In an interview with author Kevin Canty I recently ran across (Part 1 here), he made the point that story characters must want something worth writing about. While that might at first sound like a point that hardly needs to be made, Canty is talking about the need for fiction to include what Robert Olen Butler calls “yearning,” or “the phenomenon of desire.” This, Butler says, is the essential ingredient most often missing from beginning writers’ work. (And any number of New Yorker short stories I abandon half-read.) Unsatisfying, in the way a crime without a motive is.
Of course, Canty says, characters in fiction may not choose the most effective or direct or logical ways of getting what they want, but they have to want something. They may even take actions that are counterproductive to their goal. Othello wants Desdemona, yet he murders her. These characters are like the people whom we would describe as “their own worst enemies.”
Or, what characters end up getting can be vastly different than what they thought they wanted. The outcome can be just as emotionally satisfying but far from the original plan. Think Jane Austen. In such cases, the author leaves enough clues to the character’s true desire that the reader sees it, even if the character has a blind spot.
Doesn’t it make a story feel too pat when characters want a particular outcome, and that’s exactly what they get? It’s too easy. Real life’s more complicated, which is why writers struggle with plot. Characters—much less the reader—don’t learn much from easy wins.
Putting himself in the role of a fictional protagonist, Canty says, “There’s a constant incompleteness and irony and all the rest of it that keeps getting between what I want, what I think I want, and what I get.” It’s what makes characters interesting. It’s what keeps us reading.
Canty’s most recent book is The Underworld: A Novel, about the aftermath of a disastrous fire in a small Western mining town.
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