I’ve been thinking lately about something Alex Sokoloff says in her screenwriting tips for novelists workshops (and in her blog). She talks about how characters in both books and movies) often start out wanting something that they never get, but end up getting what they need instead. If you think about your favorite movies or books, you’ll see how often that’s the case. John and I recently watched Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino. Excellent movie! Clint plays a man grieving the loss of his wife, a curmudgeon who wants to be left alone, especially by his Asian neighbors. Of course, he doesn’t get what he wants. Instead he gets what he needs: a family.
I think it’s important for writers to ask themselves these questions about the characters they create: What does this character want? How is it different from what he or she needs?
In Secrets She Left Behind, Keith, a seventeen-year-old boy who was burned in a fire, wants two things: the return of his mother who has disappeared, and a girlfriend who accepts him the way he is. I won’t tell you what he ultimately gets in case you haven’t yet read the book, but it’s definitely what he needs.
Is it the same in real life? It’s so much harder, because there’s no writer pulling the strings to make sure everything turns out fine. I’ve spent the last fifteen minutes trying to figure out which of the zillion examples from my own life to share with you. Here’s one: I wanted to set my work-in-progress in Ecuador, but my editor vetoed the setting midway through my first draft. Ultimately, the new North Carolina setting led me to create a story I truly needed to write. Or on a much grander scale, my treasured first marriage ended, but that loss ultimately brought three stepdaughters and three grandchildren into my life. Or how about the diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, which forced my lily-livered self to become quite remarkably strong?
I think it is the same in real life: we don’t always get what we want, but we often get what we need. The difference is, we have to help make it happen. More importantly, we have to recognize when it happens . . . and count it as a blessing.