Weekend Workout: Guest Post by Jack Remick (Character – Action Part 3 of 6)

It is my absolute pleasure to introduce your Weekend Workout guest Jack Remick, author and writing mentor / teacher extraordinaire. He was a great influence and inspiration when I took a dramatic writing class from him and co-teacher Robert Ray many years ago. His exercises have stuck with me to this day. If you’re in the Vancouver area, he often teaches at the Surrey Writer’s Festival.

If you enjoy this post, check out Jack and Bob’s Writing Blog for more valuable writing advice and guidance.

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Character and Action—The Deep Relationship

Vulnerability is the key to the sympathetic character. The wound, coupled with a secret coupled with character flaw, gives you a human character. The more obvious the wound, the more deeply buried the secret the more likely the reader is to identify with the character.

Your characters also have a history of pain, shame, guilt, betrayal, and doubt. Getting to know the character’s shame and guilt leads you to the essential element of dramatic conflict that all novels must have in order to engage the reader in the story.

If you write about your character in the past and then in the present and then the future, you deepen character as well as introduce aspects of plotting.  What will become of her? Will she find happiness? Defeat? Plotting a future for your character gives you a handle on the narrative present.

Here are some hints for creating strong characters:

Action comes from character needs.

Make every character strong enough to be the protagonist of your next novel–

Betrayal: How many times has your character been betrayed?

Shame: What is she ashamed of?

Guilt: What is she guilty of?

Doubt: Why does she doubt herself?

Three words for strong characters that get you to action:




Want. What does your character want?

Need. What does she need?

Can’t. What can’t she have.

Thwarting Desire and Plot:

Human beings react to being thwarted. Desire always leads to action. In fiction, action is what characters do to achieve their wants, to satisfy their needs.

Plot can be defined as the chain of events your characters undertake to get what they want. How does your character react when she finds out she can’t have what she wants?


When the character is denied what she wants, what action does she take to over come that denial? Denial leads to action. Action leads to pain. Who gets hurt?

Need merging into Obsession.

What does your character need? A hundred thousand bucks a year?

New wardrobe every six months? A new house? How strong is that need? Is it strong enough to become an obsession? When need becomes an obsession, needs meld into drive. Need is the deep, inner aspect of character that cannot be ignored. Don’t ignore it.

The Driven Character:

How driven is your character? What will she do to get what she wants?  Murder? Steal? Cheat? Betray her husband? lover? children? mother?  What will she do when her drive is deflected or even betrayed?

Joining Need to Want and Can’t

When your characters have needs and wants but can’t gratify or satisfy them, you  have an equation that spits out Action. Action is what your character does to meet her needs, to get what she wants.

Does your character want to be wanted? Are there layers of want? Why does your character need to be wanted? Deepen need and want and can’t with shame, guilt and betrayal and you have character traits that will engage your reader?

Doubt, the Forgotten Element.

What does your character doubt? Her abilities? Her sexuality? Her intelligence? Doubt always leads to hesitation—that moment before she pulls the trigger, slashes off her hair, slices her wrist. Doubt is the powerful inhibitor of action. Because the character doubts her physical prowess, she fails to engage the villain in combat. Failing combat, she loses the battle. Losing the battle leads her to the brink of death. Doubt is serious business in fiction.

Childhood and Buried Need:

How deeply buried in the character’s childhood is your character’s need? Can we see the buried need erupting in her present life?  What caused that need? Who buried it? Why was it buried?


The coupling of want, need, can’t, guilt, shame, betrayal, and doubt leads you to action, psychology, and plot. How does plot hook to need and want and can’t? When want and need become obsessions, you create the driven character. Character drive is what moves story.

Timed Writing—write for five minutes on each of these start lines:

The protagonist in my story WANTS

The protagonist in my story NEEDS

The protagonist in my story CAN’T have ___________because…

Danika adds: remember to just write, no editing or crossing out.

Have a great weekend!


  1. 4amWriter
    Mar 24, 2012

    I really enjoyed this post. In fact, I have re-read it several times to get a full appreciation of the lesson.

    I stumble over ‘wants/needs/can’t have.’ Would these answers ever be one and the same? Or at best, ‘wants/can’t have’? I guess how I craft my protag is a little like discovering what he wants more than anything, then stop him from getting it through various obstacles. That would seem to be an answer for ‘wants’ and ‘can’t have’.

    I really relate to the idea that a need becomes an obsession. I feel that very strongly in theory, and I want to go back through my ms to see if I have carried that through.

    The idea of childhood and buried need really resonated for me. I am a big proponent of history directly affecting current events or how a character handles various situations. I was happy to see that you mention it here.

    Thanks for a great post.

  2. Here’s my take, but I’ll also ask Jack to respond.

    I see “want” as the character’s exterior goal in the story, what he is going after: the girl, the grail, the dragon. Need is interior, it’s what the protag has to have/do/face in order to grow, in order to have that arc we so often talk about. The exterior goal is often in direct conflict with the interior need, and through the search for the exterior the character discovers the “need,” which is something as a reader we figure out first. Example: A man thinks he wants to become president of a company, but what he really needs is to forgive himself for not being able to please his demanding father. Often the character gets what he wants and discovers in the process it’s not what he needs.

    Can’t have can be a lot of things. It can be the “want” or just pieces of the want. He can’t please his father no matter what he does, he can’t be his father, he can’t change his father, and he can’t let any of this go.

    • Actually, I think that should be “he won’t let any of this go.” That’s something he CAN do if he decides to.

  3. 4amWriter
    Mar 31, 2012

    Okay, that makes sense to me. Thanks!


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