Desperation by Josh Sommers
The legendary coach Vince Lombardi used to greet his players at training camp by saying: “Within every man there is a burning flame of desperation. That is why you are here.”
I would include women in that, of course, and wouldn’t restrict the application to football. Or sports. Or Wisconsin.
This flame of desperation arises from some nameless place inside us, creating a profound sense of yearning that we often cannot define, but it is as intrinsic to our lives as more purely physical urges beyond our conscious control such as hunger, thirst, the sex drive, the need to breathe.
We long for something else, something better, something deeper and purer and truer, even if we have no clear idea what that might be, or how to go about naming it, let alone finding it.
And as writers we transmit that yearning to our characters.
This all came back to me as I was contemplating Donald Maass’s most recent post here (“Infused”), on the importance of recognizing your character’s core need, and my own most recent piece on pinpointing your character’s desire.
We long for something else, something better, something deeper and purer and truer
It seemed to me the beginning of a debate had started, with me saying that overcomplicating the matter was more often the result of confusion on the writer’s part than the character’s. But Donald made a very interesting comment that’s stayed with me. Troubled me. Nagged me.
The bastard (he muttered).
Here’s my attempt at a reply.
Donald mentioned an exercise he uses where students identify the character’s desire in a scene they are writing. They then step back and think a bit more deeply and identify another, deeper desire. Then they do so again. By the end the students almost always feel as though they’ve gotten to the essence of the scene in a way they previously hadn’t.
The more I thought about it, though, the more convinced I became that Donald and I weren’t disagreeing. We were discussing different things at different levels, story arc versus scene, for example, and the sometimes interchangeable use of the words “want” and “desire” and “need” created further confusion. That was my take, anyway, and I thought I’d try to clear that up here, or at least move the discussion forward a little.
Recordando a Moby Dick Photo by Anna Librillana
In this September’s edition of Writer’s Digest, I have an article titled “Finding Your Story’s Engine.” (Ironically, Donald’s article, “Building Micro-Tension Into Every Scene,” immediately follows mine, making it a must-have issue—nudge-nudge, wink-wink.)
In my article I make the argument that desire, not conflict, provides the engine for story. Wile E. Coyote cannot stop wanting to catch the Roadrunner, no matter how many anvils fall from the sky.
Or, as I put it in The Art of Character:
- The inescapable urgency of what a character wants, the vibrant way her craving and need defines her, creates what I call the Tyranny of Motive. Like all tyrannies, it demands obedience—and inspires rebellion.
But what realistically is there to rebel against?
Here’s what: The reduction of what a character yearns for to a pithy bon mot.
I know this sounds like a contradiction, given my previous insistence on keeping it simple. But I wasn’t criticizing complexity so much as the use of complexity as an evasion, a way to keep from asking direct questions and demanding answers.
That doesn’t mean I think the answers can be reduced to bumper-sticker slogans.
The inescapable urgency of what a character wants, the vibrant way her craving and need defines her, creates what I call the Tyranny of Motive.
In truth, the core of our psyche is framed by competing drives, something virtually every moral system devised by man has recognized throughout history.
- Plato likened the perfect soul to a winged creature, hoping to soar upward toward Truth. But the imperfect soul loses its wings and descends to earth, where evil, foulness and mere opinion reign. A total devotion to the purity of Truth can restore the fallen soul’s wings.
- Augustine argued that Man, eternally contaminated by the sin of Adam, nonetheless retains a desire to return to the beatific vision he knew in the Garden, a return only possible by gaining God’s grace.
- Buddhism argues that the human soul experiences a state of lack because it tries to anchor consciousness in the material world, pursuing a sense of solidity through wealth and power and physical pleasure, but this is like trying to slake a thirst with salt water. Instead we must strive for pure consciousness in a state of No Self.
- Freud believed people are driven by two equal, conflicting instincts: the avoidance of pain and the desire for health and wholeness. Only by lancing old wounds and dealing with that pain can we transcend our past, overcome our neuroses.
Each of these formulations points to a deep yearning for some kind of truth or love or health within us, and a battle in our hearts with the less honest, brave, or wholesome inclinations we settle for. You can’t understand your character’s yearning—or your own—without understanding that battle.
But how do we unbundle that mad, conflicting tangle of impulses? How do we create a story from it?
Sophocles described his heroes with the term deinos, which translates loosely as “wondrous and strange.” A character who lives up to that description possesses a kind of incandescence, reminding us of the unpredictable capacity for loving sacrifice, heroism, fierce persistence—as well as craven selfishness, cowardice, vacillation—that each of us carries within his heart.
But how do we unbundle that mad, conflicting tangle of impulses? How do we create a story from it?
For what it’s worth, here’s the methodology I’ve come up with.
The four key areas I always explore when first building my characters are:
The machinery works like this:
- The character begins the story in a state of lack he may or may not recognize: a state of unfulfilled promise, malaise, longing, existential angst, even dread.
- The lack is created by an unfulfilled yearning that may be equally vague or undefined, at least at the story’s start.
- The reason that the yearning is unfulfilled is because the character possesses a trait or traits that make the yearning feel foolish, impossible, terrifying, futile—out of the question:
o a weakness (laziness, cowardice, lack of intelligence, despair);
o a wound (some loss or injury that has crippled his ability to love, heal, or act decisively);
o a limitation (youth, illness, class, race); or
o a flaw (dishonesty, envy, vanity, rage).
This weakness, wound, limitation or flaw has singly or in concert with others inhibited his ability to see his soul, his dreams, his destiny clearly, or live the life he wants.
- Then something happens—the loved one appears, a body is found, the expedition is launched, the car breaks down in the middle of nowhere—and that triggers the desire to respond or to act.
[Excuse the somewhat arbitrary distinction between desire on the one hand and need or yearning on the other. It’s just a device. Like John Truby, I use “desire” to refer to the outer goal or ambition the character pursues in the story, whereas “need” or “yearning” refers to the deeper longing that explains why and how badly he wants it.]
It is the desire to act that is often easiest and simplest to identify and define—to win the loved one, catch the killer, complete the expedition, walk to the next town and find help. It’s this desire that I maintain is simple to identify, or should be.
Ahab chases the whale, Gatsby pursues Daisy. The simplicity of the outer goal works precisely because it allows the story to move beyond the dark slippery quagmire of inner yearning. It gives the character something to do.
Photo by Ma_Co2013
As the character acts, he encounters conflict. The contest to continue pursuing the desire despite the mounting conflict —and the risk of failure — forces the character to ask: Why continue? Why not surrender, compromise, turn back?
The answer lies in the yearning. Through struggling to gratify the desire, through facing the prospect of failure and even ruin, the character becomes aware of the deeper need, the core longing, the yearning he has imperfectly grasped before. Or he realizes at last the inescapable intensity of it.
This awakens him to the stakes. A character’s yearning speaks to what he believes his life is truly about: the way of life he wants to live, the kind of person he wants to be. If he turns his back on that, he’s basically giving up on his life. He must accept the truth of his yearning, or die.
I always ask how, at the end of the story, my characters have become at least a little braver, more honest, and more loving—or not.
This is how to create stakes that are truly profound. Recognize that whatever outer goal or ambition the character pursues in the story somehow speaks to this deeper, implacable, life-defining need or yearning.
But how do you put your finger on that “burning flame of desperation”? Can it be summed up in a single phrase? To come home. To be free. To find true love. To be the champion.
It’s tempting here to be simple, too. I often see students cringing before the old verities, believing them to be clichéd or hokey. But they speak to our fundamental natures for a reason. We long for beauty and truth and love. Can’t we just leave it there?
I actually believe the need or yearning is a more organic, complex thing than that. And it can’t be known until you do a lot of the backstory exploration that identifies moments in the character’s past that have shaped him—moments of extreme terror, courage, shame, pride, guilt, forgiveness, hate, love. The person he wants to be, the life he hopes to live—both are shaped indelibly by the life he’s known so far.
Recognize that whatever outer goal or ambition the character pursues in the story somehow speaks to this deeper, implacable, life-defining need or yearning.
Pin a slogan on the yearning, you’re probably doing an injustice to the complexity and depth your character deserves. And the result will be a character who not only acts simplistically, but predictably.
Readers shouldn’t be vexed by a character’s behavior, but they should never feel entirely comfortable either, or they’ll be several steps ahead of the story at every turn. This may seem counterintuitive to those who’ve been browbeaten in English classes to identify the single root cause of a character’s actions, but this is a fool’s errand.
One sees this in the usual misunderstanding of “tragic flaw.” If actors portrayed Medea solely by focusing on her jealousy, Coriolanus his pride, Hamlet his indecision, Macbeth his ambition, the results would make the characters as wooden as Pinocchio. Such an approach fundamentally misconceives the very nature of these roles.
Pinocchio in Vienna by tobias142
Robert McKee makes this point in his writing guide, Story:
Generally, the more the writer nails motivation to specific causes, the more he diminishes the character in the audience’s mind.
This is a sneaky, subtle, maddening truth. Whatever the character does, the reader needs to feel her actions arise from the whole of her personality, her contradictions and secrets and wounds, her attachment to friends and family and her fear of her enemies, her schooling and sense of home, her loves and hatreds, her shame and pride and guilt and sense of joy. As important as a character’s yearning is, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor can it be teased out and separated from everything else about her.0
This is why identifying the yearning by a word or a phrase frequently feels inadequate. I often urge my students to use instead an image, a work of art or a piece of music to capture the yearning—especially a work of art or piece of music with vastly contrasting elements.
Generally, the more the writer nails motivation to specific causes, the more he diminishes the character in the audience’s mind. –Robert McKee
Dante confessed that what saved him during his darkest hours of despair was the rediscovery of his love for Beatrice, long dead. He realized that their love was the greatest source of joy and truth in his life, and if he refused to do anything that would shame or degrade himself before her eyes, he could call that a good life. Beatrice became not just a conscience figure but the sky toward which his soul ascended. She embodied his yearning.
Photo by Martin Beek
In my upcoming novel, Save By An Evil Chance, I used Ralph Vaughn Williams’s “The Lark Ascending” to symbolize a seventeen-year-old runaway’s desire for something more profound, courageous and beautiful in her life. The piece itself is never named in the text. It was my internal cue. And just as Donald wisely suggests identifying the need in every scene you write, I returned to that music in every scene involving that character, to remind me of the nameless state of grace she truly, deeply yearned for.
This kind of symbolic, imagistic conceptualization of the yearning allows for a deeper, more intuitive, less logical or reductionist understanding of the character. It takes you beneath the clamor of words to the character’s essence.
But it can also seem too vast or amorphous to serve simple story needs. How to solve that problem?
First, understand that the character never truly gratifies this deeper yearning. Life isn’t like that. The yearning is elusive, unquenchable. But your character will get nearer to fulfilling it in the course of the story, and you need to define what that interim destination within the story will be. It will define how, due to the events of the story, she’s become at least a little more aware and capable of being the person she secretly wants to be, living the life she knows she should live.
I always ask how, at the end of the story, my characters have become at least a little braver, more honest, and more loving—or not. And if not, why? The courage may be wobbly, the honesty bitter, the love rocky, but those virtues are the milestones I mark on the character’s journey.
Your character’s yearning for the sake of the story may indeed be as simply stated as the need to get home (in all the richness the word “home” conveys); to be free (in the distinct way your character has come to understand freedom through the events of the story); or to find true love (with the deeper, humbler sense of worth such love provides). But don’t forget that this endpoint is temporary on a lifelong journey toward the ineffable thing beckoning the characters toward their better selves, a nobler way of life.
Or, to use a mythic metaphor, assume that when Sisyphus gets to the top of the hill with his rock, it doesn’t roll back down again. Instead he just realizes there’s another hill waiting. In your story, your character is getting his rock to the top of the nearest hill.
Simply tying actions to facile, one-note motives and leaving it at that is too simplistic to feel satisfying. It smacks of an overly rigid and unsophisticated view of human nature. The more the reader sees the writer’s hand in a character’s behavior, the more that character will resemble a plot puppet, not a real person. And the more the character’s behavior can be reduced to easily explainable causes, the more the reader will feel shackled to the Tyranny of Motive, rather than introduced to something more elusive and intriguing, something wondrous and strange.
Can you distinguish your protagonist’s outer desire from the inner yearning in your work in progress?
What is the narrower aspect of the yearning — call it the need — that your character strives for in your story? How does it speak to the larger, more encompassing yearning?
What is your character’s weakness, wound, limitation and/or flaw — the thing(s) keeping her from fulfilling her yearning?
Have you ever used an image, work of art, or piece of music to help you better understand a character’s inner life?
Take a stab at identifying Ahab’s or Gatsby’s yearning.
David Corbett is the author of four novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, and Do They Know I’m Running? His short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, Writer’s Digest, and numerous other venues. He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, Delve Writers, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, and in January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character