Story Structure: Character Desire

Kurt Vonnegut famously advised writers: Characters must want something, even if it’s just a glass of water. Desire is what the character thinks they want. According to Vonnegut, this could be something run-of-the-mill. But maybe that character who wants a glass of water really needs human interaction, which is why he has visited the corner shop to buy a bottle of water rather than drinking it out of his kitchen tap.

This advice is so fundamental, every storytelling guru will tell you a version of the same thing.

Other authors don’t bother with such low stakes. Before Caroline Leavitt starts any novel, she asks herself the following questions about each of her characters.

What does she want at the beginning of the novel and why? And what’s at stake if she doesn’t get it?
“There has to be something at stake. It has to be something really major. I mean, if she just wants a glass of water, that’s not really interesting.”

Writer Mag

Note that ‘stakes’ is a concept closely related to ‘desire’.

John Yorke prefers the term ‘active goal’ rather than ‘desire’:

All archetypal stories are defined by this one essential tenet: the central character has an active goal. They desire something. If characters don’t then it’s almost impossible to care for them, and care we must. They are our avatars and thus our entry point: they are the ones we most want to win or to find redemption — or indeed be punished if they’ve transgressed, for subconsciously we can be deeply masochistic in our desires. Effectively they’re us. […] If a character doesn’t want something, they’re passive. And if they’re passive, they’re effectively dead. Without a desire to animate the protagonist, the writer has no hope of bringing the character alive, no hope of telling a story and the work will almost always be boring.

— John Yorke, Into The Woods

And for the concept of desire itself, some people use different terminology: motive, goal, want. Each genre of story has its own typical desire lines. In romantic comedies the main character wants to find love. In a crime thriller the detective wants to find the criminal.  The ‘quest’ plot has a strong desire line built into its plot, which partly explains its enduring popularity over the last 3000 years.

John Truby has given us a basic hierarchy of desire, which shows us the complete continuum of wants. As you can see, superheroes are at the top, underdogs are at the bottom. From highest level of desire to lowest:

  1. Save the world
  2. Save the republic
  3. Bright justice and freedom
  4. Gain Love
  5. Find the truth
  6. Catch a criminal
  7. Explore a world
  8. Achieve something
  9. Win the battle
  10. Take revenge
  11. Survive or escape

We might quibble a little with the ordering of that list — some characters (and people) make it their absolute mission in life to exact revenge. But the takeaway point is this: Your main character doesn’t have to want to save the world in order for you to have a decent story in your hands.

Desire is the main reason almost all TV shows are set in the cop, lawyer, and doctor arenas. These jobs give their shows a simple and repeatable desire line that tracks the episode every week. Catch the criminal. Win the case. Save the life. But of course this is extremely limiting. Most people don’t spend their daily lives solving crimes, prosecuting bad guys, and saving lives.

– John Truby

Without desire, no story. This is so basic — at first glance what more could be to it? This comic strip by Poorly Drawn Lines takes a common desire line and spoofs it.

comic about power and desire

Why does it work as a joke? Because of the juxtaposition between (noble) quest and the completely unremarkable character arc — the discovery that he can eat his roommate’s leftovers with basically no consequences. This flaunts the basic rules of storytelling which we all know intuitively: When a character has a strong desire they go on an important quest and undergo significant character change as a result. Achieving their goal must be hard. It can’t come easily or you don’t have a fully-fleshed story. Continue reading “Story Structure: Character Desire”