Everybody Wants More than Just One Thing

And so should your characters.

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It is standard advice to state that the main character or characters should want something. That it is wanting — desire — that motivates characters to act and action that creates the story, novel, perhaps even the persona in a persona poem. It’s not bad advice; genre fiction can get a lot of mileage from it. But if you are after something that goes deeper than the usual mystery novel, sci-fi, romance novel, or YA book, note that characters don’t always know what, or which, they want. They want to rob a bank but also fall in love. They want to fall in love but also rob a bank. Humans are ambivalent, and if characters are to come alive for a reader, they need to be ambivalent too. Sometimes they want what they want and at the same time do not want it. They are conflicted. The conflict within the character creates a subtler drama, a deeper layer of meaning. The reader ponders the character’s choices, the various possibilities open to the character. The reader is now paying attention to the character, not just what the character does, but what the character feels, what the character believes.

The most famously conflicted character in literature is probably Shakespeare’s Hamlet. (King Lear or Othello or Macbeth would also serve but Hamlet is generally considered the primary instantiation of inner conflict.) His inability or reluctance to make choices results in disaster, even though he frets continually about what he should do. That is, he is aware of and concerned about other people, as we would wish anyone to be, and he wants to do the best thing, the dutiful thing, as we might wish anyone to do, and yet the choices he makes turn out tragically wrong. How does this happen?

Hamlet will not trust his own instincts or feelings. He thinks about them — and thinks and thinks — and has second thoughts, and third thoughts, and makes a mess of everything. This might be the result of simple confusion, but Hamlet is so smart and witty that it’s impossible, at least at first, to think of him as confused. Thus many critics have argued that he is undecided, which is probably not the case. He is, however, shocked and outraged, even horrified by his widowed mother’s hasty and unseemly remarriage to his uncle. Gertrude has married Claudius without grieving for a decent amount of time over Hamlet’s father. Did she not love her first husband, Hamlet’s father?

Shakespeare gets down to business immediately; he has to enthrall his audience before they can even think of walking out. Thus characters are quickly delineated, and what can’t follow from the situation? Everything can follow from this situation.

Other characters complicate the situation further. Ophelia, Hamlet’s professed love, daughter of Polonious, counsellor to the king, and sister to Laertes, is ignored as he becomes preoccupied with his father’s death and sinks into depression. When he accidentally plunges his sword into her father, thinking it was Claudius behind the tapestry, Ophelia, wounded by Hamlet’s treatment of her (which may or may not be feigned) and in something like a fugue state following her dad’s unexpected demise, drowns herself in a river, perhaps as a result of holding, wearing, or eating bitter rue.

On top of all this, Denmark, Hamlet’s would-be kingdom, is at war with Norway and knows an invasion may happen at any moment.

Cherry on Style

Has Hamlet been driven to madness as a result of the situation? Or is he only pretending, as he pretends in the play-within-the play, known as “The Mousetrap Play,” hoping a reenactment of his father’s death will catch Claudius out by surprise. He does indeed catch him out, and now he knows Claudius killed his father, the king, and usurped the throne to which he, Hamlet, was to ascend. At his point he is definitely not undecided. He almost strikes Claudius while Claudius is praying but hesitates because he imagines Claudius’s soul might go straight to heaven (he is, after all, in the middle of praying). He rages at his mother, pleading that she practice celibacy. She thinks he’s losing his mind and says so to Claudius.

And so it goes, and so I’ll stop this summary here. The point is simply that Hamlet at first wants to revenge his father’s murder by killing his stepfather, but he is actually clear-minded enough to think he’d first better get some proof that Claudius is indeed the culprit. Even after he’s made up his mind to kill Claudius, he frets. A hardened murderer might not, but Hamlet is not a hardened murderer. To kill someone is a drastic action, flouting Jesus Christ and moral law, and Hamlet, living in a time of religion, is aware of that. Perhaps many killers are not, but he is. He believes in the law, in the church, in ghosts from the past that haunt him with their morality. He finds it difficult to shrug off these things. He is, as we have said, ambivalent about his choices, and the longer he waits to choose, the more complicated becomes the situation. The end result, as we know, is tragedy.

You don’t have to be Shakespeare to draw a character fully and precisely. You have only to think hard about the character. You already know what ambivalence is, because we are all ambivalent. You already know what self-contradiction is: we contradict ourselves several times a day. You have only to specify the contradictions and ascribe them to your characters. But it is best not to spell them out; that will reduce the reader’s interest. Simply show them. At least at the beginning of your writing career. There are authors who do comment directly on their characters and their characters’ situation and do so with an artful wisdom, but the fairly new writer should wait before entering that risky territory.

The boy wants the girl. The girl wants the boy. The boy wants the boy; the girl, the girl. The detective wants to catch the killer. The killer wants not to be caught. Or the killer has a whimsical desire to tease the detective while outfoxing him. The wife wants her husband to comfort her, but he thinks he is the one who should be comforted. The husband has an affair and discovers that he did not truly want the girl. He now knows he really wants his wife but she is pissed. She wants a divorce. The student wants a good grade. The teacher thinks he does not deserve one. He goes to the teacher to complain. She gives in. As he turns to leave, she catches the-cat-who-ate-the-canary look on his face. She tells him to get the hell out of her office and not come back. He goes, but when she gets home she bursts into tears. Is teaching what she really wants to do when she has students like that? But not all her students are like that. Many of them come to her for advice. She tells them to work hard, but is that really good advice? Maybe the student would learn more traveling around Europe instead of paying tuition. She would like to travel around Europe. She’s never been to Greece or Bulgaria.

Wanting is everywhere. The child without water wants water. The child with water wants a soda, or maybe an ice cream cone. Who does not want something, and how long can that state of not-wanting exist?

Pinocchio wants to lie or exaggerate, but each time he does so, his nose grows. And grows and grows, and he definitely does not want that enormous honker. Unfortunately, perhaps, human noses exhibit no such tendencies. People can lie all they want without being found out, if they are calm and cool enough. We hope they won’t lie to us, but how are we to tell? We can’t tell. Detective stories rely on this fact. The detective who wants to catch the killer has a difficult task because the killer lacks a wooden nose. The difficulty of the detective’s task is what makes the book he is in interesting to read.

But the detective novel, while beloved by many, is not on a par with Hamlet. To chase after one thing — the killer, the boy, the girl, the wife, the good grade — is not really true to life. Is not, we may say, realistic. (Not that fiction has to be realistic, but our great master, Shakespeare, is realistic.) I should also point out that realism is not the opposite of a story or sci-fi. Realism is about human emotion. If the emotion is real, the story is realistic.

The truth is, almost all of us want more than just one thing. •

Kelly Cherry‘s new poetry book is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her book of flash fiction titled Temporium is forthcoming later this year.
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