Last summer I attended a writing conference where Martine Leavitt, author of Keturah and Lord Death and other amazing YA novels, was in charge of the workshop I participated in. One of Martine’s biggest suggestions for all of us was to figure out what our characters want — what their concrete desire and their emotional desire are — and to make it clear from the very first page.
I’ve been trying, and I’m gradually getting there, but the past three Saturdays have finally convinced me that Martine was right: this is crucial. My story won’t work if those objects of desire aren’t in place.
Three Saturdays ago, I met with other writers for a critique and they told me the first 1/4 of my novel is too slow. Not an insurmountable problem, but the trouble with a problem like that is getting to the root of it.
Is it that I’ve started at the wrong time in the story? Have I used the wrong set of scenes to introduce the characters? Is it just too many scenes? I cut 4,000 words from the beginning right after the critique, but I didn’t feel like that solved it.
So two Saturdays ago, when my best writer friend came into town to visit from Texas, I had her talk it through with me. And the thing about Holly is that she can be brutal in her assessments but she’s almost always right. She said, “I don’t even know what your characters want.”
I’ve been stewing over it ever since. In fact, writing production sort of halted this week because I felt like such a failure as a writer. (Holly, if you’re reading this, I still love you!)
I also felt a bit of denial/rebellion, like, “Most real people don’t even know what they want. Why should a character have to know? Why should it matter? Isn’t a quest often external, like someone shows up at the door and says we need you to go find this magic sword? What do these silly objects of desire have to do with it?”
Okay, so enter yesterday, Saturday #3. We watched Sherlock Holmes for the first time, and I started to think about character desires again, still thinking, “I really doubt that what the characters want has much to do with it. This is an action movie, so it won’t matter.”
Um, yeah. I was wrong.
The first scene where they’re racing in to save the thrashing sacrificial victim I didn’t count, because it feels like a prologue, so I started my analysis with the first character-driven scene: where we see Watson talking to a patient and then going in to intervene with Holmes, who’s been firing a gun in the house.
Here’s what we learn about them right away. Watson wants to get married and leave, but he cares about Holmes. Holmes wants a challenging case — he’s miserable without one — but he also doesn’t want Watson to leave and he doesn’t want to work without Watson, though Watson’s ready to split ways.
We learn about Holmes’s other emotional object of desire — Irene Adler — a little bit later, but knowing the conflicting desires of Holmes and Watson is what gets the movie started. And then, of course, the villain’s desire to take over the world throws in the main conflict that moves the plot, and we know that Holmes will fight the villain because we already know that Holmes desperately wants a challenge.
Fine. So maybe character desires matter.
And I think it also matters that the two main characters have conflicting desires. The supreme example I always think of is in a romantic comedy where the emotional desires match (they’re attracted to each other and want each other) but the concrete desires conflict.
Think of You’ve Got Mail. I know that came out a while ago, but it’s the epitome of this in my head. She runs an independent bookstore. He runs a bookstore chain that is putting her out of business. They both want to be successful, but it’s not possible for both of them to get what they want.
I hated that she couldn’t keep her bookstore in that movie. I thought that was so unfair. But then, Holmes doesn’t get all of his desires, either (though I won’t tell you which ones in case you haven’t seen it yet).
I think it often happens that a character has to sacrifice one desire, either emotional or concrete, for the other. Sometimes a noble character who wants what’s best for the kingdom or some other greater good (concrete desire) will sacrifice his or her personal (emotional) desires. And while we hate for it to be that way, we also need it to be that way.
We need that kind of conflict and sacrifice to draw us into the story, to keep us on the edge of our seats wondering how it will work out, wondering if they’ll find some compromise that allows them to “have it all.”
So fine. Holly, you’re right, as usual. The thing that’s dragging down the first 1/4 of my novel isn’t the scenes themselves, it’s that we need to know what the characters want and how their desires conflict. We need to wonder how there can possibly be a happy ending — because a happy ending is entirely dependent on what the characters want.
At least now I know where to start with my next set of revisions.
What do you think? Have other great examples of how character desires drive a story?