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.

9 comments:

dreamerwrites said...

Nice post, Janet! Thanks for making me think about this again :)

Janet Fox said...

Thanks! I struggle with this every time...

Rosanne said...

Great post, Janet and a good reminder. I often think about what unobtainable thing my character can want with his whole heart and how can he reconcile never achieving it.

Janet Fox said...

Hey, Rosanne - exactly. It really needs to drive the story. The trick (for me) is finding the real desire - it sometimes hides!

abc said...

nice....................................................................................................

Archie Bee said...

Great post, Janet. Im always tempted to give the most direct route to my MC to solve her problem. This is a good reminder :)

Janet Fox said...

Oh, yes! that old "let me help you, honey!" Must be the mom/dad in us all.

Now if I can only get this to work in my current project!

writerlou said...

Hey, Janet, I'm coming late to the discussion, but I love what you say about the (natural and nurturing) instinct to protect our protagonists. It's good to remember that, as in life, so in lit, what doesn't kill you, grows you :-)

Janet Fox said...

Hey writerlou! I'm so glad you found the site! Yes, I keep holding back on the bad stuff with her. She likes to sit back and watch. My next revise is to get her moving, whether she likes it or not!

Thanks for your thoughts.