I’ve been trying to find my way through an early draft of a new piece and have been reminded why going deep into character is so difficult, and so necessary.
The third lecture of my first day at Vermont College of Fine Arts was given by Louise Hawes. She described what she called a novel’s “desire line” – the engine that drives the story, the longing for something. The desire line exactly balances the story arc in reverse, because readers want the protagonist’s desire to be satisfied at the end of the story.
Louise gave us all an exercise: she asked us to dig deep and speak to the kid we were at an age when we were most vulnerable. Speak to the child inside, and find her desire. Then she gave us ten minutes to write a letter to that child asking why she wanted what she did, and what it meant, and reassuring that child that she was not alone.
At first, you could have heard a pin drop in the room, a full room – I’m guessing a hundred people. Then sniffs. Then some of us (yes, I’ll confess, I was one) were openly weeping. Why? Because we were tapping the core of our own oldest dreams and desires. We were acknowledging longing and loss.
This acknowledgment for our characters (and, as we write, for ourselves) is painful but essential.
If we know our character’s deepest desires, at a time when he or she was at their most vulnerable, we tap into universal longings. And by bringing universal longings to life on the page, our readers can connect.
Effectively, we tell readers, I hear you. I get you. You are not alone.
That’s why I write. I want to express the universal longings and desires that bind us together as human, as vulnerable, as unique and yet as all the same. Boy, it’s hard.
But it’s also so important.