The Hidden Power of Layering the RIGHT Desires in Your Story

Have you ever wept while reading?


I would bet dollars to donuts that you empathized with a desire.

Your innate sense of justice screamed for things to be set right, aligning with the character’s desire.

An impossible situation hit too close to home.

Or maybe pity welled up at the character’s desire for a need to be met.

Even tears of shame have a root in desire, the desire to be better, to be more deserving, or to be different than we are.

Fear makes us cringe and jump. Anger makes us grit our teeth, and if there are tears involved, they most certainly aren’t wept.

A desire can trigger both tears of despair and tears of joy. Usually in that order. Tweet it

Empathy, resonance, connection… Desire creates them.

But it can be derailed if you don’t choose well and handle it with care.

Don’t worry, I’ve got you.

 Finding a Desire that Resonates

There are a couple factors that play into resonance. You don’t need to meet every one of them, although when more are met it’s stronger. Here we go:

It’s a need. This one is huge. Desires are made of needs and wants. The closer to “need” your character’s desire falls, the more moving it will be for the reader. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can help.

It’s an “Inner Desire.” A more direct way of putting it would be to say it’s emotional and abstract rather than physical or goal-oriented.

 It fuels a goal, OR leaves the character feeling powerless. One of the two. (The goal can stem from either a desire or a fear, so that’ll be another post.)

Dig for an existing desire. Why does your character want what he wants? Keep asking until you’ve hit bedrock. Then look for other desires that might stem from it. With that reinforcement, the root desire can become a theme, powering your story from behind the scenes.

Exclusive Bonus: Download The Brainstorm Spark: Desirable Desires to get your brain-slush pumping out ideas.

Don’t be afraid to have them want something that’s in opposition to what they need.

What people need and what they want may be very different. Elbert Hubbard

Just do what needs to be done for your story.

The main point: tug on your character’s deep-seated NEED.

…Even if it means it’s uncomfortable and hard to write.

…Even if it feels like you’re going to scare some readers away.

…Even if it bares your soul.

The Mistake that Can Flatline Your Story

Let’s tell a story.

Our character: Jeanie, a high school student.

“I just want to be loved!” she shouted when the principal asked why she had vandalized the bathroom.

That’s not believable, is it? Too on-the-nose. Let’s keep going.

“Eh, she just wants attention. Her dad’s a real piece of work,” the principal said after the pair had left. His secretary just nodded.

Okay, that’s more believable dialogue-wise, but it’s only viewing the desire from the outside and it might be wrong. Let’s try back in the bathroom.

She scraped her name into the wall, carefully mimicking the scrawl various boys had left. Surely seeing her name would make one of them jealous, right?

You start to see her motivation playing out in her thoughts, but her desperation is only hinted at (she’s in the boys’ bathroom, for Cap’n Mal’s sake) and you can’t quite feel why she wants one of them – any of them! – to be jealous.


Have you guessed it?


Showing a deep desire is best done through layers of action and other desires stemming from it.

Subtle. Overarching.

If I showed her at home, alternately ignored and verbally abused,

Trying to make friends at her new school,

Crying when a lady back home calls to say she misses her like a daughter,

Watching the couples in school seem so happy,

And sobbing into her pillow…

You’d get the picture, wouldn’t you? You’d feel her desperation when she’s in that boys’ bathroom.

Even with the seriously sub-par writing I threw into it.

Layers of desire make it a sincere “Oh, honey” moment.

It resonates.

How to NOT Be Too Obvious or Lose the Resonance

The best desires don’t need to be stated. They don’t even need to be elaborately played out for the reader to “get it.”

Show the situation. The lack. THE NEED.

Hey look, they get it.

Now you distract them from it.

Bring in another desire that flows from that root desire. Layer them on. Let the immediate emotional situations and goals blind the reader’s conscious mind to the emotional root.

Then when the time comes, you blindside them with a reminder.

The timing can be different in different stories, but generally the midpoint, the dark-night-of-the-soul right before the second plot point, and the climax are good times to pull this little stunt.

The reminder can be subtle or overt, triggering tears of joy or tears of sadness.

Up to you.

A character centered around one root desire is more moving, like Harry’s longing for family, Katniss’s drive to protect her sister, and Captain Mal’s determination to exemplify everything the Alliance isn’t.

Their root desires are obscured through more immediate desires and situations and fears.

But those things often reveal the root desire when examined more closely.

Use the Desire to Create Gut-wrenching Conflict

A character's desire is an opening for obstacles.The intersection of desire, goal, and conflict is a muddy area.

Desire and goal are often used interchangeably, and I’m specifically focusing on the desire which – along with the fear – feeds into the goal.

Some distinction, isn’t it? Anyway…

A character’s desire is an opening for obstacles. Tweet it

Obstacles create conflict. Add in external stakes and you have a recipe for personal growth should your character choose to accept it.

…Or should the plot force them to it. You know, whatever.

Wield the related desires and fears, possibly against each other, to create inner conflict. Raise the stakes and tie in the external conflict. Janice Hardy has a good explanation.

Once you have the story progressing, you can choose to have the desire fulfilled, or denied, or sacrificed for the greater good.

Oooh, that last one’s juicy.

But sad.

So, To Recap

The most resonant desire is:

  • A need, not a want
  • Inner (abstract & emotional)
  • A ROOT desire
  • A theme

Now Go.

Create your story. Burn your characters in the heat of their desires. Heal them (or don’t).

But don’t let your story limp on without resonance.

Dig into why your character acts or reacts the way he does. Pull out the meaning behind it all.

Then layer on more.

Get your creative on.

And if you’re ready for a deeper relationship with writing – you writing geek, you – grab the tool I use to find my characters’ desires, The Brainstorm Spark: Desirable Desires.

…It’s a list engineered to open up the possibilities while keeping you from becoming overwhelmed.

So download it and get your ideas flowing.

Desire is one of The Four Cornerstones of Strong Characters

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About MJ Bush

Developmental Editor.
Founder of Writingeekery with 10,000 monthly readers.
I help writers like you master the craft.


  1. MJ,

    Great post. You’ve distilled exactly what I’m working on in my WIP, thanks.

    Sharing your link with my local RWA chapter!

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    • Thanks, Cathryn. I’m glad it struck a chord with you, and I really appreciate you passing it on. :)

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  2. Hi MJ!
    Cathryn sent me :)

    I loved the following
    … Even if it means it’s uncomfortable and hard to write.

    …Even if it feels like you’re going to scare some readers away.

    …Even if it bares your soul.

    I also signed up for your newsletter…looking forward to reading more of your posts!


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  3. Desire is an important part of character development, yes?

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  4. Do you have any tips for creating a villain? I want one you can sort of relate to, but I’m having a hard time keeping him from sounding like a whiny child looking for an excuse to kill people.

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    • That’s a big subject, Julie. I’m going to eventually have a post on it, but the biggest thing you can do is give them every layer you would give to your protagonist. Layer on the motives, and show some logic and emotion behind the decisions. You can also arc him toward becoming an antagonist, showing the development (or distortion) of the logic.

      You can also make the emotions seem more real by showing the physical reactions in detail.

      If regret is part of the motive, you might want to check out my guest post on Writers Helping Writers. 5 Surprising Ways Regret Can Deepen Your Hero’s Arc (It’ll work for an antagonist as well.)

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  5. It was a very important point. It never occurred to me before, but you’ve drawn a distinct line between the mediocre prose and deeply touching read – it’s desires of the characters. The characters deprived of desires are boring and inhuman and hard to believe. I smiled at your example concerning a girl “who wanted Dad’s attention”. Yes, writing like a ‘psychoanalyst’ is another extreme that should be avoided.

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    • That’s a good way to put it, David. Don’t write like a psychoanalyst unless your character is one. 😉

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  6. I’ve wept during most of the books that have become my favorites (sometimes on every re-reading). Thank you for an excellent article on writing characters with the potential to resonate so deeply with readers.

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  7. I actually had a revelation while reading about my WIP and what my main character really wants and how, at least until now, I’ve missed showing that.
    Thank you for helping me raise the stakes in my story!

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  8. Okay- I’m a little fuzzy on these.
    Could the characters desire directly contradict a fear? Could it go against their very perception of themselves? Do they have to be aware of the desire? My WIP has a character that isn’t very emotionally mature (yet 😉 so I can see this being the case for her… Do you think that would be realistic?

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    • Very much so. When a desire directly contradicts a fear, ask why. There’s almost always a deeper reason behind the fear causing the conflict. Yes, it can go against the self-perception. No, they don’t have to be aware of the desire. Quite realistic. However, I would always advise going deeper. Find more layers affecting her and reinforcing this conflict.

      These go into all of it in more detail: and

      Good luck and thanks for commenting. :)

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  9. Thank you so much for this, and all your other posts too. I love writing, and I always struggle with what my character wants, because if I chose something even remotely close to something I want, all the characters turn into me. The MC of my current book is definitely different from me, and is also definately a better person (well, it’s true!) than me, and it’s easier for me to write about her because she acts/thinks/speaks differently from me.
    So thank you for writing this article. It’s really helped me dig into the desires of my characters. 😀

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  10. Susanne Jolley says:

    Thank you….my own personal desire scares me to even think but to put it in print, unthinkable until I just read your post….just the thought of another human reading it….makes that monster real and I’m afraid that it will hear it’s name and spread like a virus….

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  11. I have been looking for help with my writing and just happened to come across your page it has already been very helpful, thank you so much for this awesome site. I have never written a book and yet this idea is so very strong to me that I have worked at it for the last three years off an on as I could, and yet some of what I have read just today has answered so many questions that I didn’t know how to ask. Give me a car and I can take it apart and put back together better than it was, just not so good with writing. Thank you for your time.

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  12. Katie Slann says:

    I’m trying to write a character whos desire to be in control is a big part of her personality. I would also like it to double as a flaw. The problem is, I myself am a very easygoing person. I have never experienced this the same way I want her to have. I don’t quite know how to properly write this desire on my own. Any suggestions?

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