There’s a lot of conflicting advice out there about characters. Do you make them quirky and unusual (like Amelia Bedelia), or more ordinary (like Charlie Brown)? Do you make them heroic (someone readers might aspire to be, like Atticus Finch), or deeply flawed (like FH in Jesus’s Son)? Do you make them raw and human (like Holden Caulfield) or someone who’s so different, the reader might be both intrigued and repulsed by them (like Dexter).
Some of the standard advice is to achieve the universal through the specific. Never make a character a “type.” Characters need both strengths and weaknesses. And flaws (because perfect people are boring)… All this is good advice, but it doesn’t get to the heart of creating characters.
Imagine some of your favorite characters from books and plays and movies. Here’s a few that come to mind for me today: Scout, Huck Finn, Violet (from Feed), Kvothe (the hardest character to spell), Spike (hell yes, I’m a Buffy fan), Batman, Iago, Hamlet, Ahab, Ender… (the list keeps going). They’re all very different, but there’s one thing that unites them, and it’s the most important thing to consider for creating characters: Desire.
Above all else, readers relate to desire.
It’s not just that characters need to have desires. It’s that desire needs to drive their character. And strong desires make for intriguing characters. So as the writer, the most important thing to consider about your character is what do they want? Characters must want something, and want it deeply, with every fiber of their being.
Actually, characters must want a couple of things.
There are two types of desires writers need to keep in mind: unconscious desires, and conscious desires. Although a character may be motivated on the surface by their conscious desires, which can shift and change over a story, the unconscious desire is what forms the spine of a character’s arc, and cannot change. In fact, stories are often about the conflict between a character’s conscious and unconscious desires, and the purpose of the plot is to bring the character’s deeper unconscious desires to the surface.
This might seem abstract in discussion, but it becomes fairly obvious when you apply it to narratives. For instance, take the film, Silver Linings Playbook. It’s a movie with fascinating and memorable characters, who, for the first part of the film, are so driven by their conscious desires that they seem insane. But their extreme compulsions and obsessions give us a sense that there must be some deep unconscious desire beneath the surface that’s really driving them. Quite often, characters are only partially aware of their unconscious, or true, desires. However, the writer must be aware of these desires in order to effectively structure the characters’ narrative arcs.
Take Bradley Cooper’s character, Pat. In the opening scenes we see him in a mental hospital. He’s just getting out, and the first thing he wants to do is go to the library to get the books his wife is teaching in her English class so that he can read them all because his driving conscious desire is to win back his wife. So he’s losing weight, he’s trying to stay sharp, act nicer, improve himself, all so he can become the person she wanted him to be. In fact he’s so obsessed with winning back his wife that he will do anything, even though she has a restraining order against him. So a lot of the plot follows the great lengths Pat goes through to try to contact his wife and prove that he’s changed. His desire drives almost every action and every scene.
Characters who aren’t driven by desire merely react. If a character merely reacts to events, then they won’t distinguish themselves as someone unique. They’ll often just respond in ways almost anyone would. They’re more victims than personalities. But characters driven by desire drive the action of the story, and that’s what Pat does.
It’s not only Pat’s character who’s driven by desire. Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Tiffany (who she won an Oscar for playing) is obsessed with her desire to compete in the dance competition that she never got to compete in with her deceased husband (and so she bribes Pat into being her partner). And there’s DeNiro’s character, Pat Sr., who is obsessed with his desire to watch the Eagles with his son (so that the Eagles will win).
The character’s surface desires are very easy to recognize in this movie: Pat wants to get wife back. Tiffany wants to compete in a professional dance competition. Pat Sr. wants the Eagles to win. But beneath these clear surface desires lurk the character’s unconscious desires. Their true desires. And it’s the work of the plot to push these characters and put them under pressure, until their unconscious desires surface like magma coming up through cracks in the earth.
Look at Pat again. As the movie progresses, we realize that he doesn’t simply want to get his wife back. He wants to get his old life back because he feels he’s lost everything. That’s really what he’s obsessed with (in fact, we actually learn very little about Pat’s wife and what makes her so desirable. She’s only the concrete symbol of something deeper that he wants to reclaim — who he used to be.) But, of course, he can’t undo time and get the past back. And as his situation worsens and he’s forced to realize this, we see that the life he wants to reclaim may have never existed in the first place (it’s a nostalgic ideal). Instead, Pat’s true unconscious desire is that he wants to have the sort of love relationship he never actually had with his wife. That’s what’s driving him, and that’s what rises to the surface at the climax of the movie when he confesses his love to Tiffany.
And Jennifer Lawerence’s character, Tiffany, is also revealed to have a deeper unconscious desire. Wanting to compete in this dance competition (something she’s obsessed with), is really about her reclaiming some aspect of herself that she can be proud of. Her deeper desire is to reconstruct her life after the loss of her husband.
And then there’s the dad’s character, whose obsession with the Eagles borders on crazy. His conscious desire, so clear throughout the movie, is to have his son watch the Eagles games with him because he believes if his son is present the Eagles will win. He’s got a lot riding on this because he’s wagered large amounts of money on the games. But we gradually see that beneath his OCD obsession with the Eagles is a deeper desire to spend time with his son, and mend the rift between them. So even while his obsession with the Eagles may seem absurd (fandom taken to a dangerous extreme), there is a deeply emotional and noble desire beneath this that is very relatable. Incidentally, this desire to mend their family is also very much the mom’s desire.
The bottom-line is this:
When creating characters, start with desire. List what they want (their conscious desires, which might change over the course of the story). Then try to figure out what lies beneath these conscious desires. What’s their deeper, driving unconscious desire that they’re not aware of? The stronger a character’s desire (or obsession), the more they will drive the action of the story (and often the more interesting they’ll be).
Once you know your character’s conscious and unconscious desires, think about how these desires might conflict (because often what we think we want is not what we actually want). Try to plot your story in response to your character’s desires. So ask yourself, how might the character make things worse for his/her self by pursuing the wrong desire? What events might put pressure on your character and force his/her deeper, unconscious desire to the surface?
Basically, complex characters need to have different levels of desires, and those desires not only drive them, they drive the actions of the story because the best plots are external manifestations of a character’s internal conflicts.
Don’t believe me? Go back to your mental list of great characters. For each one, I bet you can think of a clear surface desire, and a deeper unconscious desire (and often these two things will conflict in some way).
For instance, Scout: she wants to be seen as a grownup. But really, she wants to have her mom back, and be protected as a child. It’s this push and pull between two extremes that makes her so fascinating, and so emblematic of childhood.
Or Holden: He doesn’t want to be part of the phony adult world he sees all around him. But unconsciously, he realizes he is part of it, and so his true, unconscious desire is to be an adult, and protect other kids from falling off the cliff (his deeper desire is so important to his character and to the story that it’s the title of the book, although we don’t realize this until nearly the end of the book).
What about you? What’s one of your favorite characters? How does desire drive and define them?