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.
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