The Tyranny of Motive

Desperation by Josh Sommers

The legendary coach Vince Lombardi used to greet his players at training camp by saying: “Within every man there is a burning flame of desperation. That is why you are here.”

I would include women in that, of course, and wouldn’t restrict the application to football. Or sports. Or Wisconsin.

This flame of desperation arises from some nameless place inside us, creating a profound sense of yearning that we often cannot define, but it is as intrinsic to our lives as more purely physical urges beyond our conscious control such as hunger, thirst, the sex drive, the need to breathe.

We long for something else, something better, something deeper and purer and truer, even if we have no clear idea what that might be, or how to go about naming it, let alone finding it.

And as writers we transmit that yearning to our characters.

This all came back to me as I was contemplating Donald Maass’s most recent post here (“Infused”), on the importance of recognizing your character’s core need, and my own most recent piece on pinpointing your character’s desire.

We long for something else, something better, something deeper and purer and truer

It seemed to me the beginning of a debate had started, with me saying that overcomplicating the matter was more often the result of confusion on the writer’s part than the character’s. But Donald made a very interesting comment that’s stayed with me. Troubled me. Nagged me.

The bastard (he muttered).

Here’s my attempt at a reply.

Donald mentioned an exercise he uses where students identify the character’s desire in a scene they are writing. They then step back and think a bit more deeply and identify another, deeper desire. Then they do so again. By the end the students almost always feel as though they’ve gotten to the essence of the scene in a way they previously hadn’t.

The more I thought about it, though, the more convinced I became that Donald and I weren’t disagreeing. We were discussing different things at different levels, story arc versus scene, for example, and the sometimes interchangeable use of the words “want” and “desire” and “need” created further confusion. That was my take, anyway, and I thought I’d try to clear that up here, or at least move the discussion forward a little.

Recordando a Moby Dick Photo by Anna Librillana

In this September’s edition of Writer’s Digest, I have an article titled “Finding Your Story’s Engine.” (Ironically, Donald’s article, “Building Micro-Tension Into Every Scene,” immediately follows mine, making it a must-have issue—nudge-nudge, wink-wink.)

In my article I make the argument that desire, not conflict, provides the engine for story. Wile E. Coyote cannot stop wanting to catch the Roadrunner, no matter how many anvils fall from the sky.

Or, as I put it in The Art of Character:

  • The inescapable urgency of what a character wants, the vibrant way her craving and need defines her, creates what I call the Tyranny of Motive. Like all tyrannies, it demands obedience—and inspires rebellion.

But what realistically is there to rebel against?

Here’s what: The reduction of what a character yearns for to a pithy bon mot.

I know this sounds like a contradiction, given my previous insistence on keeping it simple. But I wasn’t criticizing complexity so much as the use of complexity as an evasion, a way to keep from asking direct questions and demanding answers.

That doesn’t mean I think the answers can be reduced to bumper-sticker slogans.

The inescapable urgency of what a character wants, the vibrant way her craving and need defines her, creates what I call the Tyranny of Motive.

In truth, the core of our psyche is framed by competing drives, something virtually every moral system devised by man has recognized throughout history.

  • Plato likened the perfect soul to a winged creature, hoping to soar upward toward Truth. But the imperfect soul loses its wings and descends to earth, where evil, foulness and mere opinion reign. A total devotion to the purity of Truth can restore the fallen soul’s wings.
  • Augustine argued that Man, eternally contaminated by the sin of Adam, nonetheless retains a desire to return to the beatific vision he knew in the Garden, a return only possible by gaining God’s grace.
  • Buddhism argues that the human soul experiences a state of lack because it tries to anchor consciousness in the material world, pursuing a sense of solidity through wealth and power and physical pleasure, but this is like trying to slake a thirst with salt water. Instead we must strive for pure consciousness in a state of No Self.
  • Freud believed people are driven by two equal, conflicting instincts: the avoidance of pain and the desire for health and wholeness. Only by lancing old wounds and dealing with that pain can we transcend our past, overcome our neuroses.

Each of these formulations points to a deep yearning for some kind of truth or love or health within us, and a battle in our hearts with the less honest, brave, or wholesome inclinations we settle for. You can’t understand your character’s yearning—or your own—without understanding that battle.

But how do we unbundle that mad, conflicting tangle of impulses? How do we create a story from it?

Sophocles described his heroes with the term deinos, which translates loosely as “wondrous and strange.” A character who lives up to that description possesses a kind of incandescence, reminding us of the unpredictable capacity for loving sacrifice, heroism, fierce persistence—as well as craven selfishness, cowardice, vacillation—that each of us carries within his heart.

But how do we unbundle that mad, conflicting tangle of impulses? How do we create a story from it?

For what it’s worth, here’s the methodology I’ve come up with.

The four key areas I always explore when first building my characters are:

  • Lack
  • Yearning
  • Weakness/Wound/Flaw/Limitation
  • Desire

The machinery works like this:

  • The character begins the story in a state of lack he may or may not recognize: a state of unfulfilled promise, malaise, longing, existential angst, even dread.
  • The lack is created by an unfulfilled yearning that may be equally vague or undefined, at least at the story’s start.
  • The reason that the yearning is unfulfilled is because the character possesses a trait or traits that make the yearning feel foolish, impossible, terrifying, futile—out of the question:

o   a weakness (laziness, cowardice, lack of intelligence, despair);

o   a wound (some loss or injury that has crippled his ability to love, heal, or act decisively);

o   a limitation (youth, illness, class, race); or

o   a flaw (dishonesty, envy, vanity, rage).

This weakness, wound, limitation or flaw has singly or in concert with others inhibited his ability to see his soul, his dreams, his destiny clearly, or live the life he wants.

  • Then something happens—the loved one appears, a body is found, the expedition is launched, the car breaks down in the middle of nowhere—and that triggers the desire to respond or to act.

[Excuse the somewhat arbitrary distinction between desire on the one hand and need or yearning on the other. It’s just a device. Like John Truby, I use “desire” to refer to the outer goal or ambition the character pursues in the story, whereas “need” or “yearning” refers to the deeper longing that explains why and how badly he wants it.]

It is the desire to act that is often easiest and simplest to identify and define—to win the loved one, catch the killer, complete the expedition, walk to the next town and find help. It’s this desire that I maintain is simple to identify, or should be.

Ahab chases the whale, Gatsby pursues Daisy. The simplicity of the outer goal works precisely because it allows the story to move beyond the dark slippery quagmire of inner yearning. It gives the character something to do.

Photo by Ma_Co2013

As the character acts, he encounters conflict. The contest to continue pursuing the desire despite the mounting conflict —and the risk of failure — forces the character to ask: Why continue? Why not surrender, compromise, turn back?

The answer lies in the yearning. Through struggling to gratify the desire, through facing the prospect of failure and even ruin, the character becomes aware of the deeper need, the core longing, the yearning he has imperfectly grasped before. Or he realizes at last the inescapable intensity of it.

This awakens him to the stakes. A character’s yearning speaks to what he believes his life is truly about: the way of life he wants to live, the kind of person he wants to be. If he turns his back on that, he’s basically giving up on his life. He must accept the truth of his yearning, or die.

I always ask how, at the end of the story, my characters have become at least a little braver, more honest, and more loving—or not.

This is how to create stakes that are truly profound. Recognize that whatever outer goal or ambition the character pursues in the story somehow speaks to this deeper, implacable, life-defining need or yearning.

But how do you put your finger on that “burning flame of desperation”? Can it be summed up in a single phrase? To come home. To be free. To find true love. To be the champion.

It’s tempting here to be simple, too. I often see students cringing before the old verities, believing them to be clichéd or hokey. But they speak to our fundamental natures for a reason. We long for beauty and truth and love. Can’t we just leave it there?

I actually believe the need or yearning is a more organic, complex thing than that. And it can’t be known until you do a lot of the backstory exploration that identifies moments in the character’s past that have shaped him—moments of extreme terror, courage, shame, pride, guilt, forgiveness, hate, love. The person he wants to be, the life he hopes to live—both are shaped indelibly by the life he’s known so far.

Recognize that whatever outer goal or ambition the character pursues in the story somehow speaks to this deeper, implacable, life-defining need or yearning.

Pin a slogan on the yearning, you’re probably doing an injustice to the complexity and depth your character deserves. And the result will be a character who not only acts simplistically, but predictably.

Readers shouldn’t be vexed by a character’s behavior, but they should never feel entirely comfortable either, or they’ll be several steps ahead of the story at every turn. This may seem counterintuitive to those who’ve been browbeaten in English classes to identify the single root cause of a character’s actions, but this is a fool’s errand.

One sees this in the usual misunderstanding of “tragic flaw.” If actors portrayed Medea solely by focusing on her jealousy, Coriolanus his pride, Hamlet his indecision, Macbeth his ambition, the results would make the characters as wooden as Pinocchio. Such an approach fundamentally misconceives the very nature of these roles.

Pinocchio in Vienna by tobias142

Robert McKee makes this point in his writing guide, Story:

Generally, the more the writer nails motivation to specific causes, the more he diminishes the character in the audience’s mind.

This is a sneaky, subtle, maddening truth. Whatever the character does, the reader needs to feel her actions arise from the whole of her personality, her contradictions and secrets and wounds, her attachment to friends and family and her fear of her enemies, her schooling and sense of home, her loves and hatreds, her shame and pride and guilt and sense of joy. As important as a character’s yearning is, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor can it be teased out and separated from everything else about her.0

This is why identifying the yearning by a word or a phrase frequently feels inadequate. I often urge my students to use instead an image, a work of art or a piece of music to capture the yearning—especially a work of art or piece of music with vastly contrasting elements.

Generally, the more the writer nails motivation to specific causes, the more he diminishes the character in the audience’s mind. –Robert McKee

Dante confessed that what saved him during his darkest hours of despair was the rediscovery of his love for Beatrice, long dead. He realized that their love was the greatest source of joy and truth in his life, and if he refused to do anything that would shame or degrade himself before her eyes, he could call that a good life. Beatrice became not just a conscience figure but the sky toward which his soul ascended. She embodied his yearning.

Photo by Martin Beek

In my upcoming novel, Save By An Evil Chance, I used Ralph Vaughn Williams’s “The Lark Ascending” to symbolize a seventeen-year-old runaway’s desire for something more profound, courageous and beautiful in her life. The piece itself is never named in the text. It was my internal cue. And just as Donald wisely suggests identifying the need in every scene you write, I returned to that music in every scene involving that character, to remind me of the nameless state of grace she truly, deeply yearned for.

This kind of symbolic, imagistic conceptualization of the yearning allows for a deeper, more intuitive, less logical or reductionist understanding of the character. It takes you beneath the clamor of words to the character’s essence.

But it can also seem too vast or amorphous to serve simple story needs. How to solve that problem?

First, understand that the character never truly gratifies this deeper yearning. Life isn’t like that. The yearning is elusive, unquenchable. But your character will get nearer to fulfilling it in the course of the story, and you need to define what that interim destination within the story will be. It will define how, due to the events of the story, she’s become at least a little more aware and capable of being the person she secretly wants to be, living the life she knows she should live.

I always ask how, at the end of the story, my characters have become at least a little braver, more honest, and more loving—or not. And if not, why? The courage may be wobbly, the honesty bitter, the love rocky, but those virtues are the milestones I mark on the character’s journey.

Your character’s yearning for the sake of the story may indeed be as simply stated as the need to get home (in all the richness the word “home” conveys); to be free (in the distinct way your character has come to understand freedom through the events of the story); or to find true love (with the deeper, humbler sense of worth such love provides). But don’t forget that this endpoint is temporary on a lifelong journey toward the ineffable thing beckoning the characters toward their better selves, a nobler way of life.

Or, to use a mythic metaphor, assume that when Sisyphus gets to the top of the hill with his rock, it doesn’t roll back down again. Instead he just realizes there’s another hill waiting. In your story, your character is getting his rock to the top of the nearest hill.

Simply tying actions to facile, one-note motives and leaving it at that is too simplistic to feel satisfying. It smacks of an overly rigid and unsophisticated view of human nature. The more the reader sees the writer’s hand in a character’s behavior, the more that character will resemble a plot puppet, not a real person. And the more the character’s behavior can be reduced to easily explainable causes, the more the reader will feel shackled to the Tyranny of Motive, rather than introduced to something more elusive and intriguing, something wondrous and strange.

Can you distinguish your protagonist’s outer desire from the inner yearning in your work in progress?

What is the narrower aspect of the yearning — call it the need — that your character strives for in your story? How does it speak to the larger, more encompassing yearning? 

What is your character’s weakness, wound, limitation and/or flaw — the thing(s) keeping her from fulfilling her yearning?

Have you ever used an image, work of art, or piece of music to help you better understand a character’s inner life?

Take a stab at identifying Ahab’s or Gatsby’s yearning.



About David Corbett

David Corbett is the author of five novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running? and The Mercy of the Night. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, Writer’s Digest, and numerous other venues. He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, Delve Writers, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, and in January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character


    • says


      First, thanks. Trust me, it comes from trying to digest that shelf of books and apply them in my own stories.

      Second: Odd how you commented earlier than Vaughn but I didn’t see your post until now.

  1. says

    David, The first time I read your compelling essay I felt awash. I had a sort of helpless feeling. There is so much skill and nuance required to accomplish what I aspire to. I believe you are right about the necessity of a less reductionist view of yearning. But I felt overwhelmed.

    Often, when I find myself singing the Helplessness Blues, I find solace in leaving the deeper musings on intricacy to “those who move only in dimly lit halls,” and simply getting to work (if only I had an orchard). I’ve since walked the dog and had a second cup of coffee. I’ve come back, read again, and jotted some notes regarding your breakdown (lack, yearning, weakness/wound/etc., and desire). I’ve come to see the discarding of the labeling and simplification of this deeper yearning as freeing. Back to the orchard to work till I’m sore.

    Thanks for taking this ongoing conversation to another level. The discourse between you and Don is one of those things that makes WU a very special place.

    • says

      HI, Vaughn:

      You have no idea how grateful I was to read your post.

      I live on the west coast, and rousted myself from bed at 6 AM to make sure I responded to comments left by east-coasters and others who received the post early.

      I encountered crickets. I thought I’d emptied the room. I felt I’d finally managed to do something WU has never done: drive readers away.

      I too feel overwhelmed by this issue of the ineffable yearning at the core of our characters’ lives (and our own), and this really is the simplest methodology I’ve managed to come up with so far. I’m sure, as I write and teach more, I’ll simplify it even more. God, I hope so.

      I’m glad you found it useful. And thanks a million for chiming in. Beats the chirping of crickets, believe you me.

      • says

        Hang in there! I’m sure I’m not the speediest sponge, but I think there’s just so much to absorb here. It’ll take time, but they will come. Powerful stuff! One of those I’ll read several times (after repeated wringing ;-). Thanks again!

        • says

          I agree with Vaughn. This isn’t a post you skim through to get the gist. It’s one you have to work through or save for a later moment when you have time. It’s a super useful post.

  2. says

    Wow really great stuff here. Thanks. A few months ago I wrote a prequel novella for my series, before writing the sequel, and exploring my MC’s motivations and core needs really helped with the plotting and scenes of the next two books. I delved into the childhood years in diary format and suddenly actions were really starting to make sense–core desires that I didn’t go into on the sequel, but were the basis for much of her motivations that will be fleshed out even more in the third.
    I think we do often get sidetracked with conflict instead of the character motivation. Understanding that every character must have these motivations and desires is such a big part of crafting a story.
    Off to share this post with my writerly circles …

    • says

      Hi, PK:

      I think a character diary is a brilliant device. It’s so helpful not just in exploring back story but in establishing the character’s unique voice.

      And thanks for sharing the piece. Muchas thank-yous.

  3. Anjali Amit says

    You take us deeper into the human psyche with “Desire, not conflict, provides the engine for story”, for isn’t conflict itself born out of thwarted desire?

    So, like Donald Maass’ exercise that you reference, we go deeper, and deeper yet in our exploration of our characters. We may arrive at a wasteland: a character so defeated and beaten down by life that he feels he has no desires left, or worse, no right to desire. But we have at least plumbed the depths of his being, held a mirror to his truest self.

    The Brihadyaranyka Upanishad says “You are what your deep, driving desire is. As your desire is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed. As your deed is, so is your destiny.”

    Desire (yearning) creates life.”He must accept the truth of his yearning, or die,” you say. Thank you for that profound insight.

  4. says

    Thank you for this, David. It arrived at exactly the right moment. I have spent the morning so far working through your post really carefully, using it to try and worm my way into a story/character that has been refusing to show itself! I found new material for my character which of course is great. But just as important was that I discovered I knew a lot of what I needed. Your post helped by giving me a way to organize it, allowing me to catch glimpses of the overall movement of my character’s inner journey through the story. I don’t seem to be able to work with neon-lit markers so glimpses are perfect for me! Thanks again.

    • says

      Hi, Susi:

      I think a glimpse is often the hint that we as writers need to awaken our curiosity and nudge us closer to the thing we’re trying to get on the page. Neon markers are like billboards, obscuring the view.

  5. says

    David: The reason you haven’t received more comments has to be because we’re all running to our WIPs and applying your ideas to our scenes, trying to identify the Lack, the Yearning, the Weakness/Wound/Flaw/Limitation, and the Desire. I know I looked at my “finished” piece and sighed when I realized it wasn’t finished. This is the hardest part of writing for me — the going deeper into the characters’ needs and deciding whether they and the resulting actions are credible. Your piece has shown me the before-hidden path to getting there.

    Sophia Ryan / She Likes It Irish

  6. says

    Hi, Anjali:

    “…for isn’t conflict born out of thwarted desire?” Bingo (as Aristotle used to say).

    Your statement of a character with a wasteland where his yearning should be stunned me. I found myself immediately wanting to protest: “No, at the deepest level there still will be a trickled of yearning.” And then I thought of holocaust victims, victims of torture or child abuse whom the philosopher Simone Weill described as suffering from Affliction, a state beyond pain and suffering where hope and love have been extinguished. And so I sat with that quietly for a moment, and reflected on the terible reality of that. Thanks for reminding me that yearning doesn’t open every door.

    Thanks too for the Upanishad quote. Wow, it sums up the whole ball of wax rather tidily, doesn’t it? I’ve copied it and put among others I consider worthy of revisiting. Deed is destiny.

    Thanks for chiming in.

  7. says


    A rich subject, thanks for developing it today. I think you’ve put your finger on a fundamental fiction writers’ dilemma.

    I’ll adopt your terminology: “desire” for the overt and outward motive to act; “yearning” for a larger, underlying life need “that we often cannot define”. (I think I have that right?)

    I believe most here at WU would agree that stories in which characters are motivated wholly by manipulation of plot circumstances are unsatisfying. “Plot puppets” may hold our attention for a while but cannot engage our deepest hearts.

    On the other hand, a character’s yearning that remains amorphous, vague and ultimately undefined creates an equal indifference in readers. It’s the problem with some MFA manuscripts. We feel a strong undertow but never break the surface of the ocean and breath the salty air of understanding.

    (Boy did that sound pretentious.)

    I agree that reducing yearning to a pithy phrase can be reductive in a way that cheats a story of its power. At the same time, I worry that advocating stories in which a character “never truly gratifies this deeper yearning” opens the door to an MFA disease: a story chock full of aching that winds up feeling like long trip to a dentist whose chair you never reach.

    (Is it Torture a Metaphor Day today?)

    So, indeed, how do we solve this dilemma? How do we infuse (my term) a story with yearning without making it a dissatisfying and meandering “exploration” of the “human condition”?

    Part of the answer, as you suggest, is diving into a character’s back story. (PK’s diary technique sounds good for that.) What I’d say we’re diving for on the sea floor, the treasure amid the wreckage, is not just everything–the human condition–but the specific hurts or hopes that shaped *one person’s* human condition.

    The method I teach of going layers down in motivation *within a scene* is a way of ensuring that each story step takes us a fathom further down toward that treasure. What I’d add to the discussion today is that I believe it’s important to finally bring that treasure to the surface.

    Not that we can completely satisfy, and wholly heal, any character in a mere four hundred pages. But we can cause the reader to feel that reading a novel was worth it. What we can give readers to take away is the experience of permanent change for the better.

    This is cool, and exactly the sort of discussion that makes WU so valuable to me, too. Thanks, David. Could we have a series underway?

    • says

      Hey, Donald:

      I cracked a huge smile with this: ” What I’d add to the discussion today is that I believe it’s important to finally bring that treasure to the surface.”

      Amen, brother.

      I was afraid that, by arguing for a more organic, complex understanding of the yearning, I might encourage the kind of meandering navel-gazing you so accurately describe as MFA Disease.

      My attempt to argue against that motivated my variant on the Sisyphus story: That in your story, Sisyphus has to reach the top of the nearest hill — a vantage point, a point of deeper understanding and awareness. I absolutely, wholeheartedly agree.

      When I used a piece of music to define my character’s yearning, I still had to ask myself, in each scene: did she move closer to realizing that sense of life or move further away? And by the end of the story, had she not only recognized that as her yearning, but had made a crucial, life-shanging decision that brought her irrevocably nearer to its fulfillment? Did she reach a new vantage point from which she could see that she was closer to the life she wanted to live and the person she wanted to be than she had been before, and had some idea of where the next leg of the journey might lead?

      There are of course stories where that insight and decision aren’t reached, but then that self-revelation has to be felt by the reader, and recognized as the tragic lost opportunity it is. That’s what happens in a black comedy like Goodfellas, for example, where Henry SHOULD have a wake-up call, and the audience feels that in its gut, even as he’s pissing and moaning about no longer living the glamorous gangster life, and instead being just a shnook like everybody else.

      So I absolutely agree. And I think the trick is to root the yearning in backstory, and see the story as an episode in the character’s search for fulfillment — but an episode that has genuine closure.

    • says

      A series of short, insightful posts by you and blundering, wandering ripostes from me. Yeah. That’s the ticket.

      I believe the series has already commenced, and it will be hard to stop it anytime soon, for which I am profoundly grateful.

  8. says

    David, I think your post here may constitute an entire course on characterization. A semester, at least, at the college level. Or six months of personal therapy, because I find significant life applications in your ideas.

    I don’t see a conflict between your analysis of desire/yearning and the Donald Maas definition of a character’s goal/need. Your methods compliment and enrich each other. It’s a matter of which approach a writer feels comfortable using.

    I love the suggestion of a piece of art and/or music to symbolize your character’s yearning/need. I can’t listen to music while I write but I can glance at a painting. Or listen to the music while doing something else, preparing my mind to work

    The image of Sisyphus finding another hill at the top of his first both startled and amused me. How like life that image is! We all have our own goals, and below them our yearnings, and we strive throughout life to satisfy both, with a struggle always ahead of us. Addressing those challenges through story is, I believe, why we write.


    • says

      I don’t think Donald and I are disagreeing either. But his earlier remarks forced me to think more deeply and clearly about all of this, and I’m grateful we’re having this discussion, and people are chiming in. This does feel like a classroom, where everyone has a crack at the blackboard, and that makes it incredibly interesting, enriching and fun.

    • says

      Cheryl: One other thing — I can’t actually listen to music while I’m writing either, but I carry the tune in my head, as it were, and I’ve just found that immensely helpful, especially with main characters. And it works in reverse: every time I find myself humming “The Lark Ascending,” I also find myself thinking of Jacquelina, the character whose yearning it helped me define.

  9. says

    David, your article has given me much to chew on and digest. There are lots of great truths here.

    I especially connected to the part about our novels/stories being a piece of the characters life/narrative. One element of their desire may be satiated, but as is true with humanity, issues don’t just go away with a single instance. I think we will always be yearning for something. There will be moments of rest, epiphanies, triumphs, and defeats, but that core yearning will always be there. Especially in books in which great trauma is done to the characters, its not realistic that the character will be fine by “the end.” Oh, sure,the big plot stuff may be resolved. They may start filling the yearning, they might answer a big life question, but its also important to remember that their lives continue. The story ramifications will echo in their lives long after the last page. Its important for writers to remember that.

  10. says

    David, this post is like the Tree of Knowledge (and there ain’t a bad apple on any branch). Thank you for spelling out, with clarity, some of the elusive structures and tensions of how character motivation, desire and need can be surfaced in a story. And how they can be active in the story without dramatically surfacing at all, but as a kind of presence or discrete flame.

    You did make me realize that my plumbing of my character’s backstory in a novel I thought I’d finished only dealt with the faucet handles and not the pipes. So thanks for that (I think). Your own yearning to help writers illuminates your great stuff here.

    However, I still would like to see you and Don M. mud-wrestle.

    • says

      Hi, Tom:

      Yeah, writing often does conjure the plumber metaphor, doesn’t it?

      The thing about backstory is that it motivates behavior, and by showing the behavior, you’ve done much of what that backstory was intended to do. As writers we often want that to be the story, because we spend so much time on it, and it often has some pretty juicy bits. But bringing that to the surface — especially too soon — often turns us toward explaining the character rather than simply showing him in action on the basis of all that’s happened to him in the past.

      The example of this done well that I often use is Chinatown: We don’t learn the crucial details of Jake’s backstory — the woman in CHinatown he tried to keep from getting hurt and just ended up making sure that she did — until midway through the story. But we see its effect on his behavior from the get-go: the ambition and arrogance and presumption, combined with settling for the simplest, easiest, most obvious kind of detective work: marital infidelity. He’ll never get fooled again. Except…

      As for the mud-wrestling … don’t, as they say, hold your breath.

    • says

      I’m not sure, we haven’t met, but I have the impression that David is much taller than me. So, no mud-wrestling.

      Oh wait, you’re talking about wrestling over character development? Sorry to disappoint you there too, Tom. Looks like David and I are in agreement. Dang.

      Probably the closest we’d come to a contest is slinging back a few at the bar at the Un-Conference, or elsewhere. Looking forward to that.

  11. Sigrid Wald says

    David – what a powerful post! To bring depth to a book is hard and, truthfully, overwhelming. In my experience, trying to pinpoint a character’s motivation flattens a character. But doesn’t it also simplify actual people in true life events?

    When I look at someone (or myself) who’s reacted to a situation or conflict questionably, isn’t it so easy to label their mistake as a direct correlation to flaw A or as a domino affect because of situation B? And yet, in most intances, this is a very basic understanding.

    I believe our goal as writers is to practice empathy as best we can so we can better depict our characters as human.

    As readers we don’t have the privledge to know the full extent of a character’s past until the author tells us. But as writers we do. We’re almost obligated to understand. But let’s be honest – how often do we really truly understand our own actions? In those moments when I’m mad or upset or resentful and say something I’ll regret later, do I always know why I said it? Maybe, maybe not. And sometimes it takes a lot of strength to really question our own actions or our own desires.

    This is a great starting point and formula for reflection. I will definitely be refering to this post for my WIP. Thank you for sharing.

    • says

      Hi, Sigrid:

      You’ve touched on a key writing dilemma. As human beings, we do many things we cannot explain or even understand. Consciously. Our unconscious knows quite well, but that understanding lies far below the level of our rational minds. Often it takes a key loss or failure or a traumatic incident — or, to use the vernacular, a monstrous fuck-up — to force us into a clearer understanding of why we’ve done something. (This is how we, like our characters, “succeed by failing.”)

      To write a character well, we have to assume the role of both conscious and unconscious, without turning the character into a puppet.

      This is why I like using images, artworks or music to gain a more fluid, impressionistic, intuitive understanding of the character’s deeper, unconscious yearning. But that piece of music or whatever has to vividly represent the whole of the character’s backstory plus the yearning for a way of life worth living.

      As Donald noted, getting too loosy-goosy with the yearning can create a meandering mess. Without aiming the story toward some key insight and decision, this can all become like fingering smoke.

  12. says

    Oh, how I love this post and agree with others that it is multilayered and hard to digest all at once, in a good way. I have now read it a few times and taken sufficient notes, but I’m sure my brain will continue to noodle for some time to come. Which is one of the things I love most about writing books – the learning is never over. I love the conversations that take place here and the different viewpoints, because that gives me room to create my own. It’s why I love both From Where You Dream and Wired for Story. Completely different ways to approach, and yet, at their heart, the same.

    This is painstaking work, which is why some may shy away. But I really believe if you take the time to do the work, your odds of becoming successful shoot up tremendously. I think this is what persistence is. Not endlessly shopping the work or creating new work, but never giving up on craft, or thinking you’ve learned all there is to know.

    Thanks for the gift of your understanding.

    • says

      Hi, Tracy:

      I’m glad the piece resonated. I agree that any creative endeavor points us down a road of perpetual learning. That’s the good news and the bad news. Good: We’ll never stop growing. Bad: Each book gets harder (if we work honestly), because we know so much more the next time around. But if you don’t embrace challenge, this really isn’t the career path for you.

      Thanks so much for chiming in.

  13. says

    Hi David,

    Between the LitReactor class, The Art of Character and this article, I have sufficient reference material and a roadmap to revise my first novel into something (I hope) will resonate with readers.



  14. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    David, I’m overwhelmed. I found myself nodding and saying, “Yes, yes” as I read through this post. I know I will read it again, put it away and read it again in a few months. For now however, I have that song by Bob Dylan about St. Augustine going through the background of my head as a result of all this. The tyranny of motive is the surface of the root of everything… No wonder so many of the great writers on this plane of existence have such a huge and sneaking sympathy for the devil. There is something very William Blake about all this, isn’t there?

    • says

      Hi, Bernadette:

      James Joyce considered Blake one of the two seminal minds in English literature. The other, interestingly, was Daniel Dafoe. The one for his command of symbol, the other for his insatiable attention to detail.

      Yes, Lucifer is a great idol for literary minds. The disobedient light-giver. Christianity’s Prometheus.

      P.S. I dreamed I saw St. Augustine
      Alive with fiery breath
      And I dreamed I was amongst the ones
      That put him out to death
      Oh, I awoke in anger
      So alone and terrified
      I put my fingers against the glass
      And bowed my head and cried.

  15. says

    “But wasn’t [sic] criticizing complexity so much as the use of complexity as an evasion, a way to keep from asking direct answers [sic] and demanding answers.” OK, I know what you mean, but the perverse thing about basic writing errors and non sequiturs is that they become the objects of attention. Am I being too school-marmish here? Or does it change things when we’re dealing in electrons and not the printed page? I don’t think it should.

    As I always do, I read your piece from start to finish. I especially like the summary statement near the end that capsulizes what I understand you to be saying:

    “Simply tying actions to facile, one-note motives and leaving it at that is too simplistic…. It smacks of an overly rigid and unsophisticated view of human nature.”

    That’s an observation that deserves to be writ large over every writer’s word processor–maybe especially over the processors of those who write genre fiction. For me, discovering ways to make characters nuanced and individuated without retarding the narrative’s forward motion–that’s one of the great challenges.

    • says

      Hi, Barry:

      Yeah, when I re-read the post this morning I thought: Geez Louise, you really butchered that sentence, didn’t you. I’ll try to go in and fix it now.

      Having just finished teaching at a 4-day mystery conference, with writers such as Anne Perry, Tom Robb Smith, Laurie R. King and Jacqueline Winspear (among many others) in attendance, I can assure you that a great many genre writers — or crime genre writers, anyway — take the complexity of human nature quite seriously, and apply that understanding in their work.

      There are of course those who don’t — and some are wildly popular. As much as I embrace this notion of character, I realize not all readers demand it. Tens of millions do not.

      But the first itch I have to scratch is my own. Ergo.

      Thanks for the slap on the knuckles with the ruler. I’ll get on that sentence now.

      • says

        Let me amend that to say:

        There are of course those who don’t — and some are wildly popular. As much as I embrace the notion of character I describe in this post, I realize not all readers demand it. Tens of millions do not.

        (Perhaps I should listen to the schoolmarm in my brain before hitting the post button.)

        • says

          David–thank you for both replies. Once the Freshman Comp instructor, always, etc.
          A great deal is being talked about just now, regarding the shortened attention span of young readers, and how writers must adapt to it. I’m willing to shorten chapters, and create more and shorter paragraphs, but beyond that, no. The issue speaks to what you say about different kinds of readers, how some readers actually seek out books that present an “overly rigid and unsophisticated view of human nature.” What I would say to these readers is very simple: Save yourself the trouble. Watch TV or franchise action/adventure movies. As for those who shape their writing to appeal to this market, I would say–no, on second thought, better not.

  16. says

    What a post, David. Complex but oddly reassuring.

    I’ve naturally gravitated towards images as an expression of what you call the Yearning, and what I’ve heard others term the Internal Goal. It’s hard for text to compete with an image’s brevity. After all, any victory–assuming that the protagonist learns enough to assuage their yearning to a degree–is attended by a melange of emotions. (Not limited to grief at the loss of the old life, trepidation at what the new life requires on an ongoing basis.)

  17. says

    Hi, Jan:

    Agreed on all points. I strongly believe that, though one works logically and in words as one develops the backstory, an imagistic impression is what we’re always after, because the intuition is wiser than the rational mind when it comes to character. But the rational mind is a great corrective to sloppy thinking, which too often is what lazy writers try to pass off for intuition.

  18. says

    Well, the universe is looking out for me again! I love when that happens.

    I’ve been stressing lately over not knowing what exactly the character arc is in my wip. This time around the story is coming together much less structured than the first time I wrote a novel, and it’s been kind of difficult to let it develop in its time, rather than mine. Anyway, as I read your post, I had one of those a-ha moments which not only gives me a hint of an idea how the character arc is developing, but also how my male main-character fits into the story better. I’ll be printing this post out so I can better read and think about it, and I’ll also be reading closely your article in WD that I refound (just today!) It came when I was on vacation and got hidden under piles of mail. Thank you!

    I’ve never heard anyone mention Coriolanus casually before! Did you see the NT Live version this spring? It was really good!

    • says

      Hi, Lara:

      Nothing makes me happier than prompting an a-ha moment, believe me. Glad to be of service.

      I was tickled by your comment that I mentioned Coriolanus “casually.” I felt like a name-dropper!

      I first saw the play at the Ashland Shakespeare festival, then saw the Ralph Fiennes film adaptation. Both good. In very different ways.

      • says

        I agree re: the Fiennes adaptation. I saw it before the NTLive & it was fascinating to see how the different directors/actors can give a play such different flavors . :)

  19. says

    Sorry, David, I WILL read your post, but your supposed Lombardi quote stopped this former football player and Packer fan in his tracks.

    Maybe those words did fly once in a Lombardi locker room, but they ring more like something a hagiographer over-wrote. And I don’t think even Vince could get away with using that as a greeting.

    Like Yogi Berra and Mark Twain, Lombardi “said” a lot more than he said.

    Now, back to our scheduled programming.

    • says

      Dear Mr. Quimby:

      It appears you are right. The quote that is genuinely attributable to Vince Lombardi appears to go as follows:

      “To be successful … depends on the personality of the man. The incandescence of which he is capable. The flame of fire that burns inside of him.”

      So, I believe I was not far off in the spirit of the quote. Did I get the exact wording right? No.

      Sue me.

      Go Niners.


      Dear Charlie:

      Thanks for catching the slip-up. It does indeed appear as though I grandly misremembered. But, as we used to say in the legal biz: Memory makes liars of us all.

      I found another Lombardi quote that also resonated with my post, however, especially the pursuit of yearning, and the incremental movement toward its fulfillment. I thought you might find the similarity in concept interesting:

      “[T]he ultimate victory can never be completely won. Yet that victory might be pursued and wooed with every fiber of our body, with every bit of our might and all our effort. And each week, there is a new encounter; each day, there is a new challenge.”

      Please forgive my inattention to detail. Thanks for reading my post.

  20. Tony DiMeo says

    Such a dense essay, David, and incredibly helpful. I feel like I’ve gained a new perspective on how to use a characters’ backstory to complicate and inform his motives. In y novel, my own MC has a very seemingly straightforward motive for the choices he makes at the beginning, but after reading this, I can definitely see where I can use his lack, yearning, weakness, desires, from his backstory, to further color the choices he makes. Fantastic post.

    Thank you.

  21. says

    I believe all of the complications of desires, yearnings, lacks etc. can be distilled into one simple concept: everybody wants to be happy. Stories are about people attempting to conquer the obstacles to happiness, whether they’re external or internal.

    The yearnings used as examples in this post are primarily internal–something about the characters’ attitudes or experiences are preventing them from being happy. Many people are perfectly content to live without romance, without religion, without a permanent home or fame or fortune. But if a character yearns for one of these things, it’s because they can’t be happy without them…or at least they think they can’t.

    In the best stories, what a character initially believes they yearn for is the wrong thing. E.g., they think they can only find peace if they revenge the death of their parents by killing the villain, but on the journey they meet a supportive partner and discover that what they really yearned for was a loving family. Or the opposite, they’d always believed that to be happy they needed to marry rich and fit into high society, but then life throws them for a loop and they discover they can have a fulfilling life selling organic applesauce in the countryside.

    The best villains also have their own yearnings. 2-D antagonists are villainous without a convincing reason–you made them “bad” just because you need some source of conflict. But real people hurt other people (or themselves) because they, too, want to be happy. What they want is in conflict with what other people want, or they don’t understand what they want and do stupid things in their frustration.

    (Pet Peeve #167: when writers of crime fiction, thrillers, etc. take the easy way out and make their villains simply insane. By cozy mystery statistics, every one in five American adults must be a deranged psychopath.)

  22. says

    I have been wrestling with a deadline, but needless to say I began my morning by reading your post, Dave. I must say I read it all carefully – you not only put in so many meaningfully ideas, but wrote in a way that commands attention. It’s posts like this that make my daily WU an apple-a-day necessity for me. Thank you.

    This is the kind of post that I’ll have in the back of my mind for several days. The topic of inner motives seen as a more organic force is very relevant to the story I’m currently working.

    I’m looking forward to the ongoing series, and the next issue of Writers Digest!

      • says

        What can I say, Dave? Your post seized my attention like a pair of talons. Very well written, and exactly what I need as I wrestle with some careful revision will (fingers crossed) make that organic layer of story pop.

  23. says

    Gee, this post is terrific and so many great comments. May I ask you, David, when you say “intuitive understanding of the character’s deeper, unconscious yearning,” are you speaking about the writer’s intuition or the character’s intuition? For me, it’s not quite the same thing. I often find my characters know something about themselves that I didn’t until I’m hearing and seeing them on the page. The character begins to express inner feelings beyond what I’ve established and he or she reveals this (sometimes in backstory) as the story moves forward. So, the intuitive understanding you are speaking about in terms of “unconscious yearning” is the character’s? Because it might very well be unconscious to me, the writer, as I’ve designed the structure.

    • says

      Hi, Paula:

      Well, I’m intrigued by the idea that characters can know something about themselves that you, their creator, doesn’t. Might it be instead that you come to understand something about them that you didn’t before? I get that — totally, as they say. And though I believe that we may come to understand things about our characters that were insufficiently grasped at first, or we develop things in a deeper way as we continue to write, I don’t believe characters exist in any real way outside the mind of the writer who conceives them. Not until they’re on the page, anyway.

      But perhaps we’re mixing apples and oranges here.

      I was, indeed referring to the writer’s intuition of his character. And I was referring to the character’s unconscious yearning. The story will at least offer him the opportunity to become more conscious of it. Whether he embraces that opportunity is up to him.

      But I also discussed in a reply to a comment that we, as people, often do not understand why we do things because the motivation is unconscious. The man who only dates unavailable women because he’s in fact terrified of intimacy, for example (but would never admit that). And in writing such a character, we have to be careful not to make his unconscious unduly mechanistic — to make his fear of intimacy, for example, like a tiny machine that cranks out his love-em-and-leave-em behavior. If we do that, we’ve just created a puppet with a one-trick unconscious.

      It’s late, and I fear I’m not expressing myself as well as I might, but I hope I’ve answered your question.

      • says

        Thanks, David. I guess it’s the word “unconscious” that is puzzling me. Let me ask one more thing to clarify if I may? Do you think characters have a free will outside of their creator?

        The character has an unconscious yearning about something and (as the writer I am also unconscious to it and not orchestrated or motivated it) then this yearning appears on the page in the course of the character’s action. Kind of like an “A-ha” moment for me the writer. I tend to get this with my characters and my writer’s intuition often tells me that the character is performing true to his soul. So, then it’s a matter of trusting the character as he lives from page to page.

        • says

          HI, Paula:

          I think this subject could easily be the subject of another post, and the comment thread would be voluminous.

          No, I don’t believe characters exist independent of their creator. But I do believe, in working with our characters, we employ both our conscious and unconscious minds, just as we do with everything else. When I stop work for the day my mind doesn’t stop working. My unconscious continues to synthesize and organize in a far less rationalistic, more intuitive and imagistic way. It re-dreams what I’ve done.

          I think this accounts for much of the feeling of discovery in characterization, and the capacity for these beings we’ve supposedly creating to turn around and surprise us. Beneath the rickety scaffolding of thought there is a morass of impressions only vaguely grasped at first, and by writing the story we explore them, unearth them, come to understand them better.

          But that’s because of how the mind works, in my opinion. I don’t believe characters exist in some Platonic otherworld. But if another writer does and it works for him or her, I say: believe.

          Does that get to your question?

  24. says

    Hi, Tamara:

    Thanks for responding. I agree that the fundamental nature of yearning certainly includes happiness, but it also incorporates truth and virtue, which often require serious sacrifice, meaning their pursuit dictates that we do things that do not make us “happy.” One can generalize the concept of happiness to include these unhappy happinesses, but then the word begins to lose any real meaning.

    People can often be “sadder but wiser.” The wisdom remains real, despite the sadness it obliges.

    I’m a bit puzzled by this as well: “Many people are perfectly content to live without romance, without religion, without a permanent home or fame or fortune.” really? Name one. That’s quite a list of things to deny yourself and still be “happy.” I’m not categorically saying you’re wrong. See my comment re: sadder but wiser above. I’m just wondering what kind of happiness you were referring to when you made that remark.

    I’m also not so sure of this: “In the best stories, what a character initially believes they yearn for is the wrong thing.” Odysseus yearns to return home, and remains true to that yearning throughout his story. Does that mean The Odyssey is not “one of the best stories”? Romeo and Juliet yearn for true love. Their mistake isn’t in their yearning, but in their understanding of the forces of hatred they’re up against. Does that somehow diminish their story?

    I also think you may be confusing a misbegotten desire with a mistaken yearning. Often characters discover their true yearning by pursuing a misbegotten object of desire, and by failing to achieve it they become aware of the deeper need they were ignoring.

    Now, I do believe characters can also be mistaken about their yearning. Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy, for example, is both mistaken about his desire — to become a hustler in New York — and the yearning that motivates it: the need to escape from humiliation, rejection and abandonment he’s known as love up to that point. He learns that despite the pain it obliges, human connection is what he truly, deeply craves.

    Last, I guess you and Barry will have to have your trash-genre party alone. The crime books I read, by writers such as Kate Atkinson, Robert Wilson, Alan Furst, Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, Tana French, Tom Robb Smith, Ken Bruen, Adrian McKinty, Daniel Woodrell, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Laura Lippman, Martin Cruz Smith, Cornelia Read, Don Winslow, Zoe Ferraris — among many others, not to mention the greats who came before them — bear no resemblance to Pet Peeve #167. Perhaps you’re just reading the wrong authors?

  25. Morgan Daversa says

    I believe that I get it now. Thanks David.
    I often hear my character in a song. I thought I was nuts. Now I am going to look more closely at other art forms, see what I can find.


  26. says

    Impressive post, thanks David. At this point my goal is to plow through the current novel and get the draft done, then I can take another look at the characters (people, not characters per Stephen King) and make sure that everyone is acting as they should.

    Thrillers are often easy when it comes to motive. Bad guys with guns will do wonders to trigger action.

  27. says

    This post really resonated with me, especially your idea of the four key areas, which is very much how I create my characters.

    Your description about how “the character never truly gratifies the deeper yearning” struck me as so true, in fiction and real life. My protagonist is the only survivor of a car accident and spends a decade living in regret and guilt. I knew there was no way she’d be able to 100% forgive herself and/or move on, her yearning, but the idea she might come closer makes sense.

    I love your mythic metaphor about how the character gets the rock on top of the hill, and while it doesn’t roll back down, there is still another hill, and another. That visually makes so much sense to me. I will definitely keep this in mind as I revise my novel.

    Thank you for such a thoughtful and wise post. It’s the kind I’m sure I’ll return to over and over again.

    • says

      Thanks, Dana. Yeah, happy endings must be earned, and one way to do that is to realize that a little happiness goes a long way, especially for someone coming from a rough place like your protagonist. Thanks for commenting.