a fixed finish line. You know when a dramatic desire has been accomplished.

So in my example, I need to know what my
dramatic desire is. My general desire is to get better at drawing. But that has no end, one can always improve. I cannot accomplish that. But if I become very specific, my dramatic desire is to get better at drawing until I can hang a sketch at the local art gallery, I know that I am not done until my sketch is on the wall. Or if my dramatic desire is a bit easier (dramatic doesn’t mean hard, it just means specific and completable), and it is to finish the how to draw book, then I know that I have accomplished my desire the day I finish the last lesson. Knowing what the specific, dramatic desire is allows me to know when I’ve crossed the finish line, because I have defined the finish line.

In story, this means giving characters desires that are specific, and the reader will know when they’ve been achieved. It gives the writer (your student) an understanding of what will need to happen (the actions, or plot) for the desire to be fulfilled. Desires give the characters motivation to act in ways that “drive” the story, much like the engine in a car enables the car to move. As you will soon see, these
character desires are part of what we call the story engine - what drives the story forward.

In Real Life :: In real life, dramatic desires are vital for helping us achieve our goals. If your student is stuck, they may need help defining their desires (dreams, wishes, hopes) more specifically, and then seeing the steps that it will take to cross the finish line. Having a very concrete desire (“I want to run a 10K at the end of the summer”) gives very clear direction to the steps and timing it will take to get there. “I want to be more physically fit” is vague enough that, day by day, you can put it off and by the end of summer, wonder why you didn’t get anywhere. To make this real to your student, ask them to set a goal for this week (any goal, though if that is too big for them, ask them to set a goal about cleaning their room, or getting some exercise, relating to friends, or working on A Pirate’s Guide). Then ask them how they will know that it has been accomplished - work with them to create a dramatic desire and establish what defines its completion. Of course, depending on your child, they may then need help setting specific steps to get there, or need to be gently reminded, or incentivized to see it through. Encourage your children (and take courage yourself!) to set dramatic desires, and then take the steps to cross that finish line! (Hint: you might need some stakes or a ticking clock to help you get there, because you are human … and so are story characters. Read on.)

Finding it in the Story :: Look for dramatic desires. Sometimes they are hard to know until the story is complete, but one would be Yogger’s desire to find the magical jelly bean grove (that’s a clear desire with an obvious finishing point). The stinky monkeys have a dramatic desire to be allowed to sleep inside again.


Exercise 17 :: Character Desire :: What do we really want?

Desires should be simple. What do we want? But have you ever asked a child what they want to eat at a restaurant? Or spent an hour with a group of friends trying to decide which movie to rent? What do we want? Really want? Desires are simple as a concept, but more complex as you dive in.

When a baby is little, the mother has to continually use clues to understand what the baby wants - are they hungry? Wet? Tired? Needing a snuggle? As the baby grows and becomes more communicative, the mothers still has to use her knowledge of her child to know what they really want. They may be saying “I want to stay up later,” but their yawns or meltdowns tell differently. Or they may say, “I want to learn to ride a bike,” but their unwillingness to go outside and get the bike out of the garage shows that to be a weak desire. Or they may say, “I’m not hungry” and then eat the entire pizza …

Desires are important in story, and in life. There are often things about us - our
characterizations - that lead to desires. Being an only child might lead to the desire to have time with friends. That same reality might lead another character to desire to live alone in a lighthouse. Based on these desires, the two characters will DO drastically different things. This takes us to another key characteristic of desires - they lead to actions. Real desires lead to real actions. Expressed desires do not necessarily lead to real actions. Does that make sense?

Taking an example from my own life - a few months ago I said that I want to get better at drawing. This led me to buy a “how to draw” book. My
desire led to an action, but not the actual fulfillment of my desire. And here we are, months later, and I have only done 2 lessons. How can this be? How can desire that leads to action still not fulfill the desire? Take a peek back at character contradictions - I had opposing desires. One was to get better at drawing, and I did want this enough to get the book. But when my time was at stake, other things became more pressing/important, and those pushed out my actions towards fulfilling the desire to draw. I have to look honestly at those other things, and determine if I want them to be stronger desires (even if they are hidden), and if not, to set them aside and return to my drawing book.

In Real Life :: Why do I share all this? Because just like story characters, we all struggle with this in real life, particularly middle schoolers. There are all kinds of desires they have, and each one pushes and shoves to have its way. Knowing this, seeing it in action in stories and in life, can help us make choices that expose our truest desires and give us the courage to either change them or walk more boldly toward them. This is true for our story characters. Bilbo Baggins desired both the comforts of his little hobbit home AND to go on an adventure. In the end, his desire for adventure was stronger and that produced the action of The Hobbit. This is true for our personal stories too. I desired to be better at drawing AND to read a book at the end of the day when I was tired from work. In the end, my desire to read a book won out. Being able to see that, I can now assess if that was the choice I really want, or if I will prioritize my desires differently, and get back to drawing. Who knows? That’s the next part of my own story, and it’s still being written.

As a parent, you are in a unique position to see all these different desires in your children, and help them to make choices and move forward in action. And their actions will help you see what their real desires are, and that will help you know and parent your children better. Story is a powerful thing!

Finding it in the Story :: pg 191 :: the monkeys’ desires are seen through the golden telescope (a good example of a significant object), and then the following story chapter continues to demonstrate (pg 211-13) what they are willing to DO because of that desire.


Getting to the Heart of your Character

You can help your student get to know their character just like they get to know a real person. We’ve already given you some advice for helping your child develop their characters’ physical appearance and characterizations - but just as seeing a person from across the room isn’t an effective way to actually get to know someone, developing their physical appearance is only a superficial way to develop a character. To get to the heart of your character, the author has to find out what that character wants - or what we at A Pirate’s Guide call “Character Desire.” So I also shared about finding out what your character wants and desires, with some easy tips to begin brainstorming those. So far, so good.

But why is this so important? Why does our character have to want something anyway? Yes, knowing these character wants and desires help set the author up for creating action in their story. And it’s so much more than even that. Because we aren’t talking about the simplest wants, though those will drive action too (a hungry character WANTS to eat, and that prompts them to take ACTION and sneak a cookie from the cookie jar).

What the character wants - as it relates to the story and the Act of Villainy (or conflict in the story - more on that in another post) - will define who the character is in the story, and it will determine the actions that they take within the story. The heart of the character - as it relates to the Act of Villainy - might make your character a hero, or a villain, or perhaps a princess. Let’s say that the Act of Villainy in our story is that a princess was stolen and locked into a tower. The character who desires to set the princess free is the Hero, even if he wears a black cape and hat, and twirls on his mustache. The character who is locked up in a tower is the Princess, even if they are a short dwarf who has bad breath. And the character that wants to keep that princess locked up is the Villain, even if he is tall, handsome, and rides a white steed. It is the desire of their heart - again, as it relates to the Act of Villainy - that determines
who your character is. And that will determine what they do. And what they do will determine, in part, how they relate to other characters.

Finding out what a character desires and why will help your student get to the heart of their character, and that will help them find their character’s place in the story.

(These are just a few thoughts to get you started as your child continues to develop their characters.
A Pirate’s Guide has more detailed explanation and exercises to really dig into the Act of Villainy in exercise #10, and what your character wants in exercise #17).


Characters - What do they want?

Once we know who the characters are by describing their characterizations, we’ll want to ask the next big Character question: What do they want? Identifying a character’s desires helps the author know who their characters are and what they will do.

What is a desire? Anything the character wants. They could be hungry and want food. They could be lonely and want a friend. They could be angry and want to fix a problem. They could be mean and want to steal some candy. There are all kinds of desires - and brainstorming can help you find out what your character wants.

To begin brainstorming Character Desires, we can always ask questions and let our imagination and ideas run wild. Another really effective way to brainstorm Character Desires is to take the characterizations that you have created for your character - describing who they are through specific details (see
this post for more on that) - and use those to find desires that grow out of their characterization. As always, you can use your child’s favorite character as a way to help explain this. Luke Skywalker is an orphan - that is a characterization. What might being an orphan cause him to want? He might want parents. He might desire to grow up and have a family of his own. It might make him want to join the Jedi’s so he can have the big family he never had. For each characterization, an author can brainstorm many different things the character might then desire.

Another way to brainstorm is to take those same characterizations, and ask “what might she desire in opposition to that characterization?” Leia is a princess, and her desire might be to just be an ordinary girl that no one notices. Or Chewbacca is a hairy Wookiee, and he desires to play at the beach and not spend a month cleaning sand out of his hair.

As your child begins to figure out what their characters might want, they will find it important to be as specific as possible. What does this look like? Suzy is an only child. She wants to play with friends. That’s a desire that comes out of her characterization. But which friends, what kind of friends, when? Becoming specific looks like “Suzy wants to go to summer camp and live in a cabin with a group of friends for a whole week” Or “Suzy wants to have a friend she can rely on and get to know really well, and who will come play at her house every Thursday afternoon.” Those are two different very different Specific Desires that come out of the simple desire (to play with friends) that comes out of her specific characterization (only child).

Using Characterizations to brainstorm Character Desires - things they want because of their characterizations, and things they want despite their characterizations, will give an author lots of different desires to play with as they get ready to have their character take ACTION.

(These are just a few questions to get you started.
A Pirate’s Guide has more questions and brainstorming space to really dig into what your character wants in exercise #17).