#245 – What are Objects of Desire?


[00:00:00] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you level up your craft as a writer. My name is Tim Grahl, and I’m a writer and the behind the scenes guy here at Story Grid. This podcast episode is hosted by Story Grid certified editor, Kimberly Kessler, alongside Shawn Coyne, the Founder of Story Grid and an editor with over 30 years of experience. In this episode, Kim and Shawn discuss objects of desire and how they fit into your writing. 

Before we jump in, I want to tell you about the new Story Grid Trinity Seminar. We’ve opened up registration for the first time ever. In this extensive training, Shawn Coyne walks you through a science-based deep dive into the theory of storytelling. Through the process, we introduce the elephant problem of storytelling, how Story Grid approaches the problem, the diorama method of storytelling, and so much more. The seminar includes 116 bite-sized lessons, along with extensive recorded Q&A with Shawn. Right now, we’re offering the Story Grid Trinity Seminar at a 33% discount, and you can access the program at storygrid.com/trinity. Again, that’s storygrid.com/trinity.

Lastly, if you’re fascinated by Story Grid and are interested in joining the elite team of Story Grid certified editors, our next training is coming up this February. It’s in less than two months. One of the main benefits of this program is world class training on starting and growing and editing business. You can see all of the details at storygrid.com/certification. Okay, that’s all on the announcements. So let me turn it over to Kim and Shawn. 


[00:01:38] KK: Hi, Shawn. 

[00:01:39] SC: Hi, Kim. 

[00:01:40] KK: How you doing?

[00:01:42] SC: I’m doing great. How about you? You all right?

[00:01:44] KK: Yeah, really good. Really good, and I’m super excited to talk to you today about my current obsession, which is, I don’t know, something I think I’ve overlooked for a while. Now, I’ve sort of, I don’t know, keyed in on it as something that I’m like, “Oh, I think this is really, really important.” I shouldn’t be surprised because it is one of our editor’s six core questions. But the thing I want to ask you about today is the character wants and needs or the objects of desire. So that’s what we’re going to be poking your brain at with today. 

I think probably to start, I have a bunch of questions and insights that I have that I kind of want to like bounce pass to you and double-check and like see where it goes. But I guess if you could just start us off and remind us all like why the heck is objects of desire or wants and needs one of our editor six core questions, and what does it actually mean, and what are we looking for in that question?

[00:02:41] SC: Sure. Wants, needs, and desires are a trinity. We have a lot of trinities in Story Grid. What they’re really about are sort of goal states. So what’s a goal state? The way I like to frame this is sort of through the cognitive revolution of the 1950s, and there are these two guys named Newell and Simon, and they kind of came up with this idea about how we actually behave in the world. The reason why they were thinking about this is they were trying to create something called artificial general intelligence. Everybody’s still trying to do that. 

But generally, what they were trying to think is that if we were to create a brain from scratch, how would we do such a thing, right? So the way they kind of put it forward is that what is intelligence? What they kind of came up with was, I think it’s a pretty, pretty good frame, is that at bottom, what intelligence is is the ability to solve problems. So they call their thing a general problem solver, GPS, if you will, before it became GPS. That’s kind of what they were searching for is this idea of the general problem solver. 

The frame that they came up with was they had this idea that there’s an initial state, and then we sort of project a goal state. So if you are trying to solve a problem, you want to know what the initial state of the problem is, and what is the goal to overcome that problem. So they started with there’s an initial state, and there’s a goal state, and then there’s all this stuff in between the initial state and goal state. Those are called operations. So you do certain things, certain tasks to move from an initial state to a goal state. If you’re framing this as a problem, you would set your problem as your initial state, and then the goal state would be to overcome the problem. So it’s a really simple kind of idea. 

What they came up with was the notion that the big problem that they have is that they didn’t define problems very well. So they kind of assumed that all problems were the same. What it turns out that there are two kinds of problems. 

[00:04:57] KK: Only two. 

[00:04:59] SC: There’s only two, believe it or not. 

[00:05:00] KK: I did not expect that. 

[00:05:02] SC: There’s only two. There’s ones, there’s twos, and there’s threes. All right, so this is a great tool to understand. When I tell you, it’s not going to be that shocking. All right, so there’s well-defined problems and ill-defined problems. All right, so a well-defined problem would be something like how do I walk across the room and open the door. So we can certainly kind of figure that out and be able to get to our goal state very easily. Another well-defined problem would be sort of logical problems like mathematical problems, all kinds of everyday problems. How do I turn lights on, that sort of thing. 

So these are things that can actually be solved by computation, which means that you can just use an algorithm to figure it out, right? So once you know the steps, it’s very simple. It’s cause effect, right? If I turn on the switch, the lights go on. If I teach a computer how to turn on the switch, then the computer can turn the lights on, etc., etc. So well-defined problems are awesome, and these are the things that scientists really pursue their time trying to figure out. They’re called causal patterns. So they’re very simple ordered cause and effect patterns that happen and are very reliable. All right, so that’s the first class. 

But what they didn’t think about really that much was the ill-defined problem set. Now, ill-defined problems are things that are complex, right? Like how do you raise your children to be happy and healthy?

[00:06:38] KK: Let me know when you figure that one out. 

[00:06:39] SC: Yeah, yeah. I know, right. So these are all very ill-defined, and there isn’t any one super easy algorithm to solve them. How do I find the person that I should spend the rest of my life with? That’s a very ill-defined problem. What you’ll discover when you start thinking about this a lot is that most of your problems are ill-defined. But a lot of people seem to think that there’s – We can solve every problem because every problem can be well-defined. I think that’s a fundamental axiomatic error that a lot of people in search of general artificial intelligence aren’t really bringing to bear. 

The way we solve ill-defined problems is through sort of what’s called inductive-abductive kind of inferential reasoning, and that’s just a big word for we kind of guess. We have sort of these rules of thumb called heuristics that we use to sort of squeeze the problem space down so that we can kind of limit the amount of time that we have to cogitate to figure out what to do. 

[00:07:43] KK: Cogitate. That’s the Shawn-ism of the day so far.

[00:07:48] SC: All right. So what does this have to do with wants, needs, and desires? All right, so remember we have a trinity in Story Grid. We have on the surface, above the surface, and beyond the surface. On the surface is really about what’s happening right on the surface of a story or what is objectively stimulating a character, how are they responding, that kind of thing. The on the surface world is really dominated by wants. What a want is is something that we need. I’m sorry. It’s hard to not equivocate the language. 

[00:08:20] KK: Right. It’s okay. 

[00:08:22] SC: A want is something that is required for us to survive. I’m going to get into how it can get confusing. So a want is a having mode kind of thing. We must have water to survive. We must have food to survive. Our species must reproduce to survive. So there are all these things that are required for us just so we survive. So we want. We really want to have them or we die. So wants are very, very specific things that are externally driven. We want to have some food. We go make it. 

Now, there are also wants that have sort of hedonic tone changes for us. So if we want a specific kind of food, like one a piece of chocolate cake instead of the barley bar. 

[00:09:17] KK: Right. Kale salad, whatever.

[00:09:19] SC: Right. That’s a different kind of want, and the reason why we want that is it gives us a certain kind of feeling and makes us feel better. We get in a rush of hedonic pleasure from it. All right, so the wants are very externally driven. Our society and our culture is very good about pushing us to want a lot of things. 

[00:09:41] KK: Yes. Yes, it is.

[00:09:43] SC: And it promises us a lot of hedonic tone reinforcement if we get it. This is the basis of advertising. So the having needs are very much externally driven. All right, so let’s take a step up work, the needs. The needs are internal things. These are sort of what Maslow would call your hierarchy of needs. So Maslow would talk about the very bottom level as sort of physiological needs, and I just call them kind of wants. 

Then eventually, we sort of hit this place. After we have our food, we have our shelter, we have a modicum of safety, we feel as if we’re generally secure. Then we move into what I call like the liminal stage of life, which is kind of moving into the thriving mode, right? So the very bottom is all about survival, and now we want to thrive. Thriving is the realm of love, and love in the abstract, as well as the traditional understandings of love. So the abstract notion of love is about the need to actualize our potential. 

Within each of us, we have sort of this wonderful thing that enables us to reflect and simulate about the past and future of our lives. So we can think about the things that have happened in the past. Then we simulate and project into the future how we can make our lives better in the future. So we put up a whole bunch of potential fantasies of what might be good for us from moving from now into a goal state, right? So we’re all sitting in this initial state of our everyday life, and we project aspirationally into the future about what we could potentially become. 

Love is actually the process by which you take that potentiality, and you enable it and actualize it. 

[00:11:43] KK: That’s great. 

[00:11:44] SC: Yeah. So this is the movement from moving from having to the being slash becoming mode of behavior, and this is about thriving. So the surviving is all about attaining wants, external wants that enable us to live and be secure and get along. That’s cool. That’s important. But then we sort of level up, and this is about above the surface need. The need is is we have a fundamental need to find truth, beauty, and the good. We also have a fundamental need to attune to reality as best we can and also to be social, to integrate into something bigger than just ourselves. So we have this very, very deep need to form communities, to feel as if we’re part of something larger than ourselves. 

The needs are really the realm of this thriving place. So thriving is about it’s really the transformation of the ego-centric child within us, which is only caring about getting our stuff for us, having what we want, and wanting it now. Then we go through this developmental stage where we start to be able to have an allocentric point of view where we can start to be empathetic about the needs of others. We start to derive some meaning and pleasure from actually being able to enable other people to get what they want, while we get what we want too. Isn’t it nice when we can do that?

One of our major needs is our need to be social and to join communities that we find are greater than the sum of their parts. So that’s part of what thriving is about. It’s transitioning from enabling the individual to actualize their potential, and then taking that individual and enabling other people too. So when you join a community, it’s not just about what’s in it for you. You’re supposed to be part of that community in such a way that you enable other people within that community to actualize their potential too. 

[00:14:07] KK: That’s all about thriving, is what you’re saying.

[00:14:09] SC: Exactly. It’s a dynamical feedback loop that actually mirrors and mimics the autopoietic feedback loop of evolution. So it’s really cool. It’s the way in which things complexify. The need zone that Maslow was talking about, and he got this sort of from Jean Piaget, is really about leveling up your ability to not just get what you want but to help you get what you need by doing what? By enabling yourself to actualize your potential. More importantly, in that actualization of your potential, you are enabling other people to actualize their potential too. So that’s love in the most abstract way.

[00:14:59] KK: Yes, absolutely.

[00:15:01] SC: It’s like one person joining another person, and together they are greater than the sum of their parts. 

[00:15:07] KK: Yeah, I love it. 

[00:15:08] SC: So cool. Those are the wants and the needs and the needs are within the agency of a particular subject. Each individual person has this need to do that thing, and they also have wants. Now, lastly, is the overarching concept of desire, and desire is sort of it’s the beyond the surface thing. We usually think of desire as sort of sexual desire or something like that or desire for food or whatever. But desire in the abstract is about sort of this really kind of cool concept where how like some flighty people always say, “The universe is telling me that I shouldn’t I shouldn’t date him anymore,” or, “I shouldn’t date her anymore.” Well, I do think that the universe does have a desire, and this desire in the most abstract is complexification.

[00:16:06] KK: Okay, that’s a really cool idea. 

[00:16:09] SC: I wish I could take credit for myself, but a lot of other people have had it. 

[00:16:13] KK: But you’re propagating it through the universe, so –

[00:16:16] SC: I am. I am. 

[00:16:18] KK: So take that.

[00:16:20] SC: So the most abstract desire is for leveling up of a complexity. Complexifying is exactly that thing that I was describing about getting what you want, so that it enables you to get what you need. Then that enables other people to get what they want and what they need. Together, you can create more and more complexity. So the overarching desire beyond the surface is if there was some sort of like crazy alien up in the cosmos, and they wanted to create a being whose job it was to increase the complexification of the universe, we would be that creation. So the overarching desire is what motivates us to move from our initial states into more developed beings into our goal states, which the beautiful thing about the goal state is that we don’t have a goal state, right? We can become and actualize multiple, multiple domains and dimensions of ourselves and our personality. So we can be many, many different things. The goal state is a little bit – I find it a bit problematic because it has this sort of inherent – There’s a finish line kind of thing to it, right?

[00:17:38] KK: Right. That probably seems like a lot of reasons why people are struggling with success or different things. Like they think it’s this goal school state, and they get, and they’re like, “Oh, shit. It’s not it. What do I do now?” Yeah. 

[00:17:49] SC: Yeah, yeah. I mean, the ultimate – Heidegger said that we are the beings whose being is in question. All he meant by that was that there is no goal state of us becoming the perfect flying machine like a bird or whatever. It’s that we are here to keep exploring to increase our complexification, such that we are exploring the cosmos and pushing it further and further into a more complex realm. 

What does this have to do with storytelling? Well, I maintain that every master word story embeds this sort of really deep, interesting, fascinating stuff within it. One of the realms by which we can embed this message is through a very clear understanding as the artist author of what our protagonist’s wants, needs, and ultimate desire is. So in every sort of scene, every unit of story, the protagonist has a want, a need, and a desire. 

Now, if it’s an externally driven story, like an action story, the want is going to be the dominant emphasis in a particular unit of story. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have a need too. One of the tricks is to be able to embed all three of these very important elements in a unit of story. So knowing exactly what the character wants, what the character needs, and ultimately what they desire. 

Now, desire, it’s very abstract, but you can limit it based upon genre, right? So a desire can be limited to a particular kind of virtue. Like we all sort of have these lines in the sand, so genre-specific lines in the sand would be something like the master detective will do anything to get justice, right? You can really mold your story as the ultimate desire, being the ultimate ethical line in the sand for your particular protagonist based upon the kind of story that you’re telling.

[00:19:59] KK: So taking like the master detective story as an example. The want in that story is to solve the crime, right? 

00:20:07 SC: Yes. 

[00:20:09] KK: And that is a survival need because we can’t just go have people going around killing people or we all die, right? We have to like figure that out. Is that – You know what I mean?

[00:20:17] SC: Well, there’s a couple of wants involved here. So one of the wants for the master detective is certainly to discover the perpetrator. That’s important. The second important thing, depending upon the kind of master detective, is to demonstrate just how powerful and potent in intellect they are, right? So another want would be to make enough money to buy that new car, and the means by which they do that is by finding the bad guy.

[00:20:55] KK: Okay. So I guess is the status of having a new car like part of their survival. Like they think that’s what they need to survive because it seems – You know what I mean? I guess I’m just trying to differentiate sort of the idea of, I guess, is that just sort of a hedonistic kind of want, the feeling that you get when –

[00:21:15] SC: Well, it’s a way to really diversify the resonance of the story because nobody has a singular want, right?

[00:21:23] KK: Right, right, right. 

[00:21:25] SC: So one of the things that is very difficult to do in these sort of master detective stories is to have units of change and story and scene that do not show the master detective rifling through the sock drawer of possible suspects, right? Part of it is really adding on different features of the master detective so that we can learn more about what’s really motivating them. Why are they a master detective? Now, you get to play in the realm of other wants, which are also genre-specific. 

For example, Jake Geddes in Chinatown, right? So Jake Geddes at the beginning of the story is presented to somebody who’s very, very sensitive about his appearance. He’s got the best suits. He goes to the barber. He gets the perfect shave. He’s got the great office, a sort of lords it over. He’s got associates, right? He’s got colleagues. This is an old cheesy movie, and he’s got the girl at the front desk. He’s got all of the accoutrements of someone who’s a successful investigator. What he does is trying to put a patina on a very dirty job. His job is to take pictures of people who are cheating on each other. 

There’s a joke early on in the movie where somebody just sort of insults him and he gets very, very upset about it. So that’s a way where the master detective isn’t really doing any crime solving. But we’re learning a lot about their character and about who they are and why they’re doing what they’re doing. Then slowly, we get to learn more about where this guy’s line in the sand really is and what he’s willing to give up to bring justice to the world.

[00:23:23] KK: So I think what I want to clarify is we talk about wants being survival-based. But I think maybe what it is is it’s even more. It’s like the egos feeling of survival, not even necessarily technical survival. But it’s the ego, like what does the ego your perceive? That’s what you’re saying is like having mode. Like my ego says, “I really need this, this, this, and this in order to survive.” Even if that’s not literally true, right? I will be fine without those things, but I won’t actually literally die but just emotionally or whatever, right? 

Okay. So ego, individual kind of selfishness. Not necessarily selfishness because that can get genre-confusing, but just that idea of it seems like it’s a limited perspective. It’s not really – It’s immature in a way because it’s really just about the ego. Okay. 

[00:24:09] SC: Yeah. It’s also we all define security in different ways, right? So there’s a meta desire, one of them, and that’s to have security. So security can have this survival; pure food, water, shelter kind of stuff. Then the more stuffs that we get, the more attached we become to it.

[00:24:30] KK: Right. Okay. Okay, that’s helpful. I think I just needed to clarify that we’re saying that –

[00:24:34] SC: So we can think about want as a necessity because we associate it with our security. But when you look at it objectively, this is where we as beings are very self-deceptive, and we can believe our own sort of bullshit. So this is one of the means that you can show how someone bullshits themselves is by starting to threaten things that they think are necessities. Once you start sort of slicing those necessities away from them, they get closer and closer to being able to get what they need, which is to –

[00:25:16] KK: Okay, that’s good. 

[00:25:17] SC: By necessity, they have to open up their potentiality, such that they can actualize in a way that will make them better than they were before.


[00:25:26] KK: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. If your heart is set on telling an internal genre story but is struggling with how to get it on the page, I invite you to connect with me for a free consult at kimberkessler.com. That’s K-I-M-B-E-R-K-E-S-S-L-E-R.com. For everything Story Grid-related, check out storygrid.com and make sure to pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter, so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe. 

Also, make sure you go to storygrid.com/books to see all the titles that we’ve released through Story Grid Publishing. If you’d like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast. If you’d like to reach out to us directly, you can find us on Twitter @StoryGrid. Lastly, if you would like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show and by visiting us on Apple podcasts and leaving a rating and review. Thanks so much for subscribing and being a part of our work here at Story Grid. We’ll see you next week.



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