The cold nibbled gently at my ears despite my floppy woolen hat. I knew I should have crocheted another round on the hat, to bring coverage down further. Time had been short though, because if there were one thing I was not going to do, it was be late to this game. Pneumonia cuddled my lungs and my voice sounded like a broken foghorn, but I had second-row tickets to watch Navy play Army at M&T Stadium in Baltimore.
Does going to a football game while ill sound like a poor decision to you? If so, I’ll go out on a limb and say that, unlike me, you haven’t spent decades longing to be in attendance at a particular matchup. There probably is something that you’ve wanted to do your entire life, though, and I’m willing to bet it would take more than a little lung congestion and a low grade fever to keep you from doing it.
Like us, the characters we write have dreams. Some of them are big dreams, but a lot of them are relatively minor. When you start writing a story, you probably know at least one major dream of your star charcters. But do you know their small ones? Do you know the ones they gave up on, or the ones they grew out of?
Like many a young boy, when I was a kid I wanted to be a starting quarterback in the NFL. Bless my family, but not a one of them pointed out that as a little girl my odds of so much as playing high school football were slender. I grew out of that dream not because of my gender, but because it became apparent at some point that I have zero athletic ability and don’t like being outside much in summer, when training camp is. I think knowing both about my dream and its fate tells you something about me. If nothing else, it let’s you know what I’m likely to be doing on weekends in fall.
If you were reading about my life, there’s a decent shot you wouldn’t need to know any of that. You could probably even get away with writing about me without knowing it, but would you write about me as well? Maybe, but maybe not.
A lot of things go into making a character a person. It’s all nice and good to know what your protagonist looks like, what her love interest’s endearing hobby is, and what your antagonist likes to wear, but if that’s all you know you don’t have complete people walking around in your story. You don’t have to tell your readers about that week your main character spent wearing a tutu to class because he wanted to be the first ballerina in space, but it would help you to understand your character if you know about it. And I think it’s pretty well understood that knowing your characters better will help you write them.
One of my pre-writing exercises is to think about things like what my main character wanted to be when she was five, what she’ll tell her senior year guidance counselor she wants to do after high school, and what she’s always wanted to do but never told anyone about. In Pride, Prejudice, and Curling Rocks, my lead had a big obvious dream to curl in the Olympics. She also had a dream to walk with penguins in Antarctica that never showed up in the text. Likewise, the main character in Of Fur and Ice never tells the reader about her desire to learn SCUBA diving and go looking at sites listed as possible Atlantis locations, but I’d like to think that knowing about that helped me to understand how she would react to the news that she’s a shapeshifter.
Think about the little details of your hopes and desires, from wanting Friday off to wanting to run a B&B on the moon. Think about the likely dreams and the unlikely ones, the ones that you will accomplish given time and the ones you know you never will. Think about what all these things say about you. Then ask yourself what it is your characters want, not just over the course of your plot, but longterm. Using what this tells you to give them depth.