Story Structure: Character Desire



According to research by Rosemary Rigol:

  1. Stories with heroines often warn of the dangers of curiosity and punish the heroine. A standout example of this is a Grimm retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, in which Little Red Riding Hood is warned not to dilly-dally along the path, checking out the flowers and so on.
  2. Tales about boys affirm the value of exploratory journeys and show the value of courage in carrying out assigned tasks.
  3. Curiosity is generally “positively evaluated” and seen as “creative behaviour”. Fairy tales generally reward curiosity even when the words in the story seem to cover up its advantages.

Robert McKee writes about story for adults (not specifically for children). McKee has this to say about curiosity:

Curiosity is the intellectual need to answer questions and close open patterns. Story plays to this universal desire by doing the opposite, posing questions and opening situations.

Robert McKee, Story

When creating characters, writers receive some common wisdom about making them empathetic and rounded. Writers are told to make characters interested in something, and also that they need some kind of desire (followed by some kind of plan to get it).

Where the self must be suppressed, so must curiosity be suppressed. Interest in the world expresses interest in the self.

At the beginning of a story the self is not predetermined. The individual does not know who the self is. It must be discovered over the course of the story. This discovery of the self is known as ‘the character arc’. The urge to know represents an important aspect of the urge to feel alive int he world and is an expression of an individual’s vitality.

Curiosity is super important. Curiosity is as important to a story as desire. If having a self means having and expressing the urge to discover and create, then curiosity is not a frivolous impulse. Curiosity are as much a matter of life and death as is access to the things we need or think we need.

Curiosity = self identity. That is why it’s so important to give characters the characteristic of curiosity, otherwise they have no identity, no desire, no plan and therefore no story. Also, if writers are going to give male characters the drive to go out and find stuff out but not female characters, that means they’re writing much more interesting male characters.

Curiosity is general, interest is particular. This parallels the distinction between self and identity.

Self = the potential to shape a way of life according to an inner force rather than to adapt to a way of life already shaped and provided from outside.

Identity = the realization in a particular way of life of the potential referred to by the term self.

Interests are shaped by our identity and by the particular attachments to objects, ideas and activities determined by our identity. Interest, then, follows identity and shares with it the quality of attachment to what is particular.

Like having a self, being curious suggests a more general potential, in this case the potential to take an interest in any and all objects in the world outside.

Curiosity is, then, connected to the self, or more precisely to the self as potential, in the same way that the self as potential is connected tot he realization of the self in a particular identity. Interest is an expression of curiosity to the extent that it is connected to an identity shaped by the activity of a self rather than imposed on it.

Concrete example: An interest in food derived from bodily need does not express the presence of curiosity. But a preference for a particular kind of food that develops out of an original curiosity about the world involving experimentation with different kinds of food and the evolution of an identity involving a specific attachment to food of a particular kind is an expression of curiosity.

notes from The Capacity for Civic Engagement: Public and Private Worlds of the Self

Rigol writes specifically about children’s stories:

Curiosity is found in the urge to find out, to know more than is granted by the adults. So it breaks up the framework set by rules prescribing the ways for the child to acquire awareness of the world and society.

Rosemary Rigol

Curiosity is the hope or expectation that there might be another world, something more than and different from the narrow world granted to children. Curiosity is therefore both an opportunity and a danger. The danger is that we will lose our connection to the world we already know, and where we feel secure. Curiosity poses a threat to connection.

If the limitless quest for knowledge expressed in curiosity poses a threat to connection, the limitless quest to know why, also expressed in curiosity, compounds that threat because of the connection between causation and responsibility. In the subjective and intersubjective worlds, what causes something to happen is also responsible for it. And if our quest to know provokes disconnection, then our desire to know makes us responsible for putting connection at risk. This is why reaosn is the enemy of belief systems. Not only does it tend ot disrupt them, but in the more basic sense it is a danger of the kind of connection belief systems are meant to secure.

It’s a well-known dictum of Disney that their animated movie musicals must start with an “I Wish” song in which the protagonist declares their deepest desire, the one that will be fulfilled by the end of the movie.

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The Magician's Elephant cover

DiCamillo conveys the main character’s (Peter’s) desire by having him visit a fortune teller at a marketplace. This is a nice way of introducing desire, because it ‘shows’ rather than needing the unseen narrator to spell it out. DiCamillo is also a little tricky about how she reveals Peter’s desire — the masterful thing she does here is making the reader wonder what it is that Peter needs to know. DiCamillo understands that the reader needs to know what Peter wants, and she withholds this information for a few pages in order to create suspense. He put the coin in his pocket. He took the soldier’s hat off his head and then put it back on. He stepped away from the [fortune teller’s] sign and came back to it, and stood considering, again, the outrageous and wonderful words.

“But I must know,” he said at last. He took the florit from his pocket. “I want to know the truth. And so I will do it.” [several pages later] Peter felt a small stab of fear. What if, after all this time, he did not really want to know? “Speak,” said the fortune-teller. “Ask.” “My parents,” said Peter. “That is your question?” said the fortune teller. “They are dead.” Peter’s hands trembled. “That is not my question,” he said. “I know that already. You must tell me something that I do not know. You must tell me of another—you must tell me…” The fortune-teller narrowed her eyes. “Ah,” she said. “Her? Your sister? That is your question? Very well. She lives.” Peter’s heart seized upon the words. She lives. She lives!

In this way, the reader can guess already, after only four pages of story plus one full-page illustration, that Peter desires to find his lost sister. Several lines later, in case the young reader missed it:

“If she lives, then I must find her; so my question is, how do I make my way there, to where she is?”

The reader wants Peter to find his sister and will now follow him on his journey through this intriguing world of magical realism. When we first meet Peter he is struggling internally with a moral dilemma: Should he spend the coin on food, as instructed by an adult in a position of authority, or does he use it to possibly find out about his lost sister? Peter doesn’t know which adult to believe. Does he believe his soldier-caregiver who says his sister is dead, or does he believe a disinterested but shady fortune-teller who says his sister is alive? Peter’s main shortcoming at the beginning of the story is that he is looking to adults to know what to believe. Over the course of the story he must mature by relying upon his own inner compass. Until he learns to trust in himself, he won’t be able to lead a good life, because other people don’t have his best interests at heart.


In this classic story, the desire of main characters Jerry and Rachel changes over the course of the book, from wanting a dog of their own, to wanting their beloved dog back after he is stolen. The desire is established as soon as the book opens:

Would Gracie-the-cat be jealous if the Pyes got another pet — a dog? That was what Jerry Pye wanted to know and what he was dreaming about as he sat with Rachel, his sister, on their little upstairs veranda.

In case the young reader has missed it, the second paragraph opens with:

The one thing that Jerry Pye wanted more than anything else in the world right now was a dog. Ever since he had seen the new puppies over in Speedys’ barn, he was not only more anxious than ever to have a dog, he was most anxious to have one of these Speedy puppies.

There are 14 chapters in this book. The first desire is met in chapter two when Jerry and Rachel earn a dollar and are able to buy the dog they want. This might mean the end of the story, unless something else happens: the book turns into a crime story/mystery when they feel they’re being followed by a ‘mysterious footstepper’, and the dog goes missing in chapter 7. The following 6 chapters detail the lengths Jerry and Rachel go to in looking for their dog. Naturally, the dog is found in chapter 14, and there the story ends, because order has been restored. The main problem Jerry and Rachel have is that they:

  1. Are too trusting of people who shouldn’t be trusted
  2. They jump to conclusions, making them terrible amateur detectives.

The adults in their lives also suffer from these character flaws, which one could argue are strengths as much as they are flaws. They trust Wally Bullwinkle, who has stolen the dog, because they get it into their heads that the dog thief is your archetypal criminal — a grown man. Yet they jump to this conclusion with no proof whatsoever, and even draw a sketch for the local policeman, who is influenced thusly. By the end of the story they have discovered the truth of what happened, and are berated by the local policeman for drawing a misleading sketch. They have presumably learnt a lesson about making up stories:

[The Chief of Police] came by just then, having had his buns and coffee at last, to make a report on latest developments. […] “The young-uns threw me off the track with that picture they drewed of the man.” “We thought Wally Bullwinkle was just a boy in my class,” explained Jerry apologetically, for now it seemed as though , from the beginning, it should have been as plain as the nose on his face that Wally had been the thief. “We didn’t know Wally was a thief and he didn’t look like the picture we drew of the unsavory character. We didn’t know an unsavory character could be just a boy in my class,” said Jerry.

The confrontation/acknowledgement above occurs just three pages before the end of the novel. The final three pages are used to show that everyone is happy now and back to normal. Estes makes use of dramatic irony throughout Ginger Pye — the young reader will work out long before Jerry and Rachel do that Wally Bullwinkle is the dog thief. We’ve given more than enough clues. This makes the reader feel smart, and has a pedagogic effect of conveying the message that ‘bad people are everywhere; they are among the people you know’. This also means in effect that the main part of the story is the moral need of Jerry and Rachel rather than the desire to have their dog — this being a children’s book, we know this is probably going to happen (unless you’ve read Where The Red Fern Grows, in which case you might be bracing yourself for sadness…).


The main character of this book is a nerdy genius type who is starting senior high school at the tender age of eleven. Millicent’s conscious desire is to be accepted in the college course she will be attending for the first time. She wants someone to sign her high school yearbook, even as she is dismissive of the hysteria end-of-school seems to inspire in others.

After a while it became clear that I wasn’t on the top (or even on the bottom) or anyone’s autograph list.

Millicent’s medium-term goal is to become valedictorian.

Maybe when I’m valedictorian my autograph will be more sought after.

The reader is also told about Millicent’s long-term goals at the end of the first chapter, but none of this exposition is really about Millicent’s desire — rather, it’s to explain Millicent’s psychological and moral needs:

“I know exactly where I’m headed.” It’s true. I’ve mapped out my goals for the next fourteen years. “Try veering off the road now and then,” Maddie suggested as she lugged her dragon around the room. “Take a few side trips, see where you end up. You might be pleasantly surprised.” I stifled a laugh as I sipped my lemonade. Everyone knows that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Why would I want to take any other route?

We learn at the beginning of chapter two that she plans to win the Fields Medal by the age of twenty, or possibly 23. We’ve also told that this medal is for high achievers under 40. We can see that Millicent may be smart, but she has no real concept of age, which places her firmly as a child (at least, in an adult reader’s mind). Millicent is not well-liked by the older students in her class, for reasons that are obvious to the reader, but not to her. The reader sees how she is accepted only by adults and fellow nerdy types. In self-centred fashion, Millie writes a list of things to do with her grandmother over summer, ignoring the possibility that her grandmother might want to do a few things on her own. In order to have a better life, Millicent needs to learn some humility and genuine wisdom. As it happens, we have been clued into her psychological and moral shortcomings in the opening paragraph, so we can expect that by the end of the novel, these traits have been somewhat ameliorated:

I have been accused of being anal retentive, an over-achiever, and a compulsive perfectionist, like those are bad things. My disposition probably has a lot to do with the fact that I am technically a genius.

Does the reader really want Millicent to become valedictorian? I actually don’t! Not without becoming a better person. The rest of the book will be about Millicent becoming a better person, treating others better and coming to grips with some of her own more disastrous quirks. This will allow plenty of room for comedy, often with Millicent as the butt of the joke.


Sure enough, Jessie Oliver Aarons, Jr has a clear desire, explained to the reader at the very beginning of the story: Jesse wants to be the fastest runner in school. In the first scene, he is getting up early to train. Remember that scenes also need their own desires. Jesse’s ‘mini’ desire in the opening scene is to make it downstairs without waking anyone up, because ‘Momma would be mad as flies in a fruit jar if [he] woke her up at this time of day.’ This is one of those stories in which the reader is encouraged to feel sorry for a boy who is surrounded only by sisters. (Aside: Does the inverse story work, too, in which we feel bad for a girl because she only has brothers? Or is it more likely that she’s ‘lucky’, because she turns out a ‘tomboy’?) Basically, Jesse is lonely. This is his psychological need.  Paterson subversively turns this into a feminist-friendly story by having a girl move in next door, rather than a boy. Jesse’s moral need is that he is dismissive of girls in general as companions.

Four year olds were a pure pain.

This is something he, as well as readers, have absorbed from the dominant culture — it is genuinely problematic when he is forced to wear his sister’s ‘girl’ shoes to school. But over the course of the novel Jesse learns to form a friendship with a girl despite her gender, and as a consequence he learns to appreciate his little sister May Belle more, and treat her as a companion rather than as a nuisance. Jesse also learns to embrace the parts of himself which are considered ‘feminine’ such as his love of drawing. This, too, is established early on.

Ever since he’d been in first grade he’d been that “crazy little kid that draws all the time.”


Windows are often used as a visual metaphor for desire. A character might be looking out from a window (or another high vantage point), or they may be looking in on something, unable to grasp it because of the glass.

Book cover from the children’s novel Christmas Holidays at Merryvale by Alice Hale Burnett (1916)

The Tale of Two Bad Mice cover

One might think that the star of this story is the dollhouse itself, because the reader is introduced first to the dollhouse and only to the mice after three double spreads. This is a little unusual, but has been done with purpose: The young reader is encouraged to look lasciviously at this doll’s-house. We wish we could go in and play with it. We’re told how beautiful it is, and about all the wonderful things inside it. So naturally, when we meet Hunca Munca and Tom Thumb, we absolutely identify with their desire to go inside and play. We’re not told in the text that this is what they want to do — we feel it for ourselves. The Tale Of Two Bad Mice is a carnivalesque tale in which the childlike main characters act against the established order. This doll’s-house does not belong to the mice, so we feel they are not really supposed to be there. At the same time, we absolutely empathise with the poor creatures when their hopes are dashed. This is not a real feast at all, but a fake one! A psychological need of these mice is that they have been fooled. The moral need of the mice is that they have no control of their enthusiasms. In a frenzied effort to find the real feast and a real, liveable mansion for themselves, they steal parts of the doll’s house and cause destruction of a beautiful object which belongs to a little girl, and by proxy to two inanimate dolls.

The story has two endings — the first part of the story ends when the nurse exclaims that she will set a mouse trap. But the story can only end properly after the mice are shown to have had a character arc, in order words they must have learnt to treat others with respect. (Naturally, a story as old as this is heavily gendered.)


What about in a story for much younger readers? The conscious desire of Spot is apparent from the very first image, yet it’s surprisingly complex, and is the desire of many main characters in books for adults. This is a boy who wants to prove himself a capable man to his father. In this case, he wants to prove his worth by finding the farm animals himself. I’m going to argue that this is both Spot’s surface-desire and his psychological need, rolled into one.

Spot Goes To The Farm

On the final double spread we see the words:

Did Dad show you the piglets, Spot? Yes, and then I found some kittens to show Dad!

The story ends because Spot has achieved his desire to impress his father.

Does a simple character such as Spot have a moral need? In other words, does Spot need to learn to treat others better in order to lead a better life? In this story, Spot is told to ‘hurry up’ because he’s busy looking for lambs even as he stands on the backs of a flock of sheep. He is told to get out of the pond, and presumably frightens a duck who says, ‘Quack quack!’ Spot’s main moral need is that—like any toddler character—he is too intent on making fun and achieving the goal at hand to see that around him others aren’t quite so enthusiastic. This can be seen throughout the Spot series. For example, when he ‘helps’ his mother to bake a cake for Dad’s birthday, the reader can see (though Spot himself cannot) that he is causing more nuisance than ‘helping’.

But in a picture book such as this, does the character come face to face with his own moral need? The answer is no, and part of the reason is because this is a series. Even in books which are not technically part of a series, they should be treated as part of a wider literature, in which characters like Spot (and Charlie and Lola, and Clifford, and Peppa Pig) are characters in a sit-com, never growing old, sometimes learning minor lessons along the way, but never really doing anyone else any harm.


It's The Bear cover

Eddy’s desire and main psychological need is established at the outset:

Eddy doesn’t want to come and picnic in the woods with Mum. “I’m scared,” he said, “about the bear, the great big bear that lives in there.”

Here we have a story about what the main character doesn’t want to do. Presumably, he desires to be anywhere but here, eating his picnic in safety.

In the real world, this psychological need is a real impediment, and fear of impossible things is something the target audience is likely to be struggling with: monsters under the bed, ghosts in the wardrobe… This is the stuff of childhood, and also the stuff of picture books, where we find many a main character whose main job is to avoid whatever scary things reside in his/her head.

Does Eddy have a moral need? Well, the mother most certainly has a moral need. She needs to learn to listen to her son, because apparently he is right about massive bears found lurking in woods. So is this an ensemble story, with two main characters? No, the main character is most definitely Eddy.

Look a little closer and you’ll see that Eddy does indeed have a moral need: He needs to stop judging large bears by their size. Eddy assumes that because the bear is huge then it is also dangerous. But the reader sees from the bear’s humorous delight in the tiny (to him) blueberry pie, that this bear is nothing to be afraid of. Eddy should not judge a book by its cover.

Likewise, there are many picture books in which the scary thing turns out to be real, but it turns out to be nothing to fear.


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