I’m going to make two claims in this post. Neither one of these claims is exactly new, but these are both things that I didn’t know when I was starting off as a fiction writer, and that have both proved incredibly useful to me. These are also both claims that, although I heard them before and understood them intellectually, I’m only now, after writing for twenty years, beginning to understand them practically. So I think both these claims are worth discussing.
The first claim is this: Characters must want something in order to be interesting. And the stronger the character’s desire becomes, the more intriguing the character often becomes.
The second claim is that round characters must have both conscious and unconscious desires. Although a character’s conscious desires may shift from scene to scene, the unconscious desire must not, because the main character’s unconscious desire often forms the spine of the story. In fact, one way to look at plot is that it’s the events that push the main character’s unconscious desire to the surface.
Let’s explore these claims further. Of course, to both claims, there are exceptions. In writing fiction, I sometimes think we talk about “rules” so we can experience the thrill of breaking them. We might think, for instance, of Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivner as a character whose unshakeable main desire is not to do anything (“I prefer not to”). So is this a desire at all, or is he the quintessential anti-desire character? Ultimately, though, Bartleby’s refusal to be driven by desire serves to reveal the deep-seated desires of the narrator, and of humanity (“Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”). But it’s the supremely frustrating Bartleby who we remember.
One thing that fascinates me about characters is how different they can be from one’s self, and yet how deeply we can relate to them. Most writers are well aware of what Janet Burroway dubbed the Universal Paradox of fiction. That is, if you try to describe a character in general terms to make them more relatable, the reader often fails to see them as human at all. The character becomes a type (or worse, a stereotype). But when characters are created with specific attributes, qualities, quirks and behaviors, we start to recognize and relate to them, even if they are very different from ourselves.
I think the reason for this sense of connection to very different characters is because we only relate to character qualities superficially (whether a character is our gender, or age, or shares our occupation…). While on a much stronger, more fundamental level, we relate to desire (whether a character has deep, driving wants, like we do, and whether we can sympathize, and understand those wants). It’s desire that often forms the threads of connection between readers and characters.
This leads to the second claim, about the two main types of desires characters (and people) experience: conscious and unconscious desires. The stronger a character’s conscious desires, the more likely they are to drive the action of the story. That’s why characters with strong desires often make for interesting fiction. Rather than being generic victims batted about by plot, characters with strong desires create the plot as they try to achieve their desires (or what they think they want). Characters with strong, and competing, desires often make for more interesting scenes as well. In order for dialogue to crackle, for instance, characters need to want different things from the interaction, and to want it badly. Nothing is so boring in fiction as agreement.
In fact, truly round characters rarely agree with themselves. What round characters think they want is rarely what they actually want. So one way to think of a character’s arc in a story is to think about how a character might try to achieve conscious desires and fail (or succeed and not be happy), so that those surface desires can be stripped away and the character can discover the deeper, unconscious desire that has been there all along. Or, to put it another way, stories are often about the conflict between a character’s conscious and unconscious desires, and the function of the plot is to bring the character’s deeper unconscious desires to the surface.
This might seem abstract in discussion, but it becomes fairly obvious when you apply it to narratives. For instance, let’s look at the recent film, Silver Linings Playbook. It’s a movie with fascinating and memorable characters who, for the first part of the film, are so driven by their conscious desires that they seem insane. But their extreme compulsions and obsessions give us a sense that there must be some deep unconscious desire beneath the surface that’s really driving them. Quite often, characters are only partially aware of their unconscious, or true, desires. However, the writer must be aware of these desires in order to effectively structure the characters’ narrative arcs (to have a deep desire form the spine of the story).
Take Bradley Cooper’s character, Pat. In the opening scenes we see him in a mental hospital. He’s just getting out, and the first thing he wants to do is go to the library to get the books his wife is teaching in her English class so that he can read them all because his driving conscious desire is to win back his wife. So he’s losing weight, he’s trying to stay sharp, act nicer, improve himself — all so he can become the person she wanted him to be. In fact he’s so obsessed with winning back his wife that he’ll do anything, even though she has a restraining order against him. A lot of the plot of the movie is determined by the great lengths Pat goes through to contact his wife and prove that he’s changed. His desire drives almost every action and every scene.
Characters who aren’t driven by desire merely react. If a character only reacts to events, then they don’t distinguish themselves as someone unique. They’ll often just respond in the ways almost anyone would. They’re more victims than personalities. But characters driven by desire drive the action of the story, and that’s what Pat does.
It’s not only Pat’s character who’s driven by desire. Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Tiffany (the character she won an Oscar for playing) is obsessed with her desire to compete in the dance competition that she never got to compete in with her deceased husband, and so she bribes Pat into being her partner. And there’s DeNiro’s character, Pat Sr., who’s obsessed with his desire to watch the Eagles with his son (so that the Eagles will win).
The character’s surface desires are very easy to recognize in this movie: Pat wants to get wife back. Tiffany wants to compete in a professional dance competition. Pat Sr. wants the Eagles to win. But beneath these clear surface desires lurk the character’s unconscious desires. Their true desires. And it’s the work of the plot to push these characters and put them under pressure, until their unconscious desires surface like magma spurting up through cracks in the earth.
Look at Pat again. As the movie progresses, we realize that he doesn’t simply want to get his wife back. He wants to get his old life back because he feels he’s lost everything. That’s really what he’s obsessed with (in fact, we actually learn very little about Pat’s wife and what makes her so desirable. She’s only the concrete symbol of something deeper that he wants to reclaim — who he used to be.) But, of course as any reader of The Great Gatsby knows, he can’t undo time and get the past back. As his situation worsens and he’s forced to realize this, we see that the life he wants to reclaim may have never existed in the first place (it’s a nostalgic ideal). Instead, Pat’s true unconscious desire is that he wants to have the sort of love relationship he never actually had with his wife. That’s what’s driving him, and that’s what rises to the surface at the climax of the movie when he confesses his love to Tiffany.
Jennifer Lawerence’s character, Tiffany, is also revealed to have a deeper unconscious desire. Wanting to compete in this dance competition (the thing she’s obsessed with), is really about her reclaiming some aspect of herself that she can be proud of. Her deeper desire is to reconstruct her life after the loss of her husband.
And then there’s the dad’s character, whose obsession with the Eagles borders on crazy. His conscious desire, so clear throughout the movie, is to have his son watch the Eagles games with him because he believes if his son is present the Eagles will win. He’s got a lot riding on this because he’s wagered large amounts of money on the games. But we gradually see that beneath his OCD obsession with the Eagles simmers a deeper desire to spend time with his son and mend the rift between them. So even while his obsession with the Eagles may seem absurd (fandom taken to a dangerous extreme), there’s a deeply emotional and noble desire beneath this that’s very relatable. Incidentally, this desire to mend their family is also very much the mom’s desire.
The bottom-line is this:
When creating characters, start with desire. List what they want (their conscious desires, which might change over the course of the story). Then try to figure out what lies beneath these conscious desires. What’s their deeper, driving unconscious desire that they’re not aware of? The stronger a character’s desire (or obsession), the more they’ll drive the action of the story (and often the more interesting they’ll be).
Once you know your character’s conscious and unconscious desires, think about how these desires might conflict. Try to plot your story in response to your character’s desires. So ask yourself, how might the character make things worse for his/her self by pursuing the wrong desire? What events might put pressure on your character and force his/her deeper, unconscious desire to the surface?
Basically, complex characters need to have different levels of desires, and those desires not only drive them, they drive the actions of the story because the best plots are often external manifestations of a character’s internal conflicts.
Don’t believe me? Go over your mental list of great characters. For each one, I bet you can think of a clear surface desire, and a deeper unconscious desire (and often these two things will conflict in some way).
For instance, Scout: she wants to be seen as a grownup. But really, she wants to have her mom back, and be protected as a child. It’s this push and pull between two extremes that makes her so fascinating, and so representative of childhood.
Or Holden: He doesn’t want to be part of the phony adult world he sees all around him. But unconsciously, he realizes he is part of it, and so his true, unconscious desire is to be an adult, and protect other kids from falling off the cliff. His deeper desire is so important to his character and to the story that it’s the title of the book, although we don’t realize this until nearly the end of the book.
Or Citizen Kane. He thinks he wants wealth, power, and fame, but none of these things satisfy him. In fact, they only serve to isolate him and take him further from his unconscious desire (thus, the story is a tragedy). In the end, we learn that Kane’s deep, unrequited, unconscious desire was to regain the sort of simple freedom and sense of play and familial connection that he had as a child (as represented by his sled, “Rosebud”).
Or Gatsby, who initially thinks he wants to win back Daisy, but when he does, he isn’t satisfied, and instead his conscious desire switches to wanting to erase and recreate the past (to get Daisy to admit that she never loved Tom). Yet as Gatsby’s conscious desires are stripped away, we see that Gatsby’s driving unconscious desire all along was to reinvent himself, and become someone else. It’s an emblematic American desire, but it’s also a self-destructive desire, and so Gatsby must die to achieve it.
Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there’s some other secret heart to character that helps us relate to these made-up strangers so different from ourselves. But for me, for now, it’s desire.