Vonnegut’s Third Rule for Fiction

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. –Kurt Vonnegut

It should go without saying that our protagonists should want something. If they don’t, then we have no story. There really are three indispensable elements of fiction: character, desire, and conflict. Without these three, fiction cannot exist. Conflict, however, is derived from the character and their desire. If a character wants a glass of water, the conflict might be that they’re stuck in a desert, or the fact that he forgot to pay the water bill and now his tap is dry. Without the desire for water, the bill is superfluous.

All that being said, what we as writers forget is the first portion of this adage. Vonnegut does not say “Every main character,” but simply, “Every character.” Giving protagonists a desire is usually pretty easy. Remembering that our smaller characters have desires of their own is a different matter. We tend to think of these “minor” characters as planets circling the sun of our protagonist. They exist and revolve around their story. But this robs us of a beautiful opportunity. Conflict is often derived from opposition of character desires.

For example, there is one glass of water, and two characters want it. Or, there is one glass of water. One wants to drink it, the other wants to dump it on his head for some momentary relief from the suns unrelenting rays. Bob wants to marry Sally now, but Sally wants to explore Africa before settling down. Sue wants to go to college, but her mom wants her to stay to care for her ailing father.

Then, take it to the next step. Give Sarah a friend. This friend should want Sarah to come to college with her. But Sarah’s boyfriend, who’s staying in town, should pressure her to stay and care for her father so that he can be with her.

The hot dog vendor, who overhears all of this, just wants all the rowdy kids to clear out from in front of his stand so he can get to the people behind them in line. The guy at the end of the line should be late for an appointment. They may be bit characters, but their desires should be clear, and should play a part in our story.

If you’re like me, you often forget to apply this rule to our auxiliary characters. We just don’t put the same amount of thought into our bit characters, so the become stock and irrelevant. Go through whatever you’re working on now. Identify every character in your story. Then, find out what it is that they want. Why do they want it? What will they do to get it? How might it affect the course of the protagonists story. Often, you’ll find this takes your novel in a new direction, a more organic, believable, poignant direction.

3 thoughts on “Vonnegut’s Third Rule for Fiction”

  • And so comes the (somewhat hackneyed) actor’s question “What’s my motivation?” It is very frustrating as a performer to try to bring a character to life who apparently has little to know purpose in the scene. Of course, the challenge to all actors and directors is to find that motivation, whether the playwright thought of it or not. The more I participate in conversations about writing, the more I recognize how much my theatre training has applications in the craft of storytelling.

  • Really good post. I don’t identify all my characters ‘wants’ but reading your post, and thinking of my characters, I can see that, while it’s easy to see their desires, it might be in my best interest (and theirs) if I put the pencil to it. 🙂 Might help me clarify some things and as you said, take the novel into a more organic direction. This is great. Thanks.

    I’m sure you’re familiar with Brandilyn Collins’ book
    Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors (John Wiley & Sons).
    Writers rave about it so Michelle might find it interesting. 🙂

  • I’ve actually not heard of Seven Secrets, but I absolutely love the concept. I’m going to add that to my Amazon wish list right now. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *