Last month, a friend entrusted me with the privilege of skimming and commenting on her draft of a novel. Her writing was excellent, the setting unique, and the characters engaging, but there was something not quite right. I paced around my room, tracing the edge of a braided blue rug, mulling over the disconnect, and eventually got to thinking that the protagonist’s desire was not in alignment with the trajectory of the story. The novel drifted like an untethered canoe—one floating past the dock, just beyond reach.
As novelists, we learn to figure out what our characters want and send them in search of their desires. We’ve all heard what Kurt Vonnegut had to say on this topic during an interview posted in the spring 1977 issue of The Paris Review: “When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”
But how dull, right? A glass of water. And what if the character desires something immaterial, such as acceptance or a sense of belonging? It’s hard to communicate ethereal desires in an opening scene and hook the reader there. A novel has to build to them. I suspect Vonnegut would agree, but I think he’d tell writers to give a protagonist an interim motive—something to strive for en route to the climax. Something concrete like thirst. All desires (immaterial or otherwise) lead characters to take action in a world experienced through the senses—taste, touch, sight, sound and smell. Characters do stuff (they’re boring if all they do is sit around and think about meaninglessness or feel despair), and readers connect with them when they do stuff. When a writer describes a scene so well that it pulls readers in, inviting them to experience the world in which the character lives, details as seemingly insignificant as a glass of water matter.
My friend crafted unique and endearing characters and set them in a story that holds tremendous promise. Now her protagonist needs to want that glass of water that is… look… over there… in that glass tumbler on the windowsill… the one with the ribbon of yellow-green pollen dust at the base where the condensation has pooled… the one just out of reach… just past the edge of the bunched-up rug she’ll have to step over when she wants a sip, but she’s not looking down and her heel is going to get caught, and… uh-oh.