In good fiction—literary fiction as well as genre fiction that engages the mind, heart and soul of an audience—the protagonist must have desires both concrete and abstract. For example, a concrete desire (like these below) can drive the plot;
To own a house—House of Sand and Fog by Andre Debus II
To go to a brother’s funeral—“The Half-Skinned Steer” by Annie Proulx
To fulfill a dying friend’s wish—“Childsplay” by Alice Munro
Abstract desires on the other hand are mystifying, and due to their complexities can be tricky. Consider love as a desire. Describe love. Tough to do isn’t it. That’s because it’s peppered with an assortment of other tasty things, like identity, independence, home, self-worth, and power/control. The complexity of the character’s heart can be as challenging to express as it is in real life. But as Robert Olin Butler writes in From Where You Dream, “It’s not that you come to some intellectual understanding. It’s an intuition of her wanting, a sense of her desiring.” It’s as difficult as explaining why you love your children, and how you embrace the complexity of that love in your blood, bones and soul. That old, ‘blood’s thicker than water’ analogy is the sort of certainty you want your characters to have and hold dear.
“Nothing resonates in the marrow of [readers’] bones.” Butler reminds us about a character’s longing/desire, and how without one the character remains empty, unfulfilling to the reader. He goes on to make a distinction between the type of desire expressed in entertainment fiction, (e.g., “I want a man, a woman, wealth, power, or to solve a mystery or to drive a stake through a vampire’s heart”) and in literary fiction (“I yearn for self, I yearn for an identity, I yearn for a place in the universe, I yearn to connect to the other”). He also admonishes his fellow literary writers: “But that there must be yearning the genre writers never forget. We do.”
In David Corbett’s book, The Art of Character, he writes, “Desire is the crucible that forges character because it intrinsically creates conflict… “Desire puts a character in motion…”
You know what comes next, right? I’m going to ask you if you can take a few minutes and write down what your character desires. But not yet, I’ll ask again in a while….
Now desire and goal or quest are not necessarily one in the same, and writers often get confused on that issue. For example, in Die Hard, we know that John McClane (Bruce Willis) wants to get home to his estranged wife and be a family again (his desire), as symbolized by that big teddy bear (plot device). Die Hard can be thought of as a story about finding redemption through violence. McClane returns to Los Angeles to save his marriage but is instantly drawn into the same kind of situation that caused his wife, Holly to leave him. In Hero’s Journey speak, he is a true reluctant hero. Using extreme violence, McClane triumphs over the terrorists and saves his wife (short term goal). He then finds that now muddied teddy bear and then reconciles with his wife (long term goal/desire), thereby attaining his deepest desire. That desire indeed propels John McClane into motion, finding him redemption and love, the things for which he most yearned.
In Breaking Bad, Walter White uses an honorable desire, to provide for his family, in order to justify some awfully bad behavior. Initially Walter wants to take care of those he loves: after a recent cancer diagnosis giving him only two years to live, he realizes he has nothing to lose. What also happens, and what ultimately lies beneath all of Walter’s behavior is that when he was diagnosed, he realized he wanted to live, and was then motivated by a newly discovered desire to LIVE––he is awakened. Initially, determined to ensure that his family––a teenage son, who has cerebral palsy, and his wife–have a secure future, Walter embarks on a new profession of the drugs and crime sort. He proves to be extremely gifted in this new world as he begins producing and selling methamphetamine with one of his past students. The story explores how a lethal diagnosis disturbs an every man’s morality and transforms him into a major contender in the drug trade. Walter’s wants and goals change and alter as he grows from weak to strong, from wanting survival to a hunger for greed and power. But after the inciting incident (he collapses, is then diagnosed with cancer) what never changes is his desire to LIVE––it drives his every action.
In the book and Movie, The Help, the character Celia Foote, is a beautifully flawed character. Celia did not grow up on the right side of the tracks and does not possess the pedigree of the small-town women from whom she seeks approval and acceptance (her core desire). Celia, a newcomer to Jackson, who desperately wants to belong to the Junior League, finds herself unwanted because she married its envious leader’s ex-boyfriend, Johnny. In a town of white privilege where every house has a black housekeeper and nanny, Celia engages Minny, half to maintain appearances and half to secretly cook and clean so Johnny doesn’t realize her lack of womanly abilities. She is an imperfect woman with many secrets who wants to love and be loved (core desire). Her desire catapults her into situations that create conflict. It is because of Celia’s contradictions, flaws and weaknesses, that Celia is a lovable mess for whom audiences’ cheer because they never lose sight of her (universal) core desire to love and be loved.
Readers love a strong female character. She can be vulnerable, unreliable, uncertain, or even physically weak and still be a strong character.
“Characters want something, and the deeper they want, the more compelling the drama.” David Corbett
NOW, I’m gonna ask my question(s) again,
What is your character’s core desire?
Is it to be love, to be respected, to find redemption or to live as big a life as possible?
What stops them from attaining it?
How do you show that in scenes?
Now get busy, you’ve got some writing to do.
Mindy Halleck is an award-winning author, motivational speaker and writing instructor.
Halleck’s debut novel, Return to Sender, was released to 5-Star reviews, a Reader’s Choice award and selected as one of Kirkus Review’s Top Twenty Indie Novels of 2015. She has won short-story writing contests, and is a frequent guest lecturer in UW fiction writing classes and other local colleges. In addition to being a writer, Halleck is a happily married, globe-trotting beachcomber and three-time cancer survivor who credits part of her healing journey(s) to the art of writing.
What happens when a travel writer can’t travel? That’s a question facing thousands of frustrated laptop and camera toting travelers all itching to see something/say something. I’m among them. Fortunately, so far I have enough stories and photos to sustain my blog, https://ALittleLightExecise.com for some months. But as the pandemic wears on, then what?
I will probably be forced to take a tour of my office, crammed with mementos of past adventures. It would include some of the more curious objects I’ve carted home: Besides all the paintings of Italy and the large reproduction of a 16th century map of Rome I bought in the Vatican that hangs over my desk, other objects serve to bring back memories of travels that can’t be repeated as the world and I change over time.
The first thing I see is a heavy bronze-colored gold-medallioned silk robe hanging on the door. I bought it in the so-called Russian market in Phnom Penh shortly after the fall of the dictator Pol Pot. A balsa-wood dhow with its lateen sail sits on top of a bookcase. It’s from a vendor on the beach at Ras Kutani, a resort south of Dar es Salaam on the Indian Ocean where I picked up bits of coral and unfamiliar shells washed up in a storm and worried about a leopard that had been seen nearby. Next are strings of thousands of tiny colored beads making up a necklace bought in Nairobi when I traveled there for World Food Programme (just announced as the 2020 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize). Behind the dhow is a carving from Ghana and another from New Guinea. An outrigger canoe model from Tahiti sits next to a whale baleen boat from Alaska, and two carvings of river traders with their bags and bundles rest on the windowsill.
The bookcase, which holds many dozens of books about Italy, has a few objects tucked on the shelves. My two favorites are a tiny matchbox from Greece with a drawing of Diogenes holding up his light to find a truthful person, and an equally tiny icon I purchased from a Russian shop in Sitka.
Every object tells me a story about travel: The Japanese woodcut of a snow scene reminds me of the elderly man selling his work in the town of Otaru. We couldn’t communicate in words so we both smiled, bowed and said “Hai.” The painting from Haiti is full of magical realism showing women winding their way to market through a thick forest. I bought it at the hotel in Port-au-Prince during my stay there shortly before the building collapsed in the horrendous earthquake in 2010. A painting on parchment of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples is from Addis Ababa. It hangs near a puppet from south India with the head of a monster and a skirt of palm fronds reminding me of a Kathakali dance performance in Kerala.
There’s still space on my walls but when I’ll really travel again is unknown. For now, it’s Whidbey Island and Port Townsend on the docket. But maybe, just maybe, at least I’ll be able to return to where my heart lies – Rome.
A few years ago, I had a story I wanted to tell about women and children surviving a war on their soil. The trouble was, I was thinking of a particular war, and all the characters in that story were Chinese. I’m a white American.
Why that story? Ever since my husband and I started dating, he’d been telling me little anecdotes about his childhood in China during the World War II. By the time he died, that time and place and those people had come alive in my imagination.
I thought about writing from an American viewpoint, as reminiscence maybe. I couldn’t get anything to work, though. Finally I just bit the bullet and wrote the novel from the point of view of a Chinese woman.
Although an author ought to be able to get inside the skins of all kinds of people, let’s face it. For most of us, our understanding and empathy only stretches so far. Occasionally I’ve read a female character written by a man, and I think, this man doesn’t understand women—which make me wonder: Can I write convincingly from a male viewpoint? I think so. But there are some men that I just don’t understand. Until I do, they will have to be minor characters in my stories.
Writing across the racial divide is similar. The author has to be able to step comfortably and convincingly into the other person’s skin. I can’t see myself doing that in most cases. But I could with An Lee, the protagonist in Tiger Tail Soup. Even then, I had to do a lot of research.
There’s one more big consideration for a writer deciding whether or not to write across the racial divide: Will she be criticized for telling a story that’s not hers to tell? I think it depends on the point of history we’re in and the current attitudes of the people about whom she’s writing.
I recently looked up reviews and critiques of Pearl Buck’s 1931 best-selling novel, The Good Earth. It won the Pulitzer Prize, and soon after, she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, which, paradoxically, set her up for a lot of criticism: Someone else should have won; her plots were preposterous; the literary qualities were less than impressive. She was also criticized by different factions for her politics. I didn’t see any criticism of her for writing from the Chinese viewpoint, though.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett is a more contemporary example. Stockett and her protagonist are both white, but the subjects of her novel are black servants in Mississippi in the 1960s. The book and the movie made from it were wildly popular, but they were criticized by some people for an inaccurate depiction of the lives of servants in that era.
Writing across the racial divide can be done, but the author ought to be prepared for blowback. It takes skill, hard work, and also courage to be a writer.http://nickichenwrites.com/wordpress
Do you want to write a novel?
Join writers across the globe, and right here in Snohomish County, as they race to write 50,000 words in 30 days this November. NaNoSnoCo, NaNo-Snohomish County, serves as your local region; a hub of support, encouragement, and community during November and beyond! Join us, won’t you?
NaNoWriMo is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that believes in the transformational power of creativity. We provide the structure, community, and encouragement to help people find their voices, achieve creative goals, and build new worlds—on and off the page.
Get involved now!
Don’t wait until November to get connected! NaNoSnoCo is active on Discord, the forums, and Facebook- already discussing what we’ll be writing and how we can make the best of NaNo in the midst of Covid-19. Throughout October we’ll be hosting online events to help you plan, plot, and pace your novels. Come meet your fellow writers, learn how to use the website & online tools, and find out how to get plugged in. Our first event is on October 10th- Intro to NaNoWriMo. Come ask your questions & meet your ML, Stephanie Ridiculous. See website & socials for further details.
Please Note: Due to Covid-19, NaNoWriMo has made the difficult decision to keep NaNo2020 entirely virtual. There will be no in-person events. Instead, we will be utilizing platforms like Discord, Zoom, Facebook, GoogleMeet, Skype, and more! This is the perfect time to learn how to use these tools and get connected, limiting the stress of November. We’re happy to help you get set up!
For more information:
NaNoWriMo.org, search for the Snohomish County region
Twitter, Instagram, Facebook: @NaNoSnoCo
Hey Writers! You don't have to travel to Edmonds WA this year for the writers' conference--though we will miss you. This year the WOTS (Write on the Sound) conference is on-line. Our EPIC Board members, Laura Moe and Mindy Halleck are teaching workshops.
Laura is teaching, Make It to the Finish Line. Nearly 90% of people say they’d love to write a book, but only 5% actually finish. In this session she will address the numerous barriers that prevent many prospective novelists and memoirists from realizing their lifelong dreams of writing a book. She will also discuss long-term benefits of finishing a project, present strategies for participants to complete their manuscripts, and provide insights about publishing options. Laura spent most of her working life as a librarian and English teacher in Ohio, and moved to Seattle where she writes full-time and is an active member of SCBWI and EPIC Group Writers. Moe is the author of Breakfast with Neruda (Simon & Schuster/Merit Press, 2016), Blue Valentines (2019), and The Language of The Son (2019). www.lauramoebooks.com
Mindy Halleck will be teaching a class titled,
MERMAIDS, MAIDENS or MYSTICS— 8 Female Archetypes Every Writer Should Know.
Sign up quick! Right now Mindy's creating a workbook that you will get in class that will serve as your guide to creating complex female characters.
Mindy is an award-winning author, motivational speaker and writing instructor. Halleck’s debut novel, Return to Sender, was released to 5-Star reviews, a Reader’s Choice award and selected as one of Kirkus Review’s Top Twenty Indie Novels of 2015. She has won short-story writing contests and is a frequent guest lecturer in University of Washington’s fiction writing classes, as well as other Puget Sound area colleges. In addition to being a writer, Halleck is a happily married, globe-trotting beachcomber and three-time cancer survivor who credits part of her healing journey(s) to the art of writing. www.mindyhalleck.com
JOIN US! Sign up now. https://www.writeonthesound.com/registration-information2/
For some writers, the only thing more intimidating than the blank page is a silent soundtrack to their wordsmithing. In a very unscientific finding, I would say that about half of my writer friends write to some sort of musical sounds—cosmic white noise, whales crooning, the buzz of nature, Tibetan singing bowls—whatever it takes for us to be enveloped in our own creative world.
It seems even best-selling professionals constantly seek ways to maintain the most direct route to their writing passion. We all want to reach in deep and get our best version of personal truth and beauty on the page. For many of us, music helps channel the necessary mood to write or revise well.
In a recent webinar, author/presenter James L. Rubart presented his idea on how struggling writers can find the true heart of their work: name your three favorite movies and find the theme that unites them. If they’re truly your favorite movies, they probably have a common theme that spoke to you. That’s the theme of your own life—that will be your best place to write from.
So, back to music. Movies have soundtracks, a good percentage of which are instrumental. If the movie’s theme speaks to you, chances are the sound track will, too. It will lift you to the same places the movie itself does. So, as part of finding the most direct route to your writing passions, why not download the soundtracks of your favorite movies to write by?
I’ve got a very long way to go before being an accomplished writer myself, but this technique works for me when the sounds of nature through my window aren’t quite enough to help me reach in deep. Happy writing!
After nearly twenty-two years as a professional firefighter, Laura Kemp has turned to writing despite her discovery that it’s more daunting to craft good fiction than it is to run into burning buildings.
How many times do we say to ourselves, and each other, “That would make a great story!” The best lesson I’ve learned about writing is observation. And it wasn’t until I started and finally finished my first novel last year that I realized that the key is opening up to every sense and what those senses are experiencing. Right there. Flat out a treasure trove of story telling fodder. Many (many) years ago I decided I wanted to write a novel. Bought books on the craft, became overwhelmed, put books away. Finally four years ago I said, “I’m doing it!” I started by going to my first writing conference and surrounding myself with amazing writers and teachers, and now friends. With the inspiration from that first conference and the small stash of books on writing, I began. Just started writing with no outline or plan. Put on some good tunes and went at it. Joined a critique group, kept going to conferences, and finally turned my manuscript over to an editor. I’m at the point now of publication. Which way to go - self publishing or try for traditional? What I’m saying is that it’s a wonderful journey. And if you love what you’re doing then do it, and do it your way. What’s comfortable for you. I’ve attended and will continue to acquire writing skills from workshops, conferences, writer friends, life itself – and making sure my muse is paying attention.
Side note: I’ve decided to try an outline for my next book. I can now see the value in that if I want to complete my series in record time.
Diane is an artist, former art gallery owner, world traveler, and soon to be published author. Her poetry and short stories have been published in four consecutive issues of the annual literary review, Inside Passages, in southeast Alaska. Diane joined the EPIC Writers board last year.
It was my own struggle with the pain from my childhood—followed by my ultimate decision to write my story—that made me understand the life-changing power of personal narrative.
I’d tried to write Hippie Boy for more than a decade. But the emotions bottled inside me were so painful that I cried every time I opened my computer to write and decided it was easier just to keep the hurt safely tucked away. Then, in late January 2004, I was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, an incurable degenerative eye disease that is slowly stealing my eyesight. In my quest to save my vision, I sought treatment from a doctor in San Francisco who focuses on whole body health. He kicked off my appointment by asking me to tell him about my childhood. Within minutes, I was sobbing. That’s when the doctor said two life-changing things to me.
He said, “Do you realize that you are carrying a huge negative energy charge inside of you over something that has happened more than twenty years ago and you’re still giving your former stepdad and those circumstances your power?”
The idea that I was still letting my ex-stepfather take my power and voice all these years later was troubling. But that was nothing compared to the doctor’s next words. He said, “If you don’t think that carrying this inside of you is impacting your physical health, you’re crazy.”
The doctor then told me about a groundbreaking study that had been done called ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences), which documents a direct correlation between emotional trauma in childhood and disease in adults. He also talked about epigenetics — environmental factors such as emotional trauma and stress which turn on genes that trigger disease.
When it hit me that holding onto the anguish from all those years ago could actually be causing me to go blind, it was a huge wake up call. It was hard, but I finally sat down and wrote my story and by the time I was done, I had found my voice and power around it and was no longer a victim of my past.
Over the last eight years, I’ve helped more than 2,000 students of every age find healing and empowerment by writing the deeply personal stories they need to tell.
This is what I cover in my Write Your Memoir workshop — which includes everything from story structure to the narrative writing techniques necessary to bring stories to life. And it’s why I care so much about personal story-telling. www.IngridRicks.com
To REGISTER for Ingrid's June 2020 Workshop, click here
It is huge step for a writer to put themselves out there. It builds self-confidence and is an opportunity to engage with other writers. By entering contests, it is an education in self-discipline, teaches us how work within the constraints of a deadline, contests rules and applications. If we win a writing contest it can help get our name out and potentially assist in getting our work published. It can boost our author platform with speaking opportunities, social media and cash prizes.
There are thousands of writing contests that vary in cost. Other contests are offered free, such as through public libraries. As with anything that requires you to spend money, it would be prudent to research the organization sponsoring the contest to rule out the possibility of a scam. There are a number of writing conferences that sponsor contests. In Edmonds the Write on the Sound writers’ conference (WOTS) is presented the first full weekend in October. It is an affordable conference that focuses on the craft of writing. They sponsor a writing contest annually with a separate theme.
Each year EPIC is proud to sponsor its Annual Writing Contest for Adults and Student Authors (grades 8 through 12) in Prose and Poetry categories. First place awards receive $100 in Adult/Student and Poetry categories and $50 in Second Place Awards.
The right writing contest can inform you how you measure up against other’s in the competition and what you need to learn. But taking full advantage of writing contest opportunities is work, so be prepared. Don’t be afraid to get out there and submit to the right contests!
Vanessa Arpin lives in Edmonds Washington. She is currently working on a middle grade novel that received recognition at the Mendocino Writer’s Conference in 2017. In 2019 she received honorable mention at Write on the Sound for her non-fiction essay, The Perfect Lemon. She is active in a local writers group and is on the board of EPIC. When she isn’t writing she is using her storytelling skills with her six young granddaughters.
Most journeys begin with the first step, possibly a step into the unknown or a leisurely stroll down familiar streets. A poet’s journey, on the other hand, begins with the first observation. Poets tend to walk in lockstep with the old adage, “look before you leap,” and if you should find yourself tumbling through space, be sure to capture your observations of those experiences using concise, powerful language that invokes descriptive images.
For the past four years, a group of poets have been meeting at the Edmonds Library on the second Tuesday of the month to create, critique, improve, and share their poetic observations. This monthly gathering is free and is sponsored by the cooperative efforts of EPIC Group Writers and Sno-Isle Libraries. All are welcome.
The poetry group is comprised of curious individuals who share diverse thoughts highlighted by different life experiences. The outcome of our gatherings consistently produce thought-provoking poems that sometimes elicit tears, laughter, or on rare occasions, a few good-natured, but heated, disagreements.
As poets we see, smell, touch, and feel our way through life. Somethings that we encounter are experienced at the surface, some are ethereal, and some hide in the deep, dark crevices of our underpinnings.
We observe, digest and express. A life ignored is a life lost. A life observed is a life lived. For us, poetry is a journey best spent in the company of fellow travelers.
Gerald Bigelow was published in the Arizona Centennial Anthology and in Between the Lines. He is a board member for EPIC Group Writers and chairs a monthly poetry group, and edited and contributed to Soundings from the Salish Sea (A Pacific Northwest Poetry Anthology).
In 2019, Bigelow was selected to read his poetry with the Washington State Poet Laureate. He helped establish a bi-monthly Poet’s Corner featurette in My Edmonds News to show case the work of local poets. Bigelow has a new book of poetry on Amazon
Titled, Memories Looking Through a Screen Door.
We have such a variety of writers in our organization that we thought it would be fun, exciting and enlightening to have multiple blog post authors.
We will be sharing all sorts of writing-related topics!