Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Lines of desire

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?


  1. I guess another word for this desire is motivation. I know that if I don't see motivation behind a character's actions, it will drive me crazy to the point where I can't finish the book. Even if the motivation isn't revealed outright, it can be hinted at, and sometimes trying to find out can captivate me. But if a character does something with absolutely no good reason that I can see? Bye bye story.

    (p.s. Hello from fellow Crusader who followed you here! =D)

  2. Hi! I'm a new follower from the crusade. I'm visitng everyone and I realized you are also in my Draft Crusade Group! *waves*

  3. I can't think of any books that didn't have a clear GMC. Hmm...nope not any. That being said there are some classics you have to give extra thought to find them.

    *waves hi to fellow crusader in my group. I'm a follower now* :)

  4. Hello new friends :) Lovely to meet you!

    Jys, agreed on that point. I suspect the answer is probably as broad as anything else in fiction- the motivation, desire, whatever you call it, can be as big or as small as required, as long as the writer makes it work.

    I'm thinking, I suppose, of those novels where the desire is so non-specific that it's almost... global. The character embodies it, feels it, believes it, but it is perhaps not very specific or concrete. Dredging another example from my friend brain: an old favourite, oft used as an example by me- All Quiet on the Western Front. Classic war story, classic war motivation- the main character wants to survive. That's a pretty broad desire, but also very strongly tied to that person. It's about the continuance of his very existence, but it's also about the continuance of all those around him- all his classmates, all the men on the other side of the trenches.

    So! Perhaps that's an ideal example of what Ciara mentioned- the need to give extra thought in some classics doesn't actually mean that the motivation isn't there or concrete.

  5. Kari, your crusade group-mate is Kristen, who writes on Mondays :) Please, comment on any/ all of us if you like- just wanted to mention that you don't have to feel obliged to check in every single day and do five times the work!

    Likewise Ciara- your crusade group-mate is the lovely Jen, who writes on Tuesdays :) Not to discourage you from commenting elsewhere; just to let you know!

  6. *fried brain. Friend brain? Good grief. Fried :)

  7. You know, you always get me thinking when you go into "mussing mode." (g) I see what you're getting at with the idea of a global desire. Perhaps what it comes down to is that some books revolve around a conflict that the reader inherently craves a resolution to. So as in All Quiet on The Western Front, we don't really need to have the hero's desires spelled out because they are the same as our own were we to find ourselves in the same situation: get the hell out of there and return to normalcy. (g) Same goes with finding a killer in a suspense plot. We ALL want the killer to be caught/stopped, so we understand the hero's drive.

    However, I've noticed what with those types of books, the hero doesn't seem to have a personal journey. It's more about the big picture. IOW, their personal lives revolve around the grand conflict. So if the story is more about the personal journey, then the character ought to have clearly defined desires. Whether the hero realizes these desires it the beginning isn't as important to me as whether _I_ realize them. One of the fun things about some stories is when I'm sitting there thinking, dude, don't you get it? You SO want XYZ. When the hero finally figures it out, I feel nice and satisfied. :)

  8. Kristen, you just smacked that nail on the head SO HARD I can't even tell you. That's *exactly* what I was aiming to discuss, and you've said it three times as well as I did :)

    The line of desire depends on whether you have a "big picture" book, or a book about a personal journey, or a super ambitious blend of the two. Yes. Yes, yes (g).

    There are various long-dark lightbulbs coming on in my head through this conversation ;)

  9. Is it okay that these sorts of discussions make me want to run screaming for the hills? It's all very well finding desire lines and overarching desires in my favourite books, but making sure they're in my own - aaaahhh!!

    Okay, let me see what I can do from the top of the hill. The first example that comes to mind from your comment Kristen, is Outlander, of course. Half the time Claire thinks she wants to go home to Frank; then she chooses Jamie and she and the readers are happy. Then Jamie gets captured...
    I'm reading Dorothy Dunnett's Niccolo Rising at the moment - talk about unclear desire lines! It's very well written, but omniscient to the point where I feel as though I'm watching a play. It would be nice to get inside just one character and stay there for a while, exploring that person's desires.

    Just to add fuel to your fire, Claire, the books that I find usually blend the overall and the private desire well are ones dealing with war. WWI and WWII loom in the background no matter what the characters may be up to - so the 'big picture' stuff is almost like theatre scenery; always catching your eye.

  10. Deniz- it's okay (g). I was thinking of you when I wrote the post, in fact. You mentioned in reply to Susan's earlier post that the whole idea of a desire line kinda freaked you out- well, my point here is, it freaks me out, too. I end up in knots trying to figure out where to go. But the idea of a global desire paired with a strong individual motivation- yep, that's starting to ring bells for me. Agreed that the WWI and WWII stories tend to have a specific genre factor going on there- though I'm still not 100% sure how close I'm going to fly to that...

  11. Great musings, Claire. My wip is a personal-journey one and while I know what the hero wants, I'm stalled because I'm wondering if it's enough to write an entire book about.