At World Fantasy this year, I spent about 6 hours listening to Holly Black “book-whisper” a fellow author's book, from about 9 pm to 3 am. Holly is the best at this of anyone I have ever seen. She is also extraordinarily generous in her time. I hope that some day she will write the book on writing that her agent keeps bugging her about. I thought that sitting down and taking notes for 6 hours on what she said would be the proof that she already has the book practically written, but in fact, the details were too book-specific to probably be useful. Nonetheless, I am going to try to distill what I learned from listening to Holly.
“What is your character's want-line?” was a continual refrain during this conversation. I've certainly heard people say that a character needs to have a goal or a purpose from very early on in the book. I've recommended it myself. But to put it like that makes it sound as though the character's goal will remain the same throughout the book. While certainly this is sometimes true, it isn't always true. Bella always wants to marry Edward in the Twilight books, but Katniss doesn't always want to win the Hunger Games. And even if there is a primary goal, it can be superseded temporarily in a particular scene by a secondary goal.
A “want-line” is what the character wants right now, and it drives every scene. While a primary goal can be the want-line in many scenes, it can also be set aside for the scene at hand. For example, Katniss wants to win the Hunger Games overall, but in this scene, she wants to protect Rue. Or in this scene, she wants to show the audience she's in love with Peeta. Those things may or may not lead to the overarching goal. In Bones, Booth is in love with Brennan for a long year, then she rejects him and he falls in love with someone else. And when Brennan falls in love with him, he rejects her, not to be cruel, but because he has simply changed his want-line (at least temporarily). In Return of the Jedi, Luke wants to destroy the Emperor, but he also wants to save his father. Ultimately, his desire to save his father takes precedence, because he takes risks he otherwise wouldn't.
In my novel Mira, Mirror, the mirror first wants to get enough magic to become human again. She is willing to do almost anything to anyone to get what she wants. She has learned to be manipulative from her sister the evil Queen. But at some point, this stops being her primary goal. She begins to sympathize with Talia and she wants to help her get her goal. She actually gives up her own hopes to be human again because it will help someone else. Though in the end, she does get what she wants to begin with.
What happens in many first-draft novels that is problematic is lack of clarity in what the want-line is in each scene. If there is the overarching primary goal, beginning authors sometimes think, that's enough. Then you can have lots of fun things happen without worrying about talking about the other goals. Survival is important, or possibly meeting friends or figuring out what the rules of the world are that is being introduced. The primary goal can be put on the back burner, right?
Wrong. If a character has an important goal like saving a family member or returning home, then unless you as the writer establish why they have to put aside that goal temporarily and what the new goal is—just for this scene—you are going to have a problem. If James Bond has a secret mission and then he meets this hot girl, he can only spend the night with her if he believes that it has something to do with his mission, that ultimately he believes this will help him. Or if he decides to give up his mission, to turn in his badge, so to speak. Or at the very least, he needs to recognize that he is taking a risk of diverting from his primary mission and that this is worth it, that the woman is worth it.
If you are trying to save the world from imminent disaster like a looming asteroid, you can't spend hours wandering around the surface of the asteroid admiring its beauty. You have to get to work destroying the asteroid. If you find that there are life forms on the asteroid and that makes you reconsider your mission, fine. But make it clear that is what this character has done. There has to be an in-story reason for every scene. The reason for the scene can't simply be—this is cool or—I want to introduce this other character. The in-story reason has to make sense to the main character who should be driving the action.
What if you are writing about a character who doesn't have control of the situation, you ask? Someone who is captured by the villain or who is a child forced to follow around after adults? Yeah, this could work. But still, you as the writer have to make it clear what the want-line is and why the protagonist has to delay it right now. There should be plenty of angst about this, whining and complaining in some way to the reader. And attempts to get away. To get back to the primary goal. Or whatever the new primary goal is.
Let's say you have a situation where the primary goal to begin with is to save your sister's life a la The Hunger Games. But then your sister dies in a terrible accident or ends up betraying you completely to the enemy. You can't have the same want-line after something like that, of course. So you need a new want-line. Readers are willing to put up with a certain amount of moaning and sitting around, not sure what to do next. Maybe a chapter, maybe two chapters. But not much more than that. After that, you need a new want-line. Maybe the want-line is simply to cause as much destruction as possible. Maybe it's to find distraction in doing something difficult and likely to lead to death. But there is still a want-line.
I don't think this is unrealistic. There may be some people who wander through life not knowing what they want, but I don't think there are very many. I think real people want something and try to get it, pretty much all of the time. Sometimes we aren't clear about our own motives for doing things. That can happen in fiction, too. Though it should be clear fairly early on that the writer knows what the character wants even if the character doesn't.
This is one of the main reasons that villains can often feel like far more compelling characters than the heroes of some stories. Think of Star Wars again. You see lots of little kids wanting to pretend to be Darth Vader, even though he is clearly the villain. Why? Because he has a clear want-line. He's the one building the Death Star, and building the Empire. This is a guy who wants power and isn't afraid of what he has to do to get it. Whereas Luke, in the first movie, is just a kid who wants an every day life. He's wandering around, looking for droids, then for Ben Kenobi, then finds his aunt and uncle are dead, then gets sucked into the adventure with Han Solo and Princess Leia. But he isn't driving the plot of the first movie. He's reacting to Darth Vader's plot.
It would be pretty stupid of me to say that this doesn't work. It does. But beware of a protagonist who only reacts to others. You can still have a situation like Ender's Game where the protagonist is unaware of the larger reasons for the actions of those around him. But Ender always believes he knows why he is doing what he is doing, even if he is wrong. He thinks that he is just trying to win the game, or trying to get out of Battle School. He wants to prove how brilliant he is. He wants to kick all the adults around him in the teeth. He wants to help his friends. He always wants something, and he works to get it.
A protagonist who lets others wholely control the situation can end up feeling wishy-washy and uninteresting. But worse than that, the plot of your story may lack all of the power that it would get if there were a strong want-line. Without a want-line, how can you tell if the protagonist gets what she wants? How can you tell when the story is over? How can you build that kind of tense scene that readers cannot put down? How can you have conflict if there aren't two distinct goals set against each other?