Character Need and Desire

by Jacqueline Sheehan

Donald Maass, a huge literary agent and author, says that he rejects 90% of the manuscripts he receives because the author has failed to reveal the main conflict quickly enough, or to keep the narrative pace moving. Maass is surely not alone in this.

In order to define our story’s conflict, we need to be able to define not only the inner conflict of the protagonist, but also the tension between what our hero wants and what she needs—that is, the inner desire lurking just beneath the surface, and often beneath the character’s conscious awareness.

Every hero in memoir or fiction desires something outwardly, and the struggle to achieve that desire in spite of obstacles is what creates structure and plot.  But at some point in the story, the character must also come to the realization that what she wants is not necessarily the same thing as what she truly needs in order to grow…

This hidden need is the secret sauce in your narrative and becomes the driving force behind a story’s pacing. When a narrative sinks or slows in the middle, it is often because the outer problem and inner need are not clear to the writer.

When we are riveted by a story, it’s generally because we feel the same struggle that the hero experiences.  There is a sense of universality when a hero is transformed, because a bit of us, as readers, is transformed as well. Our understanding of the human condition is also transformed.

All of this sounds like weighty stuff. The question for writers is how do we accomplish this?  I love it when I find resources that help writers demystify the process of creating a good story. I’ve been publishing novels since 2003, and Jessica Brody’s book, Save the Cat Writes a Novel, shined a bright light for me on the mystery of character transformation and structure. I am not convinced that plot can come before character transformation, or that the opposite has to occur. But I am convinced by Brody’s assertion that our hero must grapple with a problematic premise (story A), and that the deeper transformation of the hero–the inner journey they didn’t even know they were on (story B)–is what makes the story resonant and universal. 

I’ll be exploring all of this, through examples, exercises and prompts, in my upcoming morning workshop, Character Need and Desire, on Saturday, October 9.  Hope you can join me there!  

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