In the television series Lucifer, the former King of Hell can compel the characters to answer his question: “What is it you desire?” That is, what do they want?
In our stories, we have to do a little more work to tease that out of the characters.
In the early stages of a story, they may only have a vague idea of what they desire; if someone asked them, they may honestly say, “I don’t know”.
But before you get too far into the thick of things your readers (and you) had better know what your protagonist wants in a global story sense. Otherwise, they’ll be confused about what’s driving the story.
Your Protagonist must want something
Now this should be obvious. Everybody wants something, usually a lot of different things. You might want your bowling team to win and to get a raise at work and to lose weight and to write a story and …
The difference is, your protagonist and other characters must have or develop a desire for something that will drive their actions within the story, something relevant to the plot. Generally, it’s the story’s Inciting Incident that drives this desire:
- Someone close to your protagonist is threatened and they want to keep that person safe;
- A big contest is announced and your protagonist wants the Grand Prize;
- A crime is committed and the protagonist wants to solve it;
- Boy meets the Girl of his dreams and wants to be be with her;
- A despotic government’s misdeeds hit home, and the main character wants to join the revolution.
Sometimes, the protagonist already wanted the “object of desire” long before the story started, but the Inciting Incident affects their goal in some way:
- Roy Hobbs spent his whole life wanting to be a baseball player, but the Inciting Incident (getting shot) derails his plans to be the top major league pitcher. So Hobbs must find some other way of entering the majors.
- Hercule Poirot conceived a desire to solve crimes and bring criminals to justice long before the murder of Emily Inglethorp. That inciting incident of The Mysterious Affair at Styles (and every crime in all the Poirot stories) simply provides Poirot another opportunity to pursue his goal. And so it is with most Master Detectives;
- Max Jones always aspired to follow in his uncle’s footsteps and go to space as an astrogator. When his mother remarries and her new husband intends to sell the family farm, Max’s plans are accelerated.
To want and want “not”
Ask a hundred people what they want, and half or more of them will tell you what they don’t want:
“I want to not take things personally”;
“I want to not resent my job”;
“I want to stop biting my nails”;
“I want to not be afraid of success”;
“I want to avoid conflict.”
They’re describing what are only half-goals. They want to move away from what is (their Present State), but don’t have anything to move toward, no what should be, or Desired State. Half-goals like that do not make for fully defined objects of desire. And that’s what your characters need.
Take Rocky. At the beginning of the movie, he probably wanted to be something different from a third-rate palooka who moonlighted as a loan shark’s enforcer, but he had no notion of what to do instead.
Then came the offer from Apollo Creed’s team. At first he balked (the classic Refusal of the Call), but later the offer enabled him to conceive of a Desired State. Instead of being a nobody going nowhere, he could be The Guy That Went 15 Rounds With The Champ.
That gave him something to move toward.
In most Society stories, the protagonists want to overthrow the current oppressive order. But what do they want instead? Usually, they don’t know. At most they just have some vague notions of “freedom” or “equality”, but no idea of how to bring it about.
That’s why, as Shawn Coyne has observed, rebellions tend to be full 360˚ revolutions — “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
Wants, Needs, and Desires
In Story, Robert McKee observes that “The protagonist may also have a self-contradictory unconscious desire.” He goes on to say, “The conscious and unconscious desires of a multidimensional protagonist contradict each other. What he believes he wants is the antithesis of what he actually but unwittingly wants.”
In Story Grid, we talk about “Conscious Wants” and “Unconscious Needs” as Objects of Desire. But notice that McKee describes both conscious and unconscious objects of desire as things the protagonist wants. There is an important difference between a desire and a need that enables us to distinguish four categories:
- Conscious Desires/Wants;
- Unconscious Desires/Wants;
- Recognized Needs;
- Unrecognized Needs.
- Conscious Desire: A character has always wanted to go to Paris;
- Unconscious Desire: A character believes they are satisfied with their low-level job, but deep down they want more recognition;
- Recognized Need: A character knows they need to exercise more, whether they want to or not;
- Unrecognized Need: For their own good, a character needs to disconnect from a circle of friends, but doesn’t know it, even unconsciously.
The interplay among these four categories can generate a rich variety of internal conflicts.
It’s all about conflict
You know this one by heart; stories must have conflict.
Because real life has conflict. If we all lived a life with no struggle, nothing standing between us and our goals, then our stories — if we even had them — would reflect that. Characters would conceive a goal and achieve it with nothing in their way And if our lives were like that, those stories would work for us.
But given how life really is, those stories won’t work. In fact, they won’t even be stories; at best they will be accounts of events.
Stories speak to us because when we try to achieve anything more significant than brushing our teeth, we usually have to overcome some difficulty. We want a story’s protagonist to have to struggle, just as we do, only more so. We want to see them solving problems, overcoming obstacles, defeating the antagonist.
It gives us hope that we can face our own challenges.
Conflicting Conscious Desires
One source of conflict is when you want two things and can’t have both. It’s possible that both desires are conscious.
Example: If George Bailey leaves Bedford Falls, the Bailey Building & Loan will shut down. George wants to go to college, but he also wants the BB&L to survive. He’s conscious of both desires.
George must answer a Crisis Question, the dilemma of a Best Bad Choice or Irreconcilable Goods.
A quick review:
A Best Bad Choice is what it sounds like: the protagonist has two alternatives to choose form, neither of which is good.
Irreconcilable Goods is when the two alternatives are both desirable, but the protagonist must choose only one.
There are Hybrid cases, where each alternative is Good in some way and Bad in another. George Bailey has such a Hybrid choice.
Best Bad Choice — you’re going to be executed at dawn. You’re given a choice of being shot or being hanged;
Irreconcilable Goods — You get two job offers, both of which are good, but you can only accept one;
Hybrid: — You go to the movies with your spouse. You can either watch the one you want or the one they want.
Ultimate Hybrid: Sophie’s Choice.
Conflicting Conscious and Unconscious Desires
A character may be unaware that they want something that conflicts with their conscious desire. They start to act out of a conscious desire and end up trying to satisfy the unconscious one.
In Breaking Bad, Walter White learns that he has brain cancer, with only a short time left to live. His immediate desire is providing for his family after he’s gone. It is his concern for his family that leads to the initial decision to make money by cooking meth.
However, this project feeds an unconscious yearning — the desire to use his skills as a master chemist. These skills have remained dormant through all the years he taught High School Chemistry. In Steven Pressfield’s terms, teaching was his “shadow career”. As time goes on, White’s new career as “Heisenberg” allows him to express, not just his skills as a chemist, but all his gifts to the fullest: his talents for creative problem solving, improvisation, leadership, and even battle.
Walter doesn’t realize this at first. When his wife confronts him he tells her, truthfully, that he undertook this dangerous enterprise for his family. In the end, he recognizes that he continued as “Heisenberg” to get what he had wanted and repressed for decades. He tells his wife, “I did it for myself.”
Walter has achieved a distorted self-actualization, but at the expense of love, safety, and his life.
An unconscious desire may become conscious
Walter White wasn’t conscious of his desire for self-actualization until the end, but awareness of an unconscious desire may come to a character earlier, and that can lead to the story’s Crisis Question.
At the beginning of Casablanca, Rick Blaine tells us “I stick my neck out for no one.” Meanwhile, Ilsa Lund, the woman who broke his heart and engendered his current cynicism, walks into Rick’s gin joint with freedom fighter Victor Laszlo. Rick discovers that he still loves Ilsa.
He has a conscious desire to be with her, even if it means turning Laszlo over to the gestapo, but he also has a desire, an unconscious one, to help Laszlo and “get back in the game”. By the time of the final showdown, however, Rick has become aware of this second, unselfish, desire and is faced with the story’s Crisis Question: remain in Casablanca with Ilsa while Victor travels on to Lisbon alone, or send her with him, because she’s “part of his work, the thing that keeps him going”?
Conflicting Conscious Desires and Unrecognized Needs
A character may need something that they don’t want, not even unconsciously.
Ebenezer Scrooge wants nothing more than to keep accumulating wealth. He only spends his money in the smallest amount necessary to take care of the basics: food, shelter, clothing — his recognized needs. This leads him to live a solitary life, minimally interacting with others. Yet he needs to be more generous to others with both his wealth, and, more importantly, with his time and affection.
He doesn’t recognize that need. It may or may not be something he unconsciously desires; that doesn’t matter. If he continues to single-mindedly pursue his conscious object of desire without also satisfying this unrecognized need, he is doomed. The ghosts are there to get him to recognize that need. Once he does recognize it, he changes his ways and fulfills it admirably.
What do they want it for?
As I noted in my post on MacGuffins, an object of desire is often not an end in itself, but a means to reaching some other object of greater importance:
- The hero doesn’t seek to obtain the antidote so they can keep it on a shelf and admire it; they want it to cure someone important to them;
- They don’t want the treasure map so they can frame it and hang it on a wall; they want to find the treasure;
- They don’t want to find the guy who has the widget so they can hang out together and have a beer; they want the widget.
Sometimes, though, a character may become confused about what they want and what they want it for.
In Kramer vs. Kramer, Ted Kramer is a successful advertising executive. He has taken this job, or indeed, any job, to “bring home the bacon”, i.e., to provide for his family. Ted knows that the more successful he becomes, the more “bacon” and security he can provide, and so he works longer and longer hours.
Let’s look at how this causes a problem in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
By the time the story begins, while Ted provides the physiological needs of his family — food, shelter, and so on — and their safety/security needs, he no longer provides them with something else they need — himself.
Believing that his and their Love needs are taken care of, he pursues Status at work. His hard work is paying off. His boss recognizes his talent and his dedication and gives him an assignment that will lead to a partnership.
And just when he comes home to celebrate the big news with his wife, she drops a 2000 pound weight on his chest: she’s leaving him. The life that Ted thought was perfectly fine is unendurable for his wife Joanna, and so she walks out, leaving him and their son Billy to fend for themselves.
Somewhere along the line, Ted has lost sight of why he was working so hard. Success became an object of desire, an end in itself, rather than a means to the goal it originally served, taking care of his family and having their love.
Although it’s too late to save his relationship with Joanna, Ted learns to place caring for Billy first — in all ways, not just financially — even at the expense of a loss of Status.
“Whatever you desire”
Most writers have enough to do just juggling the protagonist’s desires and needs and leave the other characters’ goals at the conscious desire level. Any number of first-rate stories do that. But occasionally, you come across something like L.A. Confidential.
Consider Ed Exley, Bud White, and Jack Vincennes. Besides the external dynamics between Exley and the other two, each has his internal conflicts.
Exley has ambitions to move up the police hierarchy, but also has a desire for justice, which leads him to want to take down the Nite Owl case “with a wrecking ball.”
Vincennes wants the spotlight and has no problem with the corruption around him, but he also has a perhaps initially unconscious desire for justice. When events bring that desire to the surface, he joins Exley in his quest.
Bud White has a need to handle matters violently, but also a desire to be appreciated for his police work. He chafes under the assignment to be no more than a thug with a badge, and when Exley convinces him that he’s being used even more than he suspected he joins Exley.
Although the three detectives are pursuing different cases, the trails all lead to Pierce Patchett’s Fleur de Lis, which promises its clients “whatever you desire”. While the cost to Patchett’s clientele might be only monetary, the detectives discover that the cost of what they desire is significantly higher.
L.A. Confidential, of course, has other players, and it’s not always easy for a character to find out what the other one wants.
Consider this scene:
Bud White has to ask Captain Dudley “What do you want?” three times before Dudley actually answers the question. A cop like White will be used to non-answer answers and keep asking, but other characters might not realize it.
Did you notice it before White repeated the question?
The overarching meta-conflict
Here’s another story truism: stories are about change.
If you performed a random survey, asking people “Is there anything about yourself that you’d like to be different?” an overwhelming number would respond “yes.” So how come they’re not different? Why haven’t they achieved their object of desire?
Type this in a large, boldface font, print it out, and keep it where you’ll see it:
Everybody wants to be different,
but nobody wants to change.
That’s it. That’s the conflict that will appear in all but the simplest stories.
- The protagonist has to develop discipline or courage in order to prepare for the Big Performance;
- They have to overcome their shyness (or pride, or prejudice) before they can be with the one they’re attracted to;
- They have to acknowledge their shadow side before they can defeat the antagonist.
They know these things. They want to be different. But they don’t want to change. And that’s where conflict is born.
Putting it into practice
Okay, I’ll admit that’s a lot. So how do you put it into practice?
While the notion of “character-driven” and “plot-driven” stories is largely an artificial one, for these purposes I’ll distinguish between “plot-centric” and “character-centric” writers.
If your first approach to a story is to come up with an interesting premise (“What if a white lawyer defended a black man accused of rape in a depression-era small Alabama town?”), then we’ll say you’re a Plot Centric Writer, or PCW.
If you first think of an interesting character (“What was it like to be a ten-year old white girl in a depression-era small Alabama town?”), then we’ll say you’re a Character Centric Writer, or CCW.
If you’re a PCW, then ask yourself the following questions:
- What would my character(s) consciously want that would be relevant to this premise?
- What else might they want, consciously or unconsciously that would conflict with getting the first object of desire?
- What need (whether it’s something they want or not) might they recognize that would complicate getting the object of desire?
- What might the audience understand that the character needs, even though the character doesn’t recognize the need? How would such a need complicate matters?
If you’re a CCW, then you probably have a pretty good take on the kinds of objects your characters desire. Here are some questions for you:
- What sort of premise would concentrate my character(s) general wants/needs into specific ones?
- What sort of premise would create or magnify any conflict between the different types of wants and needs my character(s) have?
No Half Goals
In either case, if any of a character’s wants/needs is about moving away from something — “stop doing this” or “not deal with that”, what could you add that would give them something specific to move toward?
Did they always have these goals, or were they brought about by the Inciting Incident? If they always had them, how does the Inciting Incident impact them?
What sort of external forces of antagonism would obstruct the character(s) from satisfying these needs/wants?
And remember, they don’t want to change. You have to force them.
Now, don’t get yourself (or your story) all tangled up trying to incorporate all the possibilities. Pick out the ones that look most appealing to you, that speak to you. The ones you can dance with.
And start writing.