Articulating Your Character’s Greatest Desire

Last November I had to do an exercise on writing my character’s greatest fear, and I had no idea how to start, so I did some research and wrote it up as a set of links with brief analysis/commentary. Now I’m taking a Writing the Other class with the same exercise plus another one equally or even more challenging: writing up the character’s greatest desire. So, once again, I did some research.

A-to- Z challenge letter A

Todd Mitchell says that a character needs to have strong desires (or ‘wants’) to be interesting, and that strong desires drive the plot. Without them, a character just reacts like anybody else would. A character has both unconscious and conscious desires; the former can change frequently but unconscious desires (and their conflict with conscious ones) can be the “spine of the story.”

K.M. Weiland starts with a character’s lie , a specific wrong belief festering below the surface, statable in one sentence; a misconception about themselves or the world, like “might makes right” or “the only way to earn love is through servitude.” She lists several example and poses seven questions to ask yourself about the lie. She talks about wants vs needs ; she considers ‘want’ to be the same as a ‘goal’, Mitchell’s conscious desire. Goals are almost always external and physical, but are rooted in the lie for some soul-deep reason. Needs, apparently corresponding to Mitchell’s unconscious desires, are something non-physical such as a realization, an antidote to the lie. Achieving a need may or may not preclude some wants. She points to Maslow’s 5-level hierarchy of needs as inspiration.

H. Duke considers desires to be passive and goals to be active. His ‘goals’ correspond in some ways to Mitchell’s ‘conscious desires.’ They are objective, easily defined and understood, and the character and reader are both conscious of them and know how to achieve them. He goes on to say that the goals may all related to a vaguer desire or motivation. I don’t get a sense that his exposition includes the notion of need or unconscious desire that was central to what the other two were saying.

MJ Bush also equates story-driving desires with inner needs that fuel conscious goals or ‘surface desires’. A character’s wants can conflict with their need. She suggests ‘layering’ desires with actions and lesser desires stemming from the main one. I did not quite get what she meant by layering, but having secondary desires grow out of primary (‘root’) one made sense.

Regarding screenplays, Michael Hauge says that “the essential component of all successful stories is the heroes pursuit of a compelling desire.” It must be visible,meaning what others call a conscious, surface, or external goal. Hauge does say that resolving inner motivations requires some visible criterion for success; perhaps in movies it is harder to deal with unconscious desires. Pursuit of the goal has to have a clear endpoint, some criterion for recognizing success. The hero must desperately wants it and actively pursue it, and it must be within their power to achieve. Finally, at the climax, they must put everything on the line to achieve it.

Researching the subject found other resources worth considering. For example, Rachel Giesel  says that we fall in love with a character because of their mindset and emotions. She presents three major categories of questions you need to answer about your character, the first being about the psyche, including their goals and inner desires – but the others are equally relevant to getting to know your character.

All of that is giving me a lot to think about, and I’m nowhere near feeling confident about identifying my character’s greatest desire, let alone write about it. But at least I have a place to start.

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