I recently took a class from novelist Amy Hassinger at the Midwest Writing Center‘s David R. Collins Writing Conference, intriguingly titled “Revving the Engine of Desire.” Amy taught us that the key element of a compelling story—the most powerful tool we have for drawing a reader in, and the linchpin that holds our entire work together—is the main character’s desire. What the character wants drives the story and becomes their motivation, their reason for every choice they subsequently make. The character’s desire stokes the reader’s desire to know more, to follow along, to see the character achieve what they wish for. Or not.
After the class, a writing friend, published novelist, and colleague whom I greatly respect asked me what I thought of this premise that desire drives everything. I thought Amy had put her finger on the single most important element for a good story, and one that beginning fiction writers frequently struggle with. Desire is the sieve through which I pass all my scenes: What does the character want? What are the chances they will get it? What stands in their way?
Of course, it also matters that the reader cares about what the character wants. One early reader of my historical novel THE LIGHTED HEART couldn’t relate to Thomasine because she, the reader, is not very interested in math. Point taken.
My friend resisted the suggestion that desire is the real engine of fiction. “I don’t think my character wants anything,” he said. “I think that comes from me. I feel like I don’t desire anything.” For the record, he meant this in the enlightened, Buddhist sense of not being attached to material possessions or illusions. My friend is a wise and evolved soul; he doesn’t spend his days obsessing desperately over things like publishing his novels, as others among us (*ahem*) may do. His quality of life is the better for this.
But the stories he’s writing—would they benefit from a shot of ardent desire, as messy and problematic as that emotion is?
He didn’t agree with this idea, either. When we workshopped his novel opening in class, we quite clearly saw his protagonist’s motivation, the reason he is where he is when the story opens. But when we grilled him about the character’s desire, my friend didn’t think his character had one. The story he envisioned is laid out in his head, and he knows where his character will go and what he will do, but there’s no single, compelling thread he follows, no choice or series of choices pulling him forward. I saw this as a lack of plot that could be solved by giving the character a desire. Instead of just random wandering, where he might make interesting discoveries, what might draw him to a certain place? What does he want to find there? What is his quest?
My friend didn’t think of his novel as a quest narrative; he wanted to write a slice-of-life kind of story. Fair enough. Those have their place, and he observed, rightly, that the readers of his published novels have not complained to him that his characters lack desire. He didn’t think it was missing. He didn’t see desire as the single most powerful ingredient for an unputdownable book.
When I consider the stories I’ve written and the stories whirling in my head that I have yet to write, they all can be defined by desire. I don’t start a story until I know what the character’s problem is, and I don’t know what her problem is until I know what she wants.
In “A Lesson in Manners,” the narrator wants to know how to make things better for her sister during her surgery, an impossible task. In “Still Life With Dog,” Andrea wants to make reparations for the people and animals she’s injured. In “The Necessaries,” the title story of my forthcoming collection, Lucy on the surface wants a deeper relationship with her best friend, Ben, but as the story progresses, she realizes that what she really wants is to reconnect with and be support for her mother, who is facing surgery herself.
In THE LIGHTED HEART, Thomasine, a squire’s daughter living in Shropshire, England in 1832, wants two things: the health and happiness of her family, and also the recognition and pride and satisfaction of solving complex mathematical problems. These are competing desires, which theoretically are supposed to up the stakes of a story and make it more interesting.
What we desire is the essence of who we are. It is also, as several of the major religious traditions teach us, the essence of our suffering. And suffering, as we all know, is the heart of story. What we’re really talking about here is CONFLICT. It’s not enough that a character holds a desire, though the desire is the spark that brings the engine of the story to life, to use Amy’s metaphor. The plot hinges on the obstacles that get in the way. Conflict, internal and external, keeps us turning pages, compelled to discover if our character (and by extension, we ourselves) will triumph in the end.
Ten years ago, when I was interviewing for a position as assistant professor at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, ID, I needed to prepare a lesson for a creative writing class, part of the job description. I chose Grace Paley’s “Wants” first because it is the most perfect and delightful and haunting story that you can read and talk about in an hour’s time (though never plumb the depths of, no never!) and second because the point of my lesson was that all fiction boils down to a simple formula: wants + obstacle = story.
Perhaps it’s because I have a Ph.D. in lit that I like my formulae to be simple and precise.
WANTS + OBSTACLE = STORY
Of course, I did not invent this idea. William Coles talks about it in his essay on desire and motivation in literary fiction; Michelle Hoover advises that a character have both concrete and abstract desires in her essay at Writer Unboxed. Desire was the foundation of Bob Butler’s creative writing classes at Florida State University, though he referred to it as yearning. (Mundane literary characters want; Robert Olen Butler’s characters yearn.) If you don’t believe me, read his book From Where You Dream. In fact the concept of desire in fiction probably goes back to Aristotle’s Rhetoric, like everything else.
I was hired at LCSC, which proves that Grace Paley and Bob Butler and Aristotle and Amy Hassigner and everyone else is right. You can’t get around the fact that desire is the engine of a good story. It’s the spark, the fuel, the driving force. Desire in life is what draws us to things, and desire in story is what draws the reader into and through. Even in the shortest stories, if you look, you’ll find some shattered desire. My own short short “Sudden Gone” is studded with desire: the desire of a community to understand the senseless tragedy that took the life of a little girl, the motivations of a person who would do such a thing, the desire of the family to understand how they’re supposed to put their lives back together and go on after such a loss.
Great. Desire is key. Good to know. Now, how do we make a character’s desire come alive on the page in a way that readers will find compelling enough to turn to the next page, and the next?
Good question, class. Let me think about that. I’ll get back to you.