Character as Desire

One of the key differences between Memoir and Fiction is that in Fiction we have characters.

In Memoir the subjects of our stories are normally referred to as characters, but they are not really characters.

Characters are, as the name suggest, a series of characteristics––what they say, how they act, how they style their hair, what they smell like, and perhaps even what they feel like. If the characters are ourselves then we can also represent them through our remembered thoughts at the time of the events we are writing about, and also through our thoughts as we are writing, which we could refer to as interpretation. 

These are our sense impressions. 

This is how we both as writers and readers perceive character through the written word.

In creative non-fiction the ‘characters’ in our narratives are real people, and we represent them in our writing through our memories of them, other people’s memories, photos, and writings such as diaries. In some ways it could be said that we represent them from evidence that exists somewhere, even if the evidence is only in our own memories.

In fiction our characters are not real people. They are essentially figments of our imagination. They may well be closely based on real people in our lives, but they are still invented to some extent.

As in memoir we still put them into writing through sense impressions, but we no longer need to base these characters on evidence because they belong to us, and us alone.

We don’t need to try to interpret their personalities through what they say, how they act, or how they style their hair and so forth, because we know them intimately––even though we still write them through sense impressions.

This is where fiction can go deeper than memoir. 

In real life we are often surprised by how our friends and acquaintances behave, and often we realize we don’t know them at all––in fact we might surprise ourselves by how we behave, leading us to the conclusion that we don’t even know ourselves.

But we can know absolutely everything about our fictional characters––even what they haven’t even done yet.

On a side note, it IS possible for our own fictional characters to behave in ways that seem to be out of our control, and many novelists have spoken about how their characters take on a life of their own, seemingly independent of their authors. Some novelists even report having arguments with their characters. This is a sign of having invented a really strong character.

So, to sum up:

In both memoir and fiction we can represent our characters directly through:

1: Image (appearance)

2: Voice (speech)

3: Action

4: Thought.

And indirectly through:

5: Telling, or interpretation.

However the difference lies in a sort of balance of these elements.

In memoir we might have almost no access to thought, and this leads us to rely on telling-interpretation of our sense-impressions.

In fiction we have full access to thought, even of minor characters, so we need to rely less on telling, and perhaps should have no interpretation whatsoever.

This leads us to the most important aspect of character in fiction: Character as Desire.

We can never know what our non-fiction ‘characters’ want––even if they’re ourselves––but it’s essential that we know what our fictional characters want, even before we begin to write.

The desires of our characters might change as our narrative progresses, but we still have to begin with a desire.

We yearn. We are yearning creatures of this planet….Yearning is always part fo the fictional character.
Robert Olen Butler.

Aristotle declared that the nature of a human’s desire is the nature of his morality.

Those who want good are good.

Those who want evil are evil.

Those who want peace are peaceful.

Those who want trivialities are trivial.

Writers are excellent observers. How often have we been in meetings––for example––and found ourselves observing people instead of listening to them?

I once had a professor who complained that I was looking at him as if I wanted to kill him. In fact I was merely thinking what an excellent beard he had. Of course I should have been listening to what he was saying to me. It was probably very important.

When was the last time you observed someone rather than listening to them?

Are you doing it right now?

Perhaps you are thinking that I have a rather unimpressive beard, but please listen to me.

Just as we are excellent observers, so are our main characters. In fact our main characters can be such good observers that they can fall into the trap of being in a passive role.

Our characters have to actively yearn.

They have to yearn so much that they devote their should to what they long for:


Your character’s desire might not be as grand or straightforward as these examples, and in fact your character’s desire might––and even should––be conflicted. 

Your main character might long for the love of another character in your story, even though this character is married to her best friend.

As editors, critics, self-editors and self-critics we can never stop asking the question:

What does the main character want!?

It is this element of determination that makes the reader keep reading, keep turning the pages, hope for the best, and fear for the worst.

We know Little Red Riding Hood never really existed, and yet we plead with her as we watch her tribulations mount, and her impending doom rise above her.

What doomed fictional characters come to mind when you think of desire?
Achilles and his longing for revenge for the death of his friend Patroclus.
Macbeth and his ambition.

You are off to a great start if you can fill out this sentence:

(Name) is a (adj.) year-old (noun) who wants ………………………

Your character’s desire can represent itself as an abstraction, for example Jennifer is a seventeen year-old soccer player who yearns for respect.

But what––in concrete terms––represents ‘respect’ for Jennifer in the particular moment of the story you are writing about?

Being placed in the starting line-up?

Scoring a goal?

Being included in the locker room banter?

In this way you can build plot and sub-plot.

Jennifer’s deeper need––the sub-plot that runs through the entire story––is her need for respect.

However the upper layer of the plot are her strategies for achieving success.

Look at Cinderella, and in this instance we’re looking at the Charles Perrault version, which is close to the Disney version.

Her deep need is to be appreciated for who she really is––the noble and beautiful daughter of the former Lord. 

She yearns too be seen as the exceptional person she is, rather than a just as a menial servant.

Her strategy for achieving appreciation is to go to the ball…where perhaps she hopes her sisters and step-mother will see her shine and realize that she is an asset to the family, and should be included in all their activities.

The conflict in Cinderella’s desire is that she believes that her family just don’t really know her. In fact they know full well who she is and what she is capable of, and their strategy is to prevent her from shining.

Thus, at the end of the story a dismal revenge is reaped on her sisters, even though Cinderella never once expresses any kind of desire for revenge.

Did she for one moment look back with a grim satisfaction as her sisters’ eyes were plucked out?

Think of your favorite fictional characters. What do they want? and how are their longings conflicted?

What do the following characters want, and how are their yearnings conflicted?
Hansel and Gretel.
The Little Mermaid.
Jack of Jack and the Beanstalk.
Peter Pan.
Mowgli from the Jungle Book.
Peter Rabbit.
Robin Hood.