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Rule Number 3 of Fiction Writing


Today, I am discussing Kurt Vonnegut’s third rule of writing fiction. There are eight of them.

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


To want and desire something is a very human experience. We all want to be loved. Some of us want children. And, others just want to express their inner emotions to the world. And still, some just want a glass of water. No matter what it is, we all are looking for something. Sometimes it is life-changing and others times it quenches an immediate thirst. In the realm of fiction writing, our hero must want something, very similar to real life.

I especially enjoy the jest from Vonnegut that the protagonist could desire a simple glass of water. In that statement there is brilliance. It shows that even the mundane desires can have meaning. As in life, it is all in the details. The main component of a character’s desire is motivation. It can be a society based or otherwise, but nonetheless, it is there, and it is important.

You want something. What is it? There is your story. Does the public care? Do you care? Are you an addict? Nobody cares about your addiction. They may feel disgusted towards you. That repulsion can actually anchor a reader/observer. Are you seeking to conquer this problem?—now that is a story they can attach themselves to.

In the hero’s journey, the character must appeal to us and in some cases repulse us. He must be interesting enough for us to want to know his story. Remember, not all personas will please everyone. The author knows this, so in his mind, he has formed a “what if?” question to guide the story.

For example, “what if a kid tells his friends about a dead body some other kids found?” Can you name the movie? Can you name the Director? And what was the title of the original short story? The movie is Stand by Me, directed by Rob Reiner, and the short story was written by Stephen King—The Body. If you haven’t seen the movie, watch it. It is one of my favorites.

In Stand by Me, the main character is Gordie. His friend Chris tells him and his other two friends, Vern and Teddy, about a dead body by the railroad tracks. Like curious grade school kids, they decide to go and have a look for themselves. The preparations are made and the adventure begins. Having a goal to obtain is the key to any good story, as is seen here in the adaptation of the Stephen King tale. The “want” is to discover the dead body. Yes, it is morbid but definitely more exciting than a glass of water.

Although the intent might appear to be the body, the real objective of the movie is much deeper. Throughout the mishaps of the story, we discover the reality of the children’s lives. There is nothing normal about any of them and the more we understand the more we empathize with them. This connection is what keeps us glued to the story. In our minds, we see a dead body, but our subconscious is interested in what makes these children tick.

By telling the audience the protagonist’s clear objective and desire, the author gives the reader/audience a reason to stick around. The quirks and misgivings of the main character and supporting actors are the glue that keeps the reader around until the end.

Remember, your protagonist must be hungry or thirsty for something. This will interest the reader and when they are on the journey with your hero, surprise them with his often misguided decisions. The simple thing for the protagonist to do is to sit down and watch a television show and miss out on his life, but that would be boring. Always be clear in your head of what the main character must discover, overcome, or learn. Present this want or desire immediately to the reader and convince them to jump on the adventure with your hero come hell or high water.

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