By Ali Ünal
In his book Telling Stories: Postmodernism and the Invalidation of Traditional Narrative, Michael Roemer sets out to find the roots of traditional storytelling. His main argument is that traditional story has relied on characters taking action even though such acts, from time to time, may prove to be ineffective. It is, however, important that protagonists and heroes are driven by their consciousness to act in order to attempt to change the unchangeable. According to him, the urge to act is almost inevitable.
“Pascal says all our troubles spring from the fact that we cannot sit in a room and do nothing,” Roemer writes. “Locke speaks of our ‘restlessness’ and Hegel of our Unruhe—our disquiet. We are not free to do nothing—to be accepting and at peace—because consciousness, which is neither willed nor freely chosen, but mandated by our very existence, obliges us to act.”
To act. To do something.
This is one of the first things I say to my creative writing students in a workshop. Creating a character is the most essential part of storytelling and establishing a conscious desire for the said character is the first step. Conscious desire, or as Robert McKee puts it, “visible desire” will give an individual the authority, agency, and power they need in order to act out their lives. It will also give them a direction. Without a character, there’s no story. Without a direction, there is no character.
James Wood talks about three layers of motivation Dostoevsky’s characters have: Announced, Unconscious, and Revelatory. Announced motivation, or visible/conscious desire, is what drives the story’s plot and what makes the characters go out of their comfort zones to fight the proverbial dragons. Such a desire announced to the reader or articulated by the character will also carry a deep meaning within, a meaning our character will and should find out at the end of their journey. This is what makes the storytelling a creative art: Exploring the human condition through desires, ambition, and passion.
A character sitting on their couch philosophizing about the world doesn’t offer a compelling story. It provides a valuable essay of the self, it renders the individual with intellectual acumen, but an internal quest without an external one will arguably pale in comparison. To me, the most compelling way of flushing out that “essay of self” in order to reach that deeper meaning is to give the character a purpose, a motivation, a want of wants.
“Even the characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life,” Vonnegut famously asserted, “still have to drink water from time to time.”
We tend to contextualize stories and characters as the natural products of conflict and tension, i.e, plot. In the end, the character’s emotional maturity or physical prowess allows them to overcome those barriers and thus grow and change at the resolution of the plot. However, I prefer to see a character as a function of their desire rather than a product of the plot’s conflict. It’s the desire that drives them and the story. If a character truly wants something, then there is no way that they won’t come across conflicts on their way to achieve it. Just like our actions being inevitable, the tension and conflicts will have to arise out of the character’s desire. Even if there is no conflict, the character will have to conjure up one—be it internal or external. Because then, the character will overcome the barriers of their own, and not of their creator.
Establishing a character’s visible desire will constitute the façade or exterior of this building you’ll call the protagonist. Earlier drafts will work on the construction of that building. As you revise and move through the revisions, you’ll now be able to figure out the unconscious, or invisible desire of that protagonist. In other words, you’ll start exploring the inside of that building. What does the interior look like? How does the interior shape the exterior? How intricately is the interior built? This will be, as the name suggests, invisible to the writer at first, and even to the character. That’s where the compelling story will come out.
Of course, finding out the invisible desire/motivation will take a lot of time and a lot of revisions. As you get to know more about your characters, you’ll spend more time inside of their minds. It’s perhaps important and advisable not to establish an unconscious desire from the get-go. Giving your character room to improvise and construct their own inner worlds might turn out to be more effective. Sometimes, power resides in not wanting to be the master of our creations. Nabokov says that he’s the master of his characters. If a character crosses the street, it’s because Nabokov wants him to cross. Pushkin is known to have said of one of his characters, “Do you know my Tatiana rejected Onegin? I never expected it of her.”
Which type of writer you would like to be is of course up to you, but I tell my students and myself to always have an open mind and give their characters some room and opportunity to grow on their own. Let them find their own voice.
To write a story or to create a character is not to solve a crossword puzzle. Rather, it is to create one with blank and blacked-out squares, both of which reveal the character’s external and internal quest in harmony. This is how I approach storytelling, and this is how I teach: The chronicle of the character’s desire. Because writing, in and of itself, is an investigation and everything a character does is a crime to solve, as it were.