Tell Me Your Desire So That I May Crush It: Desire as Character
Let’s face it. As writers, one of the hardest things to do is hurt our precious characters. But that’s our job; it is vital for our story’s success. So how do we go about doing it? That’s “write” my lovely readers: desire.
Think of your character’s main desire as potential bait that dangles temptingly in front of him or her throughout the story. Then, finally, finally, she gets it! And guess what? That’s when it becomes our job to take it away.
That’s right. You take it away. Snatch that bait up like it’s a child’s ice cream cone (which you would eat in front of the child, of course). As much as your protagonist’s tears may feel like glass shards as she watches you munch on her dreams, bear it. Revel in it. Let your character hit rock bottom. And then? Then you give her hope by reintroducing the possibility of that desire that was taken away—or of a transformed desire.
With that being said, desire can oftentimes have a journey of its own, very similar to the hero’s journey introduced by Joseph Campbell. It comes in many forms: sometimes it can be something that was right in front of the character all along, invisible. Other times it is something the character wants from the get-go, something so strong and tangible and needed that it draws your character through the harshest of obstacles—and yet, the protagonist will continue chasing it. Still at other times, it may transform as the story and character progress. This is where desire’s journey comes into play, and where it can truly show your protagonist’s transformation.
At the inciting incident (the call to adventure), desire immediately manifests itself. The character’s comfortable world is shattered, something is taken away or changed, and desire is introduced. For poor Bilbo Baggins, the desire is the idea of adventure, which initially propels him to leave the Shire. The character crosses the threshold between what is known and what is indefinite, altering his perception of the world. In doing so, he learns new morals and lessons, which molds and transforms his desire. Bilbo slowly finds he wishes to help his friends, who are seeking out their home in the Lonely Mountain. But this desire comes at a cost: what will Bilbo endure in order to help the dwarves? Is his wish strong enough to keep him fighting until the end? As anyone who has seen or read The Hobbit can testify, Bilbo’s life would have been much simpler had he simply returned to the Shire when things got tough. But he doesn’t. And THAT says more about his character than any one line or explanation could.
Yes. Desire is strongest when it is shown to the readers, not told. We all know that age-old rule!
After enduring multiple hardships, the possibility of obtaining said desire seemingly disappears at the climax of the story, where the protagonist experiences his or her darkest hour. The possibility of obtaining his goal is slim (making it all the more fulfilling when he actually does). This is where we see the true potential of the desire, where we see its full strength over our character. This is also where we find the answers to desire’s multiple questions: does the character deserve it? Does he or she want it enough? Is it really what the character needs?
In essence, then, viewing desire as something fluid—something that can transform, estrange others, or manifest itself—is what nudges your story and protagonist forward. Desire is a character. It speaks to your protagonist and antagonists, it sways the plot, it grows and transforms and defines. And, if done correctly, the desire seen at the beginning of your story is very different than the one that has survived to the end—even if the main idea of the wish has not changed at all.
So what do you desire most? What do YOUR characters want? And, think, how will that desire have changed by the story’s conclusion?
The Power(ful) Wheels of Desire
Desire, for the longest time, has been one of my greatest writing weaknesses.
“Ambivalent” was the word applied more than once, to more than one of my main characters—because they didn’t really seem to know what they wanted, they sort of went with the flow, letting things happen to them, and then, reacting where necessary (and sometimes not even then).
Sounds a lot like the writer penning them. (When they started asking us what we wanted to do when we grew up—as early as middle school—one of the answers I stand by to this day is “retired.”) But, when it comes to writing, I now have for myself a gentle reminder:
You may not know what the hell you want outta life, but your character damn well better.
Well, this and not this, but I’ll get to that.
This, because, although I understand that each of my characters are some expression of their creator, yours truly, I also understand they are not me.
So, while to write what I’ve known for a great swath of years (meandering, “ambivalent” curiosities) would hold true to the dictum of “write what you know” (oh, that piece of advice…), there are plenty of other things I know, even if I’ve only known them in small moments or exchanges or epiphanies: love for a friend or lover or mother, quiet despair at the cruelty borne by humans from other humans, hope despite all that, the importance of laundering your whites and colors separately, et cetera, et cetera…
If you’re trying to create the experience of meandering ambivalence, by all means, pursue that, but general writing advice indicates that people tend to prefer different emotional experiences from their reading fare than that of ambivalence. Ambivalence is boring. Or so I hear. Another bit of general writing advice I’ve gotten: Don’t be boring.
As for the “not this”—as in Not: “You may not know what the hell you want outta life, but your character better had”— not this because… well, I’ll tell you.
Neither you—nor your character—may have quite figured out what you want to be when you “grow up” (whatever that means), but neither you—nor your character—have gone an entire life without having wanted anything.
Me, for instance? Growing up I would’ve killed for a Power Wheels—it felt like all my friends had them and, specifically, I thought it would make me more grown up to drive my own car (albeit one that could hardly run over your neighbor’s cat).
That is the feeling you know, the thing you can write about—it is a feeling of lacking, both something concrete (a toy) and something more abstract (cool points, aka, feelings of self-worth). It is also a feeling of wanting.
Enter: Desire. (Wait, didn’t desire already enter? Whatever.)
In the words of one master, “Make [your] characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.” Advice Mr. Vonnegut tailored carefully for those of us plagued by nihilism, ambivalence, or anomie. Thank you, Kurt.
So, This and Not This, because your story may revolve around one of these smaller wants (Oh, Power Wheels, how you could have made me a more complete person) or a bigger picture want—to change the face of evolutionary biology by discovering a new (or very old) species. Both these wants, are a concrete expression of a greater, greasier, more abstract want. Power Wheels—to feel important, worthy, and confident. Get remembered by history—to feel important, worthy, and confident.
And if you find, as I often do, that the abstract comes to you before the concrete desire, extrapolate from there. In a current WIP, for instance, I knew my main character wants to feel loved (whilst figuring out precisely what love is), at which point I had to figure out what, specifically, would make her feel loved. Her parents doting on her every wish? Popularity amongst her peers? Romance? Unfettered, empathetic communication with the weird loner girl that reminds her of herself?
Then: Make sure she doesn’t get it. At least, not right away.
As she tries to attain this tangible goal, this triumphant Power Wheels, a number of things will happen to make her job harder—and this is where you’ll find your story:
External Obstacles come out to play—though be careful not to rely on a string of coincidence and happenstance when you can choose something that will resonate more significantly with your character’s journey and/or the story’s theme.
Frequently, external obstacles with come into play in the form of other characters as they try to pursue their respective desires. In life, people get in the way of other people with ready frequency as each of us can so easily become blinded by our own desire, be they friend or foe. (The concept of “antagonist” enters here, but that would be a whole other post…)
Internal Obstacles—This often, I think, manifests and gets talked about as your character’s flaw, or “fatal flaw,” or, as Lisa Cron of Story Genius prefers, their guiding “misbelief.” (E.g. the good ol’ stand-bys of “People will always leave/hurt/take advantage of me,” “I’ll never be enough,” “Risk/pain is the only way to feel alive,” and so on.)
Pitting your character’s guiding misbelief (about themself or the world) against the thing they most want is where you’ll often find those strong scenes, and even smaller moments, of emotional resonance.
The more your character gets in their own way, the more assuredly the reader will eventually see (or, if not see, feel) what the character truly needs—either to get what they want, or to get instead of what they want. If the character comes to this epiphany simultaneously or very near-after, you’ll deliver that visceral one-two punch to the reader’s emotional gut. (Probably.)
I could prattle on (as I do in my notebook), but I think I’ll cut myself short and end on a few solid points.
One, this lot has probably sounded a lot like familiar writing advice sandwiched between qualifying words and phrases. (Most likely.) This was not unintentional.
In writing, as in any art, there may be useful tips, but there are no hard and fast rules. No recipe cards or quadratic equations. While the experience of reading is an emotional one, so too is that of writing. If you don’t feel it while you’re writing, your reader probably won’t either. (And if you don’t feel anything about what you’re writing, why are you writing it?)
And last, I’ll relate this craft element back ‘round to last week’s short story, because I like to concretize all this craft talk with an example (as much for my own learning as, I hope, yours).
The character arc that I foresaw coming out of this prompt had everything to do with desire, specifically with how the character’s shift in desire could articulate the emotional arc of her story.
Fictional Pat Wright, in Pat Wright’s Field Notes from the Other Side, began her journey wanting to discover the elusive (also fictional) Dendraloceros goodfellowi and make her mark on the history of evolutionary biology. When she discovers something bigger, wackier, and more historically impressive than a lil’ ol’ horned marsupial tree-climber, her desire to get home and spread the word peaks. But then, as she sees the compassion and acceptance and intelligent kindness of her hosts, she is forced to reflect on the potential cruelty that could come as a result of her selfish desire to expose them… Thus, her desire shifts, as reflected in her actions to keep them hidden, and we have an arc.
That was the thought, anyway. I did wonder how burning her desire was or should be, because even if all our greatest desires in life don’t need to be all-consuming, if we are to perform an about-face on one of them, consider how much more powerful such a change of heart would be if it were…
But anyway, as I’ve said—and I stand by it—it all depends. (Probably.)