We are so excited to meet so many new people through Rachael Harrie's Writers Platform-Building Crusade! It's wonderful to hear from so many of you, and I'm looking forward to buddying up especially with my new literary and historical fiction friends over the coming weeks. Hurrah!
Susan has recently discussed the idea of the desire line in your story, or the thing your character wants more than anything; the thing that drives him or her onward, and, one hopes, the thing that captures the reader's attention and refuses to let them go.
I've been thinking about this topic for a very long time. Whenever it comes up, it makes me pause. What do my characters want more than anything? What is the core reason for their being, the subject of the story?
I can't ever define it that easily, and I waver between thinking that's a serious problem in my story, or thinking that it might not be so clear-cut.
What do they want?
See, all my characters want things. Both the Cutler brothers, Bill and Len, want the same girl, Kit. Kit has her own opinions on that, which of course leads to a great deal of conflict between the three of them. But the major conflict in the story doesn't come directly from this- it comes from the fact that the First World War breaks out, drawing them all in and destroying different aspects of their lives- physical, emotional, and mental.
Is it therefore as simple as saying both brothers want to come home to Kit?
No, because one brother, Bill, doesn't want to go in the first place, and that taps into what I've always felt is his main desire- to fulfill his father's dying wish for the family farm to survive and thrive. Kit's part of that- she's the family that makes the farm his future. But there's a big divergence in that desire when circumstances compel him to go away to war after all.
The other characters have similar things going on- older brother Len, for example, just wants the opposite- to get away from the farm that he feels is smothering him, and make a name for himself in the bright lights of the national football league. Except that war robs him of his physical ability, and all of a sudden, he hasn't got anywhere to go *but* home. He'll never achieve his original desire. But gradually, slowly, perhaps he comes to realise that it wasn't what he wanted in the first place- that his true desire was hidden, and it was more about finding his own place at home than about wanting to leave.
But you know... I don't know. I feel like I'm trying to shove it all into a neat little box.
What do you reckon?
Here's where I need your help. Tell me, kids- when you think of your favourite novels, can you figure out the main character's line of desire? What did they want so compellingly that the story moved forward with strength? *Did* they want something concrete or specific? Or- and here's what I'm really looking for- was their desire something altogether more nebulous than that?
The book that got me thinking about this recently was The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold. It's one of those love-it-or-hate-it novels, I know. I happened to love it. I saw the movie recently and thought it was moderately decent, and I started thinking about Susie Salmon's desire. She wants her family to be okay. For that to happen, the man who murdered her must be caught. But Susie's more of an observer than anything, and the stronger desires lie with her sister and her father, who are intensely focussed on finding out who killed Susie.
(FWIW, that's spoiler-free- these events are detailed on the first page and the back cover)
The lines of desire are, in other words, pretty clear in this. But what caught my attention was the importance of the bigger concept. These characters don't want something, not even the most specific of things, just because they're seeking some kind of personal fulfillment or peace or anything other concrete motivation, not really. The desires are constructed by the author for a very particular purpose- as part of a larger, woven tapestry of many desires interacting to create an emotionally deep whole. A picture of a family ripped apart by violence and loss, struggling to come back together in the aftermath.
I think I want... world peace? No?
Essentially, what I'm saying is, the bigger picture is as critically important as the desire itself. And I think that given the bigger picture, it's possible to have a desire that is compelling without being specific. I think this, but I really don't know.
What do you think? Can you give me any examples of books that grabbed on and held you without being absolutely concrete about what the character wanted to achieve?
Or, perhaps, some other examples of books that were driven by the desires of secondary characters?