The Ruling Passions

A ruling passion was defined in How to Write a Damn Good Novel as a character's central motivating force ... the sum total of all the forces and drives within him.

The ruling passion defines the character for the writer; it enables the writer to bring the character to life with a phrase. The ruling passion might be to commit the perfect crime, or become a great preacher, or pickpocket, or art forger. It might be something less specific, like to be a good husband, or the ultimate couch potato, or simply to be left alone. Whatever it is, the ruling passion determines what the character will do when faced with the dilemmas he or she must overcome in the course of the story.

Take a character like, say, Spit Spalinski. His ruling passion: to be a great baseball relief pitcher, the next Goose Gossage. At the beginning of our story, Spit is trying out for teams, spending hours practicing his fork ball, and so on.

Suppose in Chapter Two Spit's brother, visiting from Milwaukee, is shot dead in Spit's hotel room, but before he dies he writes, Why, Spit? on the wall, so the cops think Spit did it.

Spit's ruling passion, to be the next Goose Gossage, will not be the prime motivating factor in this story. From the murder of his brother onward, Spit will devote every waking moment to proving his innocence and finding the real killer. The character's dramatic decision to change his passion ups the stakes and enhances his growth.

In Spit's case, then, he has one passion that rules his life, and another that rules the situation of the story. He has, in effect, a dormant and an active ruling passion. The dormant one still defines his character for the writer, but is not what motivates him once he is accused of murder. At all times characters must be driven by at least one ruling passion. At no time should they drift like cars without engines.

Okay, back to our story. In Chapter Five, say, Spit goes to California, driven by his new ruling passion to prove his innocence. He's in a creaky old apartment building when a tremblor hits. Spit's ruling passion to prove his innocence is forgotten. The one thing on his mind now: to save himself from falling masonry.

In other words, what motivates him in a particular scene may or may not be his original ruling passion, but he may return to it once the crisis is past. A character's ruling passion, then, is not necessarily constant; it may change in the course of a story and change back again. In many great stories, it is the switch from one ruling passion to another that forces dramatic decisions on the character and makes the reader root all the more for the character.

• Raskolnikov's ruling passion in Crime and Punishment is to escape from poverty, but after he commits murder, his ruling passion is to be spiritually redeemed.

• Henry's ruling passion in The Red Badge of Courage is to do his duty as a soldier, but as soon as the shooting starts, his passion is driving him to get the hell out of there. Later, his passion changes and he wants only to redeem himself.

• Carrie's ruling passion is to be like the other girls, symbolized by going to the prom. Once the mean boys and girls dump pig's blood on her as a prank at the moment she's crowned prom queen, her ruling passion is to use her psychokinetic powers to wreak vengeance.

• Scarlett O'Hara's ruling passion is to marry Ashley. When her plantation, Tara, is destroyed, her passion turns to rebuilding it.

• Elizabeth Bennet's ruling passion is her loyalty to her family, even to the point of turning down a marriage proposal from the highly eligible Mr. Darcy, who has a condescending attitude toward her family. But after she learns Darcy has saved her sister from ruin, she has a total change of heart, and her ruling passion then is to marry him.

You will want to avoid changing the ruling passion too often, however. If you do, instead of having a damn good novel that is consistently well motivated and building dramatically toward a climax, you will have an antic novel that is just one damn thing after another.

When the core conflicts are resolved at the end of the story, the character may return to his or her original ruling passion, but often does not because of the changes, the dramatic growth, he or she has undergone. Spit, say, might realize at the end of the story that what he really loves is being a detective, and now that he's played a "real" game in the grown-up world, he's no longer interested in a kid's game like baseball. Besides, he has come to realize he never could have thrown a ball as hard as the Goose anyway.

If the character does return to his or her original ruling passion, it is often with a different outlook or understanding, which gives more meaning to the dramatic events of the story.

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