Driven by Desire

by J.D. Rhoades

I know, sounds like a romance novel title, doesn’t it? But it seems to have gotten your attention…

Writers and critics talk sometimes about "plot-driven" versus
"character-driven" fiction.  I’ve always thought it was a false dichotomy, however. In my opinion, character drives plot. Or to be more
specific, characters have desires,
and it’s desire that drives plot.

I was thinking about
this  a few days ago during an e-mail exchange with a young aspiring writer. He
had all these characters, he said, but he didn’t know what to do with
them. This is what I told him:

Figure out what each of your characters wants,
in the short term and in the long term. In real life, people  want more
than one thing, and the same should be true in your fiction.  For
example, the
main character may want to rule the world, he may also want to get the
girl. For each character, then, write out:  what are their deepest
desires?  What will
they do to achieve them? Will they have to sacrifice one desire to

There’s a lot of potential for drama in that last
question, by the way,  as some of the most wrenching conflicts can
occur where a character has to give up one cherished desire for
another. Classic example: in THE MALTESE FALCON, Sam Spade desperately wants Brigid
O’Shaughnessy, or whatever  the hell her real name is, but he also
wants to find out and bring to justice whoever killed his partner. When
those two desires collide–when Spade finds out that his love is the
one who did the deed–the result is one of the most brutal speeches in all of hard-boiled literature:

"When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.
It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your
partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. And it happens
we’re in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization
gets killed, it’s-it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it,
bad all around, bad for every detective everywhere…I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. Yes, angel,
I’m gonna send you over. The chances are you’ll get off with life. That
means if you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in 20 years. I’ll be waiting
for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you."

Another example: in THE GODFATHER, Michael wants to live his life free of the Mob and its associated violence. But he also loves and  wants to protect his family. When his father’s life is threatened, he has to act on the second desire, and finds himself losing the first.

As stated above, characters often have a short and a long term desire. In my Jack Keller books, Jack, of course, wants to track down and bring in his target. But his long term desire, even though he has trouble admitting it, is to learn to connect with people and to love again. Another example: Michael Connelley’s Harry Bosch wants to solve the mystery in every book. But what drives him, book to book, is the desire to  in his words, "speak for the dead."

Which brings us to another way that character can create drama: some characters have  desires that they don’t realize or don’t admit.  Harry Bosch’s  real long term goal is to avenge the death of his mother, to make her almost unnoticed  death matter. So the other thing that drives him is his motto: "everyone counts or no one counts."

Now that you’ve got a handle on what your characters want, figure out  which characters’ desires conflict with those of other
characters. For the most obvious example, in a traditional mystery, the bad guy wants to get away,
the good guy wants to stop him (and probably get the girl). In a heist novel, the protagonists want the loot, but they come into conflict with each because one or more of them wants a bigger share (or the girl). Zombies want
to eat people, the hero wants to avoid being eaten  (and probably get the girl).

Mix those together. See what happens. When you get stuck for what happens next, as an alternative to  having a man with a gun come through the door, remember what each character’s
goal is and think about what they’d do next to accomplish it (which may or may not involve coming through the door with a gun).

Keep in mind as well that, in the words of the famous quote, "no one is a villain in his own eyes." The antagonist, if he’s not a maniacally cackling, hand rubbing cartoon villain, has reasons for his actions which seem perfectly logical and consistent to him, even if they may not seem that way to the reader. Or, as I put it, the villain thinks he’s the hero.

Even minor characters’ desires can move the plot. In JURASSIC PARK, Dennis the computer guy wants the money he thInks Hammond owes him. So he comes up with a scheme to swipe some dinosaur embryos, which involves the crucial plot point of turning off the safety systems, he thinks for a short time. But, unfortunately for poor Dennis, dinos have the desire to eat.

In BREAKING COVER, Tony Wolf wants to hide, to disappear. But he’s
also unable to stand by while a child is hurt, so his gives up his anonymity for a crucial moment. Johnny Trent wants to
find Wolf and do terrible things to him because of the damage Wolf did to him. Tim Buckthorn wants to keep
his town safe, and that means finding out who this enigmatic stranger
who’s moved into the area really is.  Gabriella Torrijos wants the
story behind this guy who suddenly erupted onto the landscape, then
disappeared again. All of these people want something that’s totally
reasonable and understandable for them, but they can’t all get what
they want. And so, you have a story.

So, today’s discussion question: Apply this analysis to one of your favorite books (which, writer ‘Rati, may include your most recent one or even your WIP). What does your protagonist desire? What does your antagonist  desire? How does that drive the plot? How do the desires of supporting or even minor characters move things along?

17 thoughts on “Driven by Desire

  1. Wilfred Bereswill

    Interesting blog Dusty. I just sat on a panel discussing characters, so it’s fresh in my mind. In my first novel, I was looking for a different kind of terrorist. My antagonist is American born but of Middle-Eastern descent. He is brought up to hate Americans and our ideals, but through his life in America, he learns to love the freedom of living here.

    When he fails his first mission, he is told that one more failure and he would be brought to Afganistan to live (or die).

    He truly hates Americans but loves the American way of life. He’ll do anything to stay here.

  2. j.t. ellison

    Dusty, I’m on the run this morning in Omaha, but I wanted to say THANK YOU for this post. It’s excellent, and when I get home I’ll print it out. This is the perfect compliment to the other vital question — what’s the character trying to hide. I like the unconscious motivation, because it helps them become real.

    Food for thought. Food for thought…

  3. Stacey Cochran

    In the crime novel I’m beginning to shop around THE PROFILER’S WIFE, the protagonist is a forensic psychologist who has just graduated from the University of Nebraska’s Law/Forensic Psychology program. He and his wife move to Chapel Hill, North Carolina where Roman has received his first assistant professor position. They’ve bought their first home, their first new car… they’re ready to begin their lives.

    As soon as they arrive, we learn that a serial killer has become fixated on Roman and his research, and the FBI wants to draw Roman into the investigation.

    That’s when we learn the underlying obstacle to the story… Roman and Gabby lost their six-year-old daughter just months before leaving Nebraska, and Roman has chosen to go into teaching (rather than law enforcement) because he wants peace, quiet, and stability.

    But when the serial killer abducts Gabby, that option is taken from him, and Roman must work with the FBI to save her.

    And we learn how far love will drive one man.

  4. Louise Ure

    This post reminds me of a fabulous panel at LCC Bristol a couple of years ago. Lee Child titled it “Plot is a Rental Car,” which had me stumped until he explained that if your story is that your protagonist is going out of town with Charlize Theron for the weekend, the actual plot is just about as important as the rental car that got him there. Once you’ve defined those characters and their needs, the rest takes care of itself.

  5. Jake Nantz

    Wow. Thank you for the thought-provoking post, Mr. Rhoades. Since I just finished SAFE AND SOUND (kick-ass, btw), I can use the example of Keller who is torn between wanting to catch/kill DeGroot, and wanting to keep Marie and Ben safe. Also, not sure what it says about me, but I wanted Jack to kneecap that POS before he finished him, and I probably would have been laughing too at that point were it me.

    Anyway, from my own first effort (just finished!) and future WIP, here’s what I’ve got:Dan Taylor wants to solve his first case to prove himself, but he also wants to make up for the dead girlfriend in his past that he feels he let down. Eventually, he also wants to keep his wife safe from the danger she finds herself in.

    And as for my next WIP, Dylan Videtich wants to fulfill her contract, and avoid the law and the killer(s) chasing her in the process. However, despite her constant quips about stocking Hell with bad people so she won’t be lonely when she gets there, Dylan subconsciously hopes that eliminating enough evil from the world will somehow absolve her of her sins and ‘save’ her soul.

  6. toni mcgee causey

    I love this analysis, Dusty. Very helpful to see the conflicting desires in those examples.

    In the second Bobbie Faye book, she absolutely needs to find the diamonds to keep her family alive. But the closer she gets to finding the diamonds, the closer she is to handing over proof for the murder for which she’s being framed.

  7. Stephen D. Rogers


    Great post. I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while now with my own WIP.

    Desire does seem to be at the root of everything, a fact that isn’t always reflected well in fiction.

    One approach I really enjoy is when the author has protagonist/antagonist modify their desire mid-story, creaking enough of a tweak that the other party continues responding to a situation that’s changed. The best example I can think of right now is SPREE, by Max Allan Collins.


  8. John Dishon

    In all candor, isn’t this pretty obvious? By some of these responses, you’d think you just discovered the Ark of the Covenant, that this idea had never been thought of before.

    I’m curious what the student’s response to this was. Because it seems that maybe he doesn’t really “have” his characters. If he has developed his characters in any meaningful way than he probably already knows what they want.

    There’s not really much that another person can do at this point, as far as giving advice is concerned, unless you create the story for him.

    I wonder if maybe this student just doesn’t know what to write about yet, and that maybe these characters he has are little more than vague perceptions at this point.

    Your analysis is accurate, but I don’t see how this would be that helpful to someone unless he were an absolute beginner.

    Although, just getting advice of any kind is motivational sometimes, but especially when it comes from a professional author, so maybe that’s all he was after anyway.

  9. Allison Brennan

    Great post. And something I avoid consciously thinking about or I break out in a cold sweat and start pounding my head on my keyboard. Character is the single most important thing in any book, because if I don’t love — or hate — the characters, it’s blah and boring. I think it was Vogler who said that “The villain is the hero of his own journey” and I do keep that in mind whenever I’m in my villain’s head. He has to be able to justify in his head why he does his evil deeds. And sometimes the motivation isn’t evil, though the end result is. And sometimes, the motivation is evil, too. The hardest villain I’ve ever written was in my upcoming SUDDEN DEATH because first, there are two villains, but one is really mentally ill. I can logically think out in my sane villain’s why they hurt, kill, etc . . . but for someone who’s snapped? It was a completely new experience. His motivations are totally different, and his conflict is completely different.

    In PLAYING DEAD, my FBI Agent hero is responsible for catching a fugitive. Problem? He thinks the guy is innocent and if he captures him, the fugitive will end up dead before they can learn what really happened. My hero cares because his father was a prosecutor who knowingly convicted an innocent man, who then died in prison. My hero also befriends the heroine–the fugitive’s daughter– under false pretenses and lies to her about who he is. Problem? he’s fallen in love with her.

  10. Jude Hardin

    Great post, Dusty. Great advice. I don’t think it’s obvious at all. There are many writers who feel that the circumstances of the story (i.e. the plot) is what essentially moves things along, but I think it’s more interesting when characters are in the driver’s seat. We might start with some sort of random inciting incident to get the ball rolling, but to me it’s the characters’ motivations, actions, and reactions that keep it rolling and keep it interesting.

  11. Bryon Quertermous

    John: i’m tempted to just say your an ass and be done with it, but that doesn’t accomplish anything. yes, JD’s point is simple, but it’s the simple aspects of any complex craft that are the hardest to master (and remember).

    I taught developmental writing and English as a second language at the college level and I’ll tell, almost 100% of the time we spent the entire year forging a total mastery of the most basic aspects of collegiate writing. And then we, as advanced writers and teachers, realized we were so focused on the large complexities of writing (and even more so on the minutia of writing theory) that we had lost our hold on the basics of writing and were suffering because of it. There’s a reason Strunk and White is the Bible among most writers and writing teachers. It’s brilliant at the basics.

    And honestly, when it comes down to it, isn’t the Holy Grail simply a cup?

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Great post, Dusty. It never does any harm whatsoever to reinforce the basic tenants of good writing ;-]

    And, having just had a sneak preview of your next epic, I think you’ve got the desires of your characters pretty well nailed!

    John and Byron – calm down and be civilised, boys, or you’ll be asked to choose seconds …

  13. Tom

    This is a very good Novelist’s Toolkit topic, Dusty. It’s a good method for putting a jump-start on a new project.

    The design of a *simple* desire-driven story framework may be obvious. Shaping and adapting a more ambitious framework . . . that takes a fair bit of butt-in-the-chair production experience time.

    For example: Dennis Weaver doesn’t want to be run down by the insane truck driver in DUEL. That’s simple. What makes the film watchable is how many shifts of hope, fear and objective Weaver must survive. That took pretty sophisticated scaffolding and structure. That’s where we get to know the man behind the sedan’s wheel. That’s how we invest ourselves in the protagonist.

    I always admired the bright colors of the Venus Paradise coloring sets I saw. I could see how small differences in execution by one friend gave a different overall result.

    But I was always drawn to the possibilities of the John Gnagy tools-and-blank-paper kits. The end result . . . could be anything.


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