Friday, January 27, 2012

Entry #36 - “Wings of Desire”

Lately, I’ve thought about the ways that desire directs the flight patterns for both fiction and nonfiction for those who read and write. What people want and why they want it drives the writer’s work.

Characters, plots, actions, and events evolve from attempts to satisfy or in some cases, deny desire. This seems to be a basic truth, whether a writer chooses to write a short story, novel, or an essay.

Photo Credit - Jan Bowman - October 2011
If you want to write, it helps to examine what people yearn for and to notice how that longing has the power to alter their fate on the page, just as it does in their real life experience.  Not only does understanding the power of desire help you as a reader to reveal your own truths, but it also helps you as a writer realize the need to provide credible motivation for the characters who live inside your writing.

Whatever someone wants, whether it is a tangible material possession, such as a red motorcycle or a Nobel Prize --- or a non-tangible concept that’s little more than a winged vapor of longing, such as a desire for love and respect, desire is motivation. How humans deal with desire reveals much about a culture and its particular values.  Understanding the role of desire helps the writer define the parameters of time and place. Some yearnings of the human spirit are universal, but other desires are truly of the “particular”.

Readers seek to understand - not only what happens and how it happens, but they also want to discover why it has happened, and examining the why is a complex process. In Janet Burroway’s book, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, she says... “The human desire to know why is as powerful as the desire to know what happens next, and it is a desire of a higher order. Once we have the facts, we inevitably look for the links between them, and only when we find such links are we satisfied that we understand."  She goes on to say that “random incidents or random character actions neither move us nor illuminate; we want to know why one thing leads to another and to feel the power and inevitability of cause and effect.”  Which is to say, desire drives character,which drives motive, which drives plot  --- and all of this --- taken together --- provides cause and effect that readers understand and that lets them care enough to read more.

Perhaps it’s useful to remember that Kurt Vonnegut said - “When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell students to make their characters want something right away ---even if it’s only a glass of water.  Even characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”

“Creativity is a continual surprise.”  --- Ray Bradbury


  1. I would go so far as to say that your characters have to want something on every page. The tension comes from the obstacles that keep the characters from getting what they want.

  2. Yes. And once that "longing" is established, it forms an
    undercurrent that drives the character and the plot. Although it's not necessary to hit the reader over the head with it repeatedly, once established, - that "yearning" - that "desire" is always lingering, whispering in the back of the reader's head -- page after page,and so our gentle reader wants to turn another page to see if the desire is met or not. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate the dialogue.