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.
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.
THERE’S STILL SOMETHING MISSING.
Have you guessed it?
Showing a deep desire is best done through layers of action and other desires stemming from it.
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.
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
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.
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.
So, To Recap
The most resonant desire is:
- A need, not a want
- Inner (abstract & emotional)
- A ROOT desire
- A theme
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