Thursday, July 28, 2005

More on Desires

When I started this week’s topic (at my Coeur d’Alene home), I discovered I didn’t have any copies of Getting Into Character on hand, so I had to write some of the stuff from memory. Thanks to my trusty assistant, I now have GIC before me. I’m going to run information on character Desire from Getting into Character over the next few days. Those of you who’ve read GIC—hang with me. I’ve noticed something about folks who read this book. I receive wonderful feedback about it. But it seems the readers often just sit down and read it—easy to do, since it’s written in conversational style. And then after a number of months, they clearly have forgotten many of the concepts. Thing is, the concepts in GIC are tricky. They might read easily on the surface, but they go quite deep. It takes a thorough studying of each one to really get it. So I’m hoping that this subject, for those of you who’ve already read GIC, will still make you think in new ways and be helpful in your writing.

Oh, by the way. This stuff’s all copyrighted in my name.

For those unfamiliar with Getting Into Character, the book takes seven concepts from method acting and adapts them for the novelist.

Constantin Stanislavski, the “father” of method acting, talks about the character’s “super-objective” in his book An Actor Prepares. The super-objective is the specific goal for which the character strives throughout the play as a whole. It’s what the character Wants, with a capital W. Stanislavsky noted that the better written the play, the stronger the pull of this super-objective upon the character. His challenge to the actor, then, was to discover the super-objective of the character in order to best portray that character’s emotions.

My concept of Desire for a character in the novel is akin to Stanislavski’s concept of super-objective. (This term—Desire—is my term. You might hear it called other names by other teachers. One of these days we teachers shall all get together and decide on universal terms.) Of course, our job as novelists is to create the character from scratch, not interpret someone else’s writing for portrayal on stage. So this concept of determining a character’s Desire becomes very important to use as a tool in building our story.

Many times, authors build their stories based solely on conflict. “These are the problems my main character will face, and this is the outcome.” But conflict implies opposition—obstacles that stands in the way of something desired. In order for conflict to build scene by scene with the best logical and coherent progression, it must follow the course of a character’s Desire, erecting larger and larger barriers for the character as the Desire is pursued. So before you begin the plotting or writing of every conflict in your novel, you should first ask your character: What is your innermost Desire that will propel you through this story?

All of your main characters and important secondary characters should have a Desire. Conflicts between characters come into play when they are pursuing Desires that oppose one another.

Think of your character’s Desire in terms of your real-life friends. You know a friend by her appearance, her traits and mannerisms; you also know her by her desires. One of the most important aspects of who she is lies in her deepest motivations. What does she want at this point in life? What does she strive for? This underlying motivation, or Desire, or super-objective, will drive her choices and actions.

In a novel, a character without a clear Desire can get lost in all the conflict, particularly if your story is action-filled. The result will be shallow characters, forced into your ready-made plot. Regardless of how suspenseful the action, your readers simply won’t connect with the characters well enough to care how they’re affected by it.

Discovering your character’s Desire is not always as simple as it appears. Two categories of knowledge will help guide you: (1) the inner values (core truths) that you discover about your character, and (2) the major problems in the story that the character will face.

Inner values is another concept I teach in Getting into Character, through a series of steps in building your character that I call Personalizing. In short, inner values are the deepest truths about your character—not just personality traits on the surface, such as he’s shy, or she’s selfish, but the core truths that make him shy or that make her selfish. This is a whole ’nother topic, and for now I must let this definition suffice.

There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem with using steps one and two above. The Desire helps lead you to the building of conflict within your story, yet you must know some of the major conflicts in order to determine Desire. The key word here is “major.” You probably have in mind some of your story’s main events, or at least the inciting incident (first big conflict that kicks off the story).

Many times the character’s Desire rises directly from the inciting incident, or at least partly so. For example, in a mystery the inciting incident may often be the murder. I say “partly” arise because the mere solving of the problem presented by the inciting incident isn’t specific enough to be the Desire in its entirety. Otherwise every detective novel would contain the very same Desire for the main character: to solve the crime. In that scenario, you could cut one detective out of one book and place him in another just as well. Not exactly terrific character development. So this is where the inner values of your character come into play. Using what you know of this detective—who he is before the crime takes place, personal issues in his life, etc.—will lead you to a Desire specific to him. The Desire could be something like: to solve this difficult case so that I can earn a promotion; or, if for some reason he feels he could have prevented the crime: to bring the perpetrator of the crime to justice so that I can ease my conscience.

Okay, I’ll stop there for today. I just want to add that, when you start writing a novel, the quicker you can figure out this Desire thing, the better. I know seat-of-the-pantsers like to discover as they go along, and we all do discover more about our characters as we write. But if you don’t have the Desires for your main characters pretty well nailed down when you begin, you’re far more likely to wander in your story, creating the need for extra rewriting later on. I think I may have mentioned that in my own writing, I never write a scene only to realize it’s not needed in the rewrite. Every scene I write from the beginning is necessary to the unfolding of the story. Believe me, it’s a waste of time to write scenes, then throw them out. But I manage not to do this because I start my stories with a good handle on what the main characters’ Desires are. These Desires drive the story.

Comments? Questions? Bored yet?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I knew about character desire, but your two-pronged approach has helped me better define my character's desire. In fact, I think I see something in this approach that can be more broadly applied...

We've talked about the overall, book-level, desire. I think it would be beneficial to start EVERY scene by scribbling down a note that lists the character's sub-desire for that scene. The sub-desire should be two-pronged, and should be related to the overall "super" desire.

It seems to me this would go a long way toward elimination of sagging middles.