This installment of 15 1/2 Magic Secrets for Writers is simple but powerful. Do not use this trick without adult supervision.
The Magic of DESIRE
“I wish Giovanni would kiss me.”
Whaaa? Why Giovanni? What’s he got I don’t? Does he want to kiss you? And why a kiss, why now? Will this change your life?
That’s the first sentence from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love. Whatever your esteem for the book, Gilbert makes it difficult to stop at the opening line. That’s the power of desire.
As much as I’d like to, I’m not talking sex. I’m talking basic need.
Kurt Vonnegut said,
“Make your characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water.”
It’s interesting to know how someone looks or what they do. But interesting is death to a fiction writer. Make your characters, beginning with their desires, irresistible, and your readers will desire you.
Everyone has desires, thwarted, secret, unfulfilled. When they uncover your character’s desire they’ll identify with her.
I learned this lesson backwards. My first novel featured a slacker. He didn’t want much of anything, I thought. But though I didn’t consciously mold him that way, he had plenty of desires: he wanted to be a detective, and he wanted sex, a lot of it and all ways, and deeper than that he wanted love. But that desire to be a detective was thwarted by his love of slacking. That made him less than compelling.
(My girlfriend insisted the novel was autobiographical. She was delusional. I never really wanted to be a detective.)
I would have done well to read the second half of Vonnegut’s quote too:
“Characters paralyzed by the meaningless of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”
With your character’s desire established, there’s now a trinity of ways to get even more seductive.
First, withhold sex. Or whatever their desire is. When your character’s desire meets resistance, you have conflict. It’s the root of all story. The second line in Gilbert’s book is,
“Oh, but there are so many reasons why this would be a terrible idea.”
Second, the more kinky, shocking, unexpected their need, the better chance your character will be enthralling.
Take this kid:
“[He] was a highly unusual boy in many ways. For one thing, he hated the summer holidays more than any other time of year. For another, he really wanted to do his homework but was forced to do it in secret, in the dead of night.”
Wha… he really wanted to do his homework? Who is this kid? Nobody will ever want to read about someone like that.
“And he also happened to be a wizard.”
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J. K. Rowling: 450 million copies sold.
Or that fellow Hannibal Lecter.: A desire to eat people’s livers, with fava beans and a nice Chianti.
Third, discover your character’s Uber-Desire. This isn’t a need to find a cab, but the unconscious thing they most want out of life, which may never be revealed in your story, and may never change. This is the big stuff: to love, to be loved, to be powerful, to be respected, to be secure. It will give their words and actions individuality. It will inform their need for water. Or a kiss.