The Quest of Character – WFMAD Day 28

I adore Dr. Maya Angelou. She is my hero.

::Sighs in contentment::

::Pauses to gather self::

Yesterday a reader wrote:  “How do you plot for characters that don’t really have an outward goal or problem they can solve? I’ve relied on yearning for this, but I’m curious how books like Speak and Twisted came about plotwise.”

It’s pretty hard, if not impossible, to complete a novel without knowing what your character wants out of her life. I guess maybe you could write an experimental book that way, but I’m probably not the person to ask about that, because I doubt I’d read it.

Whether we realize it or not, our lives are all about quests. Good word, “quests.” From the Latin, quærere “seek, gain, ask.” See also: query.  Clearly a word that carries a lot of weight for writers.

Sometimes the quests are small, like finding a pair of jeans that fit.

Sometimes they are larger, like reconnecting with a child given up for adoption or figuring out the meaning of your life before you die. To fall in love. To trust yourself. To craft a life that is balanced. We are all on quests all the time.

The trick to good fiction writing is for the writer to be aware of the main character’s quest (sometimes when the character is not aware of it) and to construct the world of the novel so the interior and exterior lives of the character, and sometimes the lives of other characters, drive relentlessly through the ups and downs of the story in pursuit of those quests.

When I started SPEAK, I did not know what Melinda’s quest was. I just had the voice of a depressed, isolated teenage girl in my head. So I listened to her and I wrote. Eventually I figured out what happened to her and the plot of the book took shape. More or less. She wanted to find her voice. She wanted to be able to tell people what had happened to her, to tell them what she was feeling. But she had to reclaim herself before she could reclaim her voice.

TWISTED was different. I knew I wanted to write about the experience of a teen-age boy. After talking to guys for a couple of years, I knew that my character’s father, his peer group, and the girl of his dreams all had to play a role in the story. I started that book and wrote the first fifty or so pages about six times; each draft was completely different than the one before it. I struggled until the voice of the character came to me clearly, and I understood his quest: he wanted to be a man, but nobody would show him how. Once I knew that piece, the writing flowed easily.


Today’s Quote

 “Don’t be in too much of a rush to be published. There is enormous value in listening and reading and writing—and then putting your words away for weeks or months–and then returning to your work to polish it some more.”

Sharon Creech


Today’s prompt: What does your character thinks she wants in the course of your story. What does she really want, but is not yet aware of? What obstacles prevent her from attainting what she wants? Whose world changes when she gets what she wants?

Scribble… scribble… scribble…

9 Replies to “The Quest of Character – WFMAD Day 28”

  1. Patience. Slowing down to listen through torrents of words and searching for words when they are hiding. But being patient most of all. Being patient when piecing the fabric of the words together into a whole. Patience to know who and what you are introducing to the world. That seems to be the thought that sums up the day. Slow down. Be patient. Listen. Write.

    Easier said than done some days. How do you keep desperation at bay. I know she’s a sister of doubt, but they aren’t twins. How do you keep from getting lost in the lives of your characters when their conflicts are so deep?


  2. Again. (Or maybe, Amen!) Right words on the right day. Thank you, Laurie, for these daily bits of wisdom and inspiration. They have made all the difference.

  3. Once again you’ve helped me through your blog. Thank you so much. I’ve known what my main character’s quest was for a long time, but this has made me look at it in a fresh way.

  4. I appreciate the time that you have taken to share with us.
    Also, your talk at the April Pocono SCBWI conference was fantastic. Thank you for your well prepared and well presented information.

  5. Of all the prompt questions I’ve seen about character goals, problems and motivations, those ones have helped me the most. Simple and straight to the point, not a list of twenty questions that take up all my writing time to answer! Thanks.

  6. Serendipitous!

    A reminder to slow down and not get “down “on myself for not yet “knowing” all of who is my character. Thank you for helping me listen.

    Needed that!

  7. ps – I heard you speak some years ago in Los Angeles for Writer’s Day. At the time, you mentioned not to be in a hurry, that it takes a long time, and at the time I thought, not me. This is the book. Well it wasn’t the book. But I kept going, always saying to myself, if it took Laurie Halse Anderson a long time then I’m in good company. I’ve been writing for ten years and I just sold. So thank you for being that little voice on my shoulder letting me know that taking time is okay, that I’m no less of a writer 🙂

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