Desire: The Heart of Writing Compelling Characters

May 21, 2022

Desire is at the heart of any action humans take. We want so we act so as to achieve that want.

I’m hungry. I want to impress her. I want to be a good human being.

Okay, so I might be exaggerating a bit when I say any action, and I’m certainly not prepared to build a philosophy on such a stance. But the point is that desire is a major driving force for how humans go about living their lives.

What is it that your characters want? How can they go about getting it? And will that desire truly satisfy them?

These are questions that should be circling through your head every time you sit down to write.

Desire is directly related to tension.

If it’s a hero, we want them to succeed because we either sympathize with them or we agree with their goals.

If it’s a villain, we want them to fail because we either dislike them or disagree with their goals.

Every time it looks like the hero will fail or the villain succeed, the story’s tension rises, because that’s not what the reader wants.

Do you see what you’re doing? You’re playing with the desires of your audience to keep them reading.

If it helps, you can think of your character as having different layers. For example, the detective’s core desire is for justice. This is expressed through the next layer of desire that lies closer to the surface (closer to a character’s actions) which is to identify the murderer. There tend to be very few core desires—happiness, stability, and revenge being a few examples—while the expressed desire (or intention) of a character depends strongly on the context of the story.

Also, consider how characters’ desires interact with each other. Do two sympathetic characters want incompatible results? If so, the audience will be torn over which character they want to succeed. Or perhaps the results aren’t incompatible, but the action one character takes to achieve their goals creates difficulties for the other character. In doing so, you’ll increase your story’s tension.

So, if you haven’t already, pull out the interview mic and corner your characters. Find out what they want.

Then find out how to make them fight to get it.

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