craft post by Sarah S. Davis
When we think about what we really want, the answers run from pulsating thematic emotions like love to more articulated desires, like love from one person in particular. Sometimes when writing, we know what our character wants, but it’s a struggle to turn nebulous desires into something tangible, something attainable, something concrete. But making desire concrete is worth the effort–it makes your writing more engaging for readers and keeps them turning pages.
An Example: My YA Contemporary Novel
In my YA contemporary romance novel, Same Stars, protagonist Rory Hughes knows one thing for sure even in the midst of a mental health crisis: she wants to be an astronaut; it is her destiny. Since she was a kid, Rory has had her sights on space. Answering the “why” of this desire comes out in a therapy appointment Rory has with her psychiatrist and therapist, Dr. Mehta. Trying to get to the bottom of Rory’s motivation to go to space, they both discover that it’s not simply a love of astronomy that pushes Rory spacebound. Instead, it’s a fear of intimacy and abandonment. Escaping to outer space is a manifestation of her intense desire to avoid getting close to people. Rory wants to one day be looking down on Earth from space; but what she really wants is to be as far away from relationship and attachments as possible. Finding a reason to stay here on this planet becomes one of the major themes of the story.
Rory’s backstory supports this “why.” Thanks to her father leaving Rory and her mother when Rory was ten, Rory developed an intense fear of abandonment. At the same time, Rory became interested in astronomy. Braiding her interest in space with her fear of abandonment, Rory subconsciously ties the two together. It’s not just that she wants to be an astronaut. Being an astronaut is her objective because it is also her goal to avoid intimacy and the potential for being abandoned. In the novel, Rory’s fear becomes a motivation that is measurable and specific.
Turning a Model into Practice
So how do we create desires for our character that are specific and attainable? How do we concretize motivation? First, think of what the protagonist really wants and then create a way to experience that desire in an actual, attainable way. It’s key that this desire is something protagonist can achieve, as opposed to a passive goal or something that just happens to them.
Let’s work through this together. Imagine a protagonist named Emily who wants, more than anything, acceptance from her judgmental father who dismisses her artsy ambitions. One way to concretize her desire is to make Emily’s upcoming senior studio night an opportunity to earn her father’s acceptance. Emily has been working on a series of paintings that each thematically relate to her father’s love of fishing, a connection they shared when Emily was a kid on father-daughter fishing trips. Emily pours her heart and soul into the series, believing it will help her father to see that they still have a bond deep inside and to acknowledge her passion for art. By showing her father all her hard work that reflects their history, Emily believes she will get his acceptance. This gives her a project to work on during the course of the story that draws on her desire.
To be even more specific, Emily is motivated to perfect her paintings because she could win one of the scholarships announced on senior studio night. Traditionally, the young artists’ parents or guardians join them on stage when they’re announced. Emily’s deepest desire is that her father will attend studio night, approve of her paintings, and stand with her one stage when she receives a scholarship. It is a desire that she can visualize, something concrete she can go after. Emily’s dream would be a perfectly realized desire because this accomplishment will prove that her father symbolically offers his acceptance. Emily believes the only way she can achieve that is by impressing him (and the judges) with the project and hopefully winning an award. Emily’s desire is something specific and attainable—something concrete—that reflects her inner desire.
Now it’s YOUR turn . . .
If you’re challenged by concretizing your character’s desire, try manifesting their inner want into a tangible reality. Ask yourself how the desire could be realized by going through the w’s: who, what, when, where, why. Give them a project or something to do that leads towards accomplishing their desire. Brainstorm how your character’s deepest wish could be manifested into a single clear mental image, object, or action.
By concretizing desire, we sharpen our character’s desire lines and give our hero something to go after. Being along for the ride as a reader leads to a more engaging experience that fleshes out the motivations of the protagonist we’re rooting for.
For more on character desire, as well as internal and external arcs, check out these posts!
Sarah S. Davis lives among cats and piles of books outside Philadelphia. Her writing has appeared on Book Riot, Electric Literature, and Kirkus Reviews. She holds a BA in English form the University of Pennsylvania and a Master’s of Library Science from Clarion University. Sarah is currently an MFA student in Vermont College of Fine Arts’ kid lit program. She is working on a middle grade fantasy novel, a YA dystopian series, and collection of nonsense verse. Besides reading books, Sarah also reads tarot cards professionally.
Find Sarah on her blog, Broke by Books.