I know what my characters look like. I know how they sound; their accents dance in my ears—the dropped r's, the clipped endings, the drawls. I know whether you'd find crushed Cheerios or cigarette butts under the floor mats in their cars, and whether they drink vodka or tonic, or vodka and tonic, or if they've sworn off drinking altogether because their livers are already as pickled as an egg. I know their vices, their small, secret triumphs, what they'd pinch from their neighbors if they thought no one would be the wiser. But when creating backstory for my characters, I find that some of their most defining qualities lie at the intersection of what they most desired, and what they have ended up settling for. Characters' varying reactions to striving and falling short, and the resulting adaptations they make, can drive the work toward a powerful ending.
For some characters, settling for something less than what they dreamed of brings an anesthetizing peace. They swallow the spoonful of reality and kick their adolescent fantasies of being the best, the greatest, down a dark alley. It's a relief to stop striving toward a goal that was likely arbitrary in the first place. Others may find themselves unexpectedly happy, breathing the righteous air of sacrifice, convinced the choices they've made—or had foisted upon them—have been made in the name of a greater good: love, duty, moral integrity. Standing in the stead of that unattainable vision of themselves is a better sort of person: a virtuous version 2.0. But are they happy? Really?
On the flip side of the coin are those characters for whom settling sparks a fascinating, volatile mix of resentment and bitterness, envy and denial. And for some, settling is the start of a long quest, somewhere around the middle of which, they wonder whether they ever really knew what they wanted in the first place, and why they thought it would be so great. As to those rare few who are granted their heart's desire? After a deep sigh and moment of complete satisfaction, the itch begins and they decide they want something else, of course. Something more. As it turns out, "what we want more than anything else in the world" is an elusive and moveable object.