Friday, August 2, 2013

Character Motivation and Desire Lines

Several years ago, I took a class by the brilliant and wonderful Martine Leavitt (writer of many amazing books such as:  Keturah and Lord Death, and My Book of Life By Angel; winner of many prestigious awards; teacher extraordinaire – she has a Master of Fine Arts degree from Vermont College, where she’s also an instructor; and she’s just an all-around nice person who knows how to teach writing.

The biggest thing I took away from her class was learning to address my characters’ motivations and make them real. I’d like to share her wisdom.

Some of the questions she had us ask ourselves were:

What does your Main Character want? This is their desire line that will pull them through the story

Why does your MC want it?

What will happen if they don’t get it?

Why should I care?

Let’s talk about Desire Lines (DL).

From the moment of birth we want something. Desperately. Air. Warmth. Love. Nourishment. Nurturing. Comfort.

Those needs never stop. As we grow older, yearning at its deepest level reflects our desires - which tend to get more complicated, based on our experiences and unique needs. And it's a very individual thing as to what we want the most. The one solid truth is, no matter who you are: everyone yearns. Everyone wants. Everyone needs. That’s part of being alive. That’s what makes us feel. It's also what makes us unique.

This needs to be carried over to our fictional characters.

Good fiction is all about connecting on an emotional level with your readers. If you make them feel something you make them care.

But how do you do that?

For starters, you need to understand your characters, and know exactly what their deepest, most secret desire lines are. Those desires must drive their every decision.

Let’s start with the basics, your MC’s Concrete and Internal desire lines.

Concrete: What does your MC want to physically accomplish or gain by the end of this story (or series)?

Internal: What does your MC want emotionally? What is his/her emotional arc? How will the events of the book change him/her? We need a sense of who he/she is on the inside. Eventually that should come out. And this desire should be reflected in the concrete desire as well.

Knowing what your character wants is how you create true suspense. False suspense, where the writer withholds vital information through gimmicks, is used way too often. Wondering if your MC will obtain their desire line is the real thing. Here are some examples of desire lines:

Lord of the Rings
Concrete: To throw the ring in the fire.
Internal: Frodo just wants to go home.

Concrete: Stanley doesn’t want to his family to suffer from being poor anymore.  
Internal: Stanley wants friends.

Harry Potter
Concrete: Harry needs to stop Voldemort in order to survive and save his friends.
Internal: Harry wants a family.

Hunger Games
Concrete: Katniss has to survive in order to protect her sister.
Internal: Katniss wants to be worthy of love.

Here are some more questions to help you flesh out your MC and find their DL’s: (You can use this on other characters in your story as well.)
What does your character want?
What do they want emotionally/internally?
What do they want physically/concretely?
Why does he/she want it?
What will happen if they don’t get it?
How does your MC struggle to get what he/she wants?
What additional hardships does the MC face?
What is their weakness?
What is their strength?
Who is the most important person in your character’s life?
Best memory?
First memory?
Worst memory?
What sets this character apart from other people?
What one thing would the character change about himself/herself?
Character’s flaw?
Biggest fear?
What they are afraid to lose and why?
What happened in the past to make him/her who she is today?
Why has this character come out to tell this story?
When is it hopeless?
How does the story end?
How is your character changed?
What is surprising about the ending?

Here are some exercises to help develop desire lines:
1)      Have your character write a letter telling you his/her darkest secret, things he/she hasn’t told anyone.
2)      Write a scene showing your MC’s desire line – showing him/her wanting it. This DL has to be strong enough to carry him/her through the whole story/series.

I wish you the best and look forward to reading your very real stories!


  1. What an amazing post, Jonene! I needed this right now since I'm about to start out on a new book. Thanks for the list of exercises to work through.

    1. Thanks, Rebecca! I wish you the best on your new book. I'd love to hear about it. As for Martine - she's amazing! Her advice helped put focus in my story. The questions and exercises brought out some depth that it was lacking. Since then, I've also used these techniques to analyze books that I love, and I've come to appreciate how much work the authors put into it. Great books and great characters don't just happen.

  2. I really enjoyed this post, it's really helped me with the manuscript I'm working on. Thank you so much.

  3. Great post! I learned a lot from Martine as well. Thanks for the reminder to go deeper and bring out my characters' desires lines. :)

    1. Leisha, thanks for directing me to take Martine's class and for your wonderful insights into all things writerly!


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