Most primary to a character's development is what you may know as motivation. I prefer to use that now familiar word, "desire." Motivation implies a reason and purpose for action. Many writers would agree that a character needs a motive, a purpose, to make a successful story. Within a story, few would argue that some kind of shift must occur. That shift is fueled by motivation. However, a character need not be conscious of his or her motivation and this is why I prefer to use the term desire.
Everyone is motivated—put into action—by desire. Quite often, we cannot name or even fully acknowledge our desires. Day to day, you may not be aware that desire fuels your action. You brush your teeth, you buy a cup of Seven Eleven coffee with hazelnut sweetener on your way to work. You are not necessarily thinking, I desire no drilling at my next dentist visit, therefore I brush my teeth or I desire an alteration in my brain chemistry so I'll buy some coffee. Furthermore, your daily actions might be the result of suppressing your desire. That is, you really want to live near a river in Montana and fly-fish every day. But you have a mortgage to pay and a spouse who prefers nightclubs. You suppress your desire and go to work every day. Perhaps, you set aside money from every paycheck to ensure that each weekend you can escape to St. Joe's River.
St. Joe's River might be identified as your central desire. Your characters are similarly driven by desire. Identifying your characters' central desires is key to their credibility.
Note that stories rarely reveal desire explicitly (although some do). Frequently, compelling characters are not aware of their desires, but their movement through the story is nevertheless compelled by those desires.
Consider a book I have mentioned previously, Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street. The book works as a series of vignettes told through the central character, Esperanza, a young girl growing up on Mango Street in Chicago. The story is located in Esperanza; everything in the book comes through her. As the book progresses, Esperanza grows older and her observations shift with her development. But there is no "climax" in the book, no one pivotal moment to which action builds or unravels. Instead, each story emerges from Esperanza's yearning, from her continuing self-discovery and her shifting understanding of the world around her. Consider the following excerpt in which Esperanza characterizes a boy in her class.
You can never have too much sky. You can fall asleep and wake up drunk on sky, and sky can keep you safe when you are sad. Here there is too much sadness and not enough sky. Butterflies too are few and so are flowers and most things that are beautiful. Still, we take what we can get and make the best of it.
Darius, who does not like school, who is sometimes stupid and mostly a fool, said something wise today, though most days he says nothing. Darius, who chases girls with firecrackers or a stick that touched a rat and thinks he's tough, today pointed up because the world was full of clouds, the kind like pillows.
You all see that cloud, that fat one there? Darius said, see that? Where? That one next to the one that looks like popcorn. That one there. See that. That's God, Darius said. God? somebody little asked. God, he said, and made it simple.
You may have discovered some type of desire from the first exercise in this chapter. You now have a sketch of your character. Now write two to three pages more, identifying the longing that motivates your character's shift. Use the prompts below if you like.
1. The one place_dreamed about was_.
2. _imagined knowing_would save her life.
3. He did not know why he stopped_.
Alice Munro's Characters
Canadian writer, Alice Munro, writes characters that recall moments of desire from various times in their lives. Often, a Munro story will involve two or more pivotal moments to which the character returns or anticipates in carefully woven movements through time, much like the DNA strand model I mention in Chapter 8. As you read the opening section of her story, "What Is Remembered," notice the subtle characterization she performs. From these few paragraphs, what do you know about the characters in the scene? What more do you want to know? Whose perspective emerges?
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
In a hotel room in Vancouver, Meriel as a young woman is putting on her short white summer gloves. She wears a beige linen dress and a flimsy white scarf over her hair. Dark hair, at that time. She smiles because she has remembered something that Queen Sirikit of Thailand said, or was quoted as saying, in a magazine. A quote within a quote—something Queen Sirikit said that Balmain had said.
"Balmain taught me everything, he said, 'Always wear white gloves. It's best."'
It's best. Why is she smiling at that? It seems so soft a whisper of advice, such absurd and final wisdom. Her gloved hands are formal, but tender-looking as a kitten's paws.
Pierre asks why she's smiling and she says, "Nothing," then tells him.
He says, "Who is Balmain?"
—Alice Munro, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
Notice Munro's interesting narrative stance in the opening sentence. "Meriel as a young woman" signals the reader that Meriel is no longer a young woman. We understand that the immediate story is taking place in the past. Because of the sentence's construction, we assume that we also will meet the older Meriel in this story. Munro's concise detail creates an immediate picture of Meriel and the idea of her youth is reinforced with the mention of her dark hair. The memory also suggests a moment of desire for Meriel, one the reader cannot yet recognize. This desire is subtly cued by Pierre's closing comment.
We guess, from his response, some lack of understanding or appreciation for Meriel's comment, a lack she anticipated in her initial hesitation. Munro's skillful use of dialogue in this excerpt signals the next important consideration for writing strong characters. We have discussed the way characters move through stories; now we will explore how they talk.
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