About a year ago an interesting post on Reddit promised a way to “make your character complex, realistic, and three dimensional, simply by writing down two things that they want.” This was posted in /r/rpg and was intended for people making characters in games like Dungeons and Dragons.
The idea was interesting and struck me as something useful for fiction authors, especially authors who need to create and maintain the consistency of large casts of characters, especially in works similar to “A Song of Fire and Ice” by George R. R. Martin (the Game of Thrones in the title).
How Does It Work
The core idea is that every character has two desires. And that’s pretty much the entire idea! These two desires can be connected to their backstory, but this isn’t required. Any time there’s a narrative reason to get an action or perspective from the character, try your best to link it to one of their two desires. Beyond easily determining character actions, this gives you some really interesting drama for when their two desires come into conflict with one another.
In the Reddit post, the example is given of Ned Stark whose two desires are “preserve law and honor” and “protect children from suffering.” I might have characterized his second desire as “protect his family”. Regardless, a foundation of the series is Jon Snow, his nephew, who is born to his sister after her secret wedding to Rhaegar Targaryen, a prince from the ruling family who Ned was in the middle of fighting a rebellion against. On her deathbed, Ned’s sister made Ned swear to protect her son. This put Ned in the position of either: revealing John’s parentage, as required by honor and law, which would violate his honor of swearing to his sister to protect him and would lead to the infant’s death, or claiming the child was his bastard and raising him like a son, betraying his honor by lying to his wife and everyone he knew. The king was killing all other members of the deposed royal family and this deceit was the only way to protect the infant.
When Ned is called upon to be the hand of the king, this again put his honor (obedience to his lord), in conflict with protecting his family (he rightly knew that entering southern politics would be dangerous for the Starks).
Character growth and development can come from the two desires, that a character has, changing, perhaps with a conflict between the old desire and the new desire.
Jamie Lannister’s desires might be characterized as “helping his family” and “bringing glory to himself”. When his sister is married to the king and he’s going to be separated from her (and likely forced to marry someone himself), he joins the Kingsguard to stay close to, and protect, his sister, while bringing glory to himself. To his father’s displeasure.
Jamie’s father, sister, and brother are frequently at odds, so he has conflict even within his desire to help his family (which family? and how?).
Later, he connects with Brienne and begins wanting to help and protect people, even those he isn’t related to. This tension plays out through the remainder of the TV series, and in the finale, Jamie has to decide between committing himself to Brienne of Tarth or returning to his sister’s lost cause.
Usefulness For Writers
Roleplayers often create very superficial characters, so this technique is a good way to get players to think a little more deeply about who the characters they’re creating are. For authors, this is a very simple, easy technique to manage characters and switch between them while remaining consistent.
For your next work, try coming up with two desires for every character in the work. If you’re ever having trouble deciding what a character would do in a particular situation, try being guided by one or both of their two desires.