Tuesday, November 29, 2005

What do your characters long for?

I started reading Robert Olen Butler's book about writing, From Where You Dream. I found it in the KSU library a few weeks ago and thought it looked good, and the title and author sounded vaguely familiar to me. Now I remember why -- Kathleen recommended this book earlier this fall. And now I can see why she recommended it so highly. There's a lot of meat in this book. It challenges the analytical way many of us approach writing.

In my reading last night I got to the chapter about "Yearning." He says:
We are the yearning creatures of this planet. There are superficial yearnings, and there are truly deep ones always pulsing beneath, but every second we yearn for something. And fiction, inescapably, is the art form of human yearning.

Yearning is always part of fictional character. In fact, one way to understand plot is that it represents the dynamics of desire. It's the dynamics of desire that is at the heart of narrative and plot.

I read this and realized what is most often wrong with my stories. I usually start with a character or characters, which doesn't seem to be a bad way to start, according to Butler, but I don't always have it clear in my head what really drives these characters. Thus, something is missing, the story doesn't fully engage the emotions. (And emotion is where Butler says our writing truly comes from.)

So I've been thinking some today about how the dynamics of desire drives some stories. The one that came most readily to mind is one of my favorite movies of all time, While You Were Sleeping. It becomes clear early on that what Lucy desires more than anything, whether she realizes it or not, is a connection to a family again. She has a crush on Peter the hunk, but she doesn't know him. Her longing for family is why, in a sort of mistaken identity twist, she ends up letting Peter's family think she's his fiance, after she rescues him from the train tracks. (You really need to see the movie, though.) Everything that happens in the story flows from that desire and its consequences. And it's one of my favorite movies because it has so much heart. It engages my emotions.

And what does this mean for me? I've got a novel I'm revising, a novel I'm writing, and a couple of short stories I'd like to get published somewhere. But I need to get to the heart of my characters and show what drives them, what they most long for. Otherwise, all that great description and witty dialogue and exciting plot twists will ring hollow to the reader (and for the writer). Makes me think a little of I Cor. 13: "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal." And isn't coming to understand what drives a character, or a live person for that matter -- getting to the heart, in other words -- involve love?


Eileen said...


That's one of the reasons I like Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake approach. If you follow it even half way, you'll be asked to identify what your character wants and what stands in his way of getting it. That yearning (or "desire" as Brandilyn Collins calls it) is at the heart of each character because it makes for prime motivation. And the person, place, or thing that keeps him from getting it makes for great tension!

Gary Means said...

Thanks for sharing, Linda. I have so many books waiting to be read, (don't we all?) especially books on writing. But this sounds good. I'll try to get it from my library to see if I want to buy it.

Julana said...

That was a good movie. My husband and I were just talking about it last night, for some reason.