Sunday, November 15, 2009
Craft Issue #9: Desire
Desire. I can’t hear that word now without hearing the way Louise Hawes, author of BLACK PEARLS and THE VANISHING POINT said it during my first residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Drag the word out, now, breathy and low: d-e-s-i-r-e. There you go.
Louise was talking about protagonist’s desire – what motivates, energizes, and drives both the main character and the story. Lately I’ve been thinking about desire; specifically, how to express my character’s desire on the first page of a text. And how to express it throughout the work. This sounds like an obvious thing to aim for and achieve, but for me at least is not as easy as it sounds.
Donald Mass, in WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK, has an exercise in which he suggests that the writer find the main character’s two yearnings, desires, or goals that are “in direct opposition to each other.”
Why? Because humans are conflicted by nature. We want freedom, yet security (THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX.) We want love, yet we fall in love with someone dangerous (NEED.)
We want to live fully, but our lives are held in a trap – maybe we are dead (THE LOVELY BONES) or maybe we’re vampires (ETERNAL.)
I have a tendency to protect my protagonist. I place convenient characters and situations between her and her problems, I erect huge road signs and arrows – This Way Out! – when in fact I should be discovering ways to let her suffer the slings and arrows because not only will that intensify her desire but it will also bring her into internal conflict. Finding my protagonist’s desire and threading that desire line through the work really means finding both her true inner desire, and its opposite.
Because isn’t fiction all about conflict – about longing and dreams unfulfilled? We march through life trying to protect ourselves, so what we want in our fictional counterparts is daring. We want our protagonists to live as we cannot. To take risks, even to risk it all. It is the tug away from the brink, the wish for something safe, that keeps most of us from tipping into danger. Our fictional characters must make the leap from the cliff. As a writer, I want to thrust out my hand at the last second, but I have to learn to pull back because as a reader I want to experience catharsis.
So I’ve been on a desire hunt. I’m trying not only to find out what my characters want, even when that desire is not safe (in fact, I’d like it to be at least as impossible and unsafe as Katniss’s desire is in THE HUNGER GAMES), but also trying to make my protagonist take risks to fulfill that desire.