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The Duplicity of A Character’s Desire

michelleToday’s guest is the venerable Michelle Hoover [1], a true literary luminary who has won the PEN/New England Discovery Award been a MacDowell Fellow as well as a Writer-in-Residence at Bucknell University. Currently the Fannie Hurst Writer-in-Residence at Brandeis University, Michelle also teaches at GrubStreet, where she leads the Novel Incubator program. Her debut novel, The Quickening, was a Forward Magazine’s Best Literary Debut Pick, a finalist in the The Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Award, and a 2010 Massachusetts Book Award “Must Read.” Her second novel, Bottomland [2], released earlier this month (Grove/Atlantic) and is a March Indie Next Pick.

The Duplicity of A Character’s Desire

You’ve heard it before: What does your character want?

Many a world religion has found its purpose in dousing this terrible human business of wanting things—and wanting them desperately. But the drafts of many early writers are muddled with protagonists who have no greater existence on the page than a pair of eyeglasses. By temperament, writers tend to be observers. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t have much material. In a recent class, an older student of mine raised his hand to explain that his protagonist didn’t so much as “want things” but “preferred to offer his observations on life.” The room groaned (albeit politely). I imagined said protagonist as the thinly disguised student himself, with a longer name, a larger nose, and a rougher jacket.

It’s ego that keeps a writer and his protagonist-twin tidy at the sidelines, pontificating. Desire is messy. Desire is stupid. Desire bares a person’s heart and makes him do messy, stupid things. That’s frightening stuff for the kind of person who’d rather read a book about a bunch of strangers at a party than attend one. The biggest excuse I hear from writers with flimsy protagonists is that their characters don’t know what they want. “That’s what the story is about.” No, I answer, it’s you who doesn’t know what your characters want. And there your characters are, doing cartwheels, hoping you’ll pay enough attention to them to figure it out.

In From Where You Dream, Robert Olin Butler reminds us that without a character’s yearning, “nothing resonates in the marrow of [readers’] bones.” He goes on to differentiate between the type of desire expressed in entertainment fiction (e.g., “I want a man, a woman, wealth, power, or to solve a mystery or to drive a stake through a vampire’s heart) and that expressed in literary fiction (“I yearn for self, I yearn for an identity, I yearn for a place in the universe, I yearn to connect to the other”). He later scolds his fellow literary writers: “But that there must be yearning the genre writers never forget. We do.”

Butler’s biases aside, he has a point. Literary writers tend toward dreaminess and a fair bit of snobbishness about these things. As Phillip Gerard describes in his essay “An Architecture of Light,” the literary writer is so “beguiled by the stunning inspiration effect of the finished cathedral” that they “fail to imagine themselves in the place of the artisan contemplating how to build the damned thing.” Flannery O’Connor is a bit more direct: “The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.”

BottomlandStill, I think Butler is missing something. His description of yearning in entertainment fiction falls into the realm of the concrete: a person, a position, the solution of a mystery, the defeat of a villain. For literary fiction, the yearning seems more abstract: self, identity, connection. Of course, attention to the concrete alone can create a wooden, plot-driven story that leaves character in the dust. But there’s a certain kind of pretentiousness in forcing us to watch a person sitting around yearning for enlightenment. A story exists on the page and a page is only black and white and there’s got to be someone doing something to convince us to stare so long at all those black lines.

I argue this: that in good fiction—literary fiction as well as the kind of genre fiction that engages the heart and mind—the protagonist must have desires both abstract and concrete. In fact, the two are dependent on each other, like two sides of a coin. And discovering both will not only help you inspire your readers with the dome of that cathedral, it will help you hold the damned thing up.

So what are these things, concrete and abstract?

The poets I work with have the darndest time understanding the first. “My protagonist wants to feel fulfilled,” they tell me. I answer: “What does that mean?” One character may envision fullfillment as an expensive briefcase, an island stream, a pair of shoes; another as the attainment of a man or seeing her name in lights. These are two very different creatures. Their visions—their concrete desires—are the tools for achieving their deeper, more abstract desires. In this case, fulfillment.

The concrete desire is singular, simple, and reductive. You would never say you’re writing a story about a boy who wants a trinket from a bazaar, yet that might be the very concrete desire that drives your plot—as it does in James Joyce’s “Araby.” Reduce The Great Gatsby to “a boy wants a girl”? How dare you? Yet Gatsby wouldn’t be a novel worth reading without it. Here are a few more:

Keep in mind, a character’s concrete desire may be the worst thing she could possibly get. The reader knows this. The character might not. For the sake of dramatic irony, she doesn’t have a clue. The sanity of a desire seldom keeps a person from wanting it. Nor does the fulfillment of that desire need to be remotely possible. As long as the character is convinced of its worth, she’ll keep going for it—even as we beg her not to.

Abstract desires on the other hand are muddled, difficult, and multifaceted. If you can name a protagonist’s abstract desire with a single word, you’re not thinking very hard. Consider love as a desire. It’s mingled with a hodgepodge of other juicy things, like identity, freedom, home, self-worth, and power. The complexity of the character’s heart is tough to get a hold of. But as Butler writes, “It’s not that you come to some intellectual understanding. It’s an intuition of her wanting, a sense of her desiring.” It’s as difficult as describing why you love your child. You simply do. And you know the complexity of that love in your bones, in your blood. That’s the kind of knowing you’re searching for in your character as well.

This is likely what we mean when we say a character found us, not the other way around. Truthfully, I didn’t have to search much for the deepest yearnings of my most successful characters. I could simply feel them. And that’s probably the difference between the books I’ve published and those left behind in a drawer. Butler goes so far as to claim “Until a character with yearning has emerged from your unconscious, I don’t encourage you to write….” That’s all fine and good if you haven’t got four hundred pages under your belt, but again he has a point. Though the abstract desire is seldom named in the story, let alone understood in any clarity by the protagonist, the author at least knows it, and it bleeds through every image, every detail, every word. That’s hard to make happen on your 5th revision. But those four hundred pages may prove to be the practice you need before you write the real deal.

Here are some more ways to think about the duplicity of concrete and abstract desires:

The concrete desire is the desire the character is most conscious of, but the abstract desire is usually why the character wants it in the first place.

The first is more obvious to the reader, the revelation of the second may be saved for later. For example, Samantha’s concrete desire to marry Ben may never reward her with the sense of self-worth and freedom she’s yearning for, but that’s part of Samantha’s journey to figure out.

Stories follow the concrete desire in their escalations of character, setting, and theme; but underneath, the abstract desire is brimming.

As authors, we can make readers feel the abstract desire in the subtext of sentences, the difference between the character’s conscious intentions and the little ticks of apprehension and insight that slip out. We can signal the abstract desire in the character’s subtlety of voice, automatic reactions, and sensitivity to details, persons, and environments.

The abstract desire is most often revealed to the reader at the crisis point in the story.

This is the point at which the character may at last be close to achieving his or her concrete desire, and yet desperately conflicted about doing so. This is where the character most reveals herself to us. The importance of the concrete desire falls to the wayside. In truth, it was never that important to begin with. But the story must challenge the character enough to push her past the surface, a surface that’s been given her by society and all its preoccupations with the material. In the end, the story pushes the character deeper into herself.

A story is finished when the mystery of the character has been revealed. That’s what Flannery O’Connor wrote at least, and she tends to get it right. And no mystery can be revealed if the character isn’t challenged to come to terms with what makes her alive: the desires that get her up in the morning in the first place, whether she understands them or not.

What are your characters’ abstract desires? How do you convey these to your readers — and yourself?