Give Your Character a Dream

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

This past week on Monday Night Football between the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants, play was interrupted for a short time when a black cat somehow wandered onto the field.

No one knows where it came from or (as of this writing) where it is now. It’s probably hiding somewhere in the bowels of MetLife Stadium, coming out only under cover of darkness to forage for hotdog stubs, popcorn bits, and field mice.

TV cameras captured the drama as Stadium security and state troopers closed in. The cat, juking like a four-footed Ezekiel Elliott, eluded capture before dashing into a tunnel.

The moment inspired the clever sports writer and podcaster Charlotte Wilder to create a winsome account of the incident. It amounts to the cat’s backstory, which I found to be instructive for writers.

Wilder names the cat Shelly Whiskers (for you youngsters out there, Shelly Winters was an Oscar winning actress of yesteryear). Wilder imagines that the dash across the field was the moment Whiskers had been hoping for all her life.

That life did not begin in promising circumstances:

The bleachers weren’t a place from where a cat wanted to be. The most privileged cats—the ones that were combed daily and fed expensive organic food marketed to their owners on Instagram—grew up in houses full of soft surfaces to sleep on and cat trees to scratch. But the bleachers were home for Whiskers. Those cement stairs littered with empty cans, peanut shells and hardened nacho cheese shaped her.

Life at home was tough for Whiskers:

Her father, Mister, worked nights at a local bodega, meowing at customers who came in to buy a lighter or a bag of chips. Sometimes they’d drop him a piece of pepperoni from a slice of pizza, but most nights he came home empty-pawed. Whiskers’s mother Fluffy disappeared when she was very young.

But Whiskers had a dream. After seeing a squirrel on TV run across the field during a Green Bay Packers game, she thought, Why can’t I? She fell in love with the Giants star receiver, Odell Beckham, Jr., but when he was traded away, she went to pieces. Whiskers started hanging out in cat dives, like The Meow Inn, “knocking back shots of cream.”

Then came her moment. And Whiskers was all over it. As she eluded capture, stadium fans cheered and millions of television watchers did the same. Whiskers’s proud father summed it up:

“Shelly taught us that no matter who you are—a pampered house cat or a stray from MetLife—you should always chase your tail. I mean, your dreams. Definitely chase your dreams, not your tail.”

Which is a good place to talk about your own main character’s backstory. Have you given her a dream? A longing? A desire deep within her soul?

No character enters your story without a history. Note, you don’t have to know that history before you start writing. While many writers create extensive histories for their characters, others like to let characters develop (“come to life”) as they write. But even if the latter is your method, how the character behaves on the page implies a background, even if you’re not specific about it

Why not be specific and give your character a dream which animates her behavior?

Luke Skywalker dreams of being a Jedi knight.

Dorothy Gale dreams of living in a land where trouble doesn’t exist.

George Bailey dreams of leaving his small town and exploring the world.

What we dream about is a big part of what shapes us and moves us to action. The same is true for your protagonist and, I might add, your antagonist:

Darth Vader dreams of conquering the galaxy.

The Wicked Witch of the West dreams of dominating Oz.

Hannibal Lecter dreams of indulging special dietary needs.

Dreams lead to drive, which helps a story take off from the jump.

So what is your character’s dream? If she doesn’t have one, why not give it to her as a force in operation as your story begins?

***

Give a listen to sportscaster Kevin Harlan having fun with our wandering cat as he called the Monday Night Football game on national radio.

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29 thoughts on “Give Your Character a Dream

  1. Another great post. I think this also ties into the “guidelines” for writing a good book description, focusing on the GMC (Goal, Motivation, and Conflict) for the main characters–always two in any romance genre. He wants XX because YY but ZZ stands in his way.

    In my recent release Morgan, the heroine, dreams of giving a child the life she had to give up, while hero Cole dreams of “undoing” a past personal tragedy by being a good cop.

    It’s harder for me when I’m writing the 8th mystery in another series, because the cop protagonist doesn’t have any dreams beyond being the best cop he can be and keeping his city safe. And now, also being a good husband, but his dreams haven’t changed much from book to book. Of course, there’s always “solve the crime” but that seems a given in a mystery.

    I’d venture to offer the caveat that giving your character these dreams makes it tempting to dump them on the reader in the opening chapter.

    • Terry, I’m thinking a dream is a particular form a goal might take. The goal and motivation are the important things, not whether the goal happens to take the form of a dream. Your cop protag has a consistent motivation (“justice” or something like that; or maybe career advancement; or maybe power…). Each crime constitutes a new goal because of that motivation. The cop may have other motivation as well, and, I guess, these could change over the arc of the story. And maybe his “cop motivation” moves from career advancement or power to justice over the series arc, or something like that.

      So a dream is good, but I don’t think it’s always necessary.

  2. You offer a good caution, Terry, about “dumping” the dream into the opening. While there might be a natural spot to do that, often you don’t have to explain the dream at all. It could merely be there in your own character history influencing what your character does. But I like it when there’s a hint of the dream in the subtext.

    For example, what is (or was) Rick Blaine’s dream in Casablanca? We get a hint about it when he and Louis are alone, betting on whether Laszlo will elude capture. From the script:

    LOUIS: Because, my dear Ricky, I suspect that under that cynical shell you are at heart a sentimentalist….Laugh if you will, but I happen to be familiar with your record. Let me point out just two items: In 1935, you ran guns to Ethiopia. In 1936, you fought in Spain on the Loyalist side.

    RICK: And got well paid for it on both occasions.

    LOUIS: The winning side would have paid you much better.

    What was Rick’s dream while growing up in New York? Get out and become a fighter for the underdog? Why? The writers of the script (adapting a play) probably didn’t go that deeply into it, but you as a writer of novel-length fiction can.

  3. A driving force for the protagonist in my suspense-thriller series is redemption.
    I think ER physician Drake Cody’s singular commitment to protecting the vulnerable and his disregard for his personal well-being is grounded in his past. He feels responsible for tragic events earlier in his life. He believes he betrayed someone he loved and it led to their death.
    Anytime he becomes aware of someone being harmed or victimized he is compelled to act even if the forces he must confront appear certain to destroy him. His drive for redemption and commitment to never betray anyone in need pump through him like his lifeblood.
    The sub-conscious desire for redemption and shame/regret/guilt for past actions (or inaction) are linked and powerful drivers of character imo.
    PS – Before Kevin Harlan went national he did Minnesota Timberwolves local TV broadcasts teamed with Kevin McHale. The Wolves were lousy but the broadcasts were so entertaining I often laughed out loud.

  4. Addendum:
    In a sense Drake’s “dream” is to somehow undo or make up for what happened in the past.
    Never articulated but drives him.
    Does this fit today’s post or am I off-target?

  5. Great post. It would seem that the dream should be part of the character arc. I read somewhere (about the goal, motivation, dream of the protagonist) “What does he WANT? What does he NEED?” – the “want” being the conscious dream, the “need” being the as yet undiscovered healing of mind, body, or soul.

  6. The black cat symbolizes how little of a threat the Carolina Panthers are to the playoff teams in the NFL. Sigh. Not a football fan but a NC native who has to listen to the constant whining of the fans.

    An alternate character narrative is giving the self-destructive or mentally ill character a self-fulfilling nightmare instead of a dream. If he’s hero material, he will change that narrative into a dream during the book.

    In one of my early books, my main character starts out knowing his future will be a living hell because of a brutal illness. He wants to die because of that, but he chooses to live to save those he loves and ends up turning his nightmare into the dream of a loving future.

    In a novel, the character’s dream is best when it isn’t shouted out, that’s too on the nose, but implied unless the dream is the same as the goal for the novel.

    The musical theme for this post is “I Have a Dream” from TANGLED. Funny because all the dreamers in the tavern are vicious scum.

    https://youtu.be/tTuwo_TqlhQ

  7. I saw the game and “Shelley’s” performance. She brought good luck to my Cowboys. 🙂 The story is hilarious. But I do love the idea of giving a character a dream and allowing it to be fulfilled.

  8. My recent Beta Reader suggested I switch the lead from one main protagonist to the other because the other was more interesting. I’ve been pondering this for a week: what makes that one more interesting? Both have interesting back stories. Now you have given me the answer: My other protagonist is the one with the dream.

    Thanks again. You always show up when I need you.

  9. More good tips. Thank you for confirming one thing I was doing right – understanding the motivation behind my characters’ choices, which I think is similar to the dream, but I like the connotation of the word, dream, better.

    Your tips on plot have helped me flesh that out better within the story and without as much floundering to find the right course. Thank you. (Yes I have my copy of Plotman!) 😀

  10. Shame on me! I don’t watch football and missed the black cat adventure.
    But, a great post as usual. I loved it and the correlation between character and their dream was helpful, to say the least.

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