Kurt Vonnegut said every character you write should want something, even if it’s just a glass of water. The rationale behind this is that without desire, there would be no conflict, and without conflict, you don’t have much of a story.
Disclaimer: I’m being old-fashioned as to what a story ought to be. I’m assuming that the character, by wanting something, is going to visibly do something about it – I’m assuming plot (which, let’s remember, is distinct from”story”), and that’s a thorny discussion there, because a great deal of literary fiction does do without plot. It’s also a discussion I’m not going to get into, because labeling mainstream / genre / literary / what have you fiction aside, when you write, it’s important to have an honest voice, and to possess that, it’s crucial that you’re writing a story you’d want to read. And what that “wanting” should be directed at is where people start arguing with each other. The problem is when it comes to literary preference, no one is right (and yet everyone takes it so personally, as if someone’s preference for something else immediately invalidates yours) but that’s not what I’m talking about today.
I’ve been thinking about the stories I’ve written in the past and realized how anemic and passive most of my characters are. They just let things happen to them and spend most of the time reconciling (or resigning, for the more bathos-drenched ones) themselves to their lot. This isn’t to say that sort of thing can’t make for a good story – a great deal of life is about accepting the things we cannot change – and these kinds of stories are by nature concerned about the situations the characters get unwillingly thrust into and how they respond. This does mean the characters have to allow whatever situation it is to happen to them in the first place without having the power to successfully fight it off. It just struck me how very few of my characters barely even tried to make the situation better. Most of my stories boil down to this formula: a person with a problem denies said problem but in the end is forced (see, not even by his or her own initiative) to realize he or she has that problem (or if not him/her, then the reader). The climax usually involves that problem rearing its ugly head at the protagonist in all its hideous glory and the protagonist finally breaking down in resignation. Utter passivity.
I suppose the stories ended just before the protagonist, having accepted the problem, can try to make things better, but it’s odd how more than half of my stories happen to be that way. Not much fighting, just a lot of fleeing. Nobody seems to want anything bad enough. No wonder they’re so watery and so bloody difficult to get a writing groove on with. There’s no momentum, just a lot of waiting for the next epiphany to come around.
So now I’m trying out the other way. I want strength, courage, stakes, vulnerability, going out on a limb. Someone driving for something they desperately want, even for a glass of water. I want to see that arm reaching out, veins and tendons ridging under the skin, fingers outstretched. I want lives, dreams, hearts at risk. I want someone stripping themselves of everything for the slightest, blindest chance of getting what means the world to them. And even if they fail, I want them to be able to look back and marvel at what they had been capable of. Where did all that courage come from they don’t have the faintest, but it shatters their mind every time to know it had been there all along.
I’ve already written a story leaning towards this, not quite yet there but in the direction of, and Tim, one of my beta readers, has already sensed the difference. The style is apparently more energetic and surprisingly more at ease, so I’m glad. I’m also writing faster; I’m getting close to actually hitting that 1k word count nearly everyday when I’m working on a new story and I’m actually not putting in more hours. Yeah, that’s what wanting something gets you. 🙂