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Kurt Vonnegut famously said that you have to give your character something to want, even if it’s just a glass of water.  The people that your character encounters on the journey to Togwogmagog aren’t just there to help or hinder the Callow Youth’s quest.  They have their own agendas, which started before the Callow Youth’s arrival and will continue on afterward.  They want money, or revenge, or a hot date with the Stout Companion, or spiritual fulfillment.  One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever got was that the villains think they’re the heroes.  (See:  Rumsfeld, Cheney, etc.)

With your main characters, they want more than one thing.  The Callow Youth wants a glass of water, but also wants to complete the Fast of Purification and Thirst that will persuade the grebes that he is worthy of their help in getting the Jewel.  The Stout Companion wants to save the kingdom, but also wants to save the Callow Youth.  What happens when they have to choose?

My unpublished novel (which may be a bad example since it’s unpublished) is about a child protective worker.  In making a list of things she wanted, I found the top two:  (1) protecting kids, and (2) being a good, ethical social worker.  Those two goals normally go together – but what would happen if she could only have one?  I put her in a situation where the only way to protect the kids was to do something that was both unethical and illegal, with serious consequences either way.

Sometimes the good guys win, of course:  the Callow Youth agrees to sacrifice his life to defeat the villain, and winds up surviving anyway.  Yet the choice has to be urgent at the time it’s made; it wouldn’t be the same if Harry Potter had figured, “Oh, well, Dumbledore’s probably secretly got it figured out and I’ll be fine.”

The Exercise:

Make a list of things your character wants (at least 10).  You don’t have to show your work, but pick out the two that are most important.  Then make your character choose.  Don’t forget that the other characters in the scene also have an agenda.

Belinda’s rival Adelaide informs her that her beloved Lord Postlethwaite-Praxleigh (pronounced Puppy) will have to give up his title and his jeweled sash if he marries Belinda.

A Callow Youth and Stout Companion have to convince the guardian of the Jewel of Togwogmagog to hand it over – but the Stout Companion isn’t so sure this is a good idea.

Detective Scotty Blaine is warned of the consequences if he doesn’t do a favor for the local mob boss.

Private investigator Celia Spunk has a good reason to hate her client, but still has to protect him from the Chainsmoke Killer.

International superspy James Buns has been captured by an eccentric megalomaniac, who plans to use an elaborate invention to kill the hero and his unfortunately-named girlfriend.

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