Need, Desire and Motivation

by Alexandra Sokoloff

The first thing any acting student learns in terms of creating a character and building a scene is to ask the question: “What do I WANT?” – n every scene, and in the story overall. When I was directing plays (yeah, in one of my mutiple past lives) and a scene was just lying dead on the stage, I could always get the actors to breathe life into it by getting them to clarify what they wanted in the scene and simply playing that want.
This is something that starts in the writing, obviously, and should always be on the author’s mind, too: Who wants what in the scene, and how do those desires conflict? Who WINS in the scene?

But even before all that, one of the most important steps of creating a story, from the very beginning, is identifying the protagonist overall desire and need in the story. You also hear this called “internal” and “external” desire, and “want” and “deep need”, but it’s all the same thing. A strong main character will want something immediately, like to get that promotion, or to have sex with the love interest. But there’s something underneath that surface want that is really driving the character, and in good characters, those inner and outer desires are in conflict. Also, the character will KNOW that s/he wants that outer desire, but probably have very little idea that what she really needs is the inner desire.

One of the great examples of inner and outer desire in conflict is in the George Bailey character in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. From the very beginning George wants to see the world, to do big things, design big buildings – all very male, external, explosive goals. But his deep need is to become a good man and community leader like his father, who does big things and fights big battles – but on a microcosm, in their tiny, “boring” little community of Bedford Falls, which George can’t wait to escape.

But every choice he actually makes in the story defers his external need to escape, and ties him closer to the community that he becomes the moral leader of, as he takes on his late father’s role and battles the town’s would-be dictator, Mr. Potter. George does not take on that role happily – he fights it every single step of the way, and resents it a good bit of the time. But it’s that conflict which makes George such a great character whom we emphasize with – it’s a story of how an ordinary man becomes a true hero.

In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Clarice’s outer desire is for advancement in the FBI. And Harris conveys this desire in what is a brilliant storytelling trick: He has Dr. Lecter tell her so. “You’re sooooo ambitious, aren’t you?” He purrs. And “I’ll give you what you most desire, Clarice. Advancement.”

It’s brilliant because it makes Lecter all-knowing, but it also clearly spells out Clarice’s desire, which the audience/reader really does need to know to commit to the character and relax into the story. I’m a big believer in just spelling it out.

But what Clarice REALLY needs is not advancement. What she needs to save a lamb – the lamb that haunts her dreams, the lamb she hears screaming. In the story, the kidnapped senator’s daughter Catherine is the lamb, and Harris uses animal imagery to subtly evoke a lamb and the scene of the slaughter of the lambs that haunts Clarice.

And again, Lecter is the one who draws this deep need out of Clarice.

Also Clarice’s need and desire come into conflict: what she WANTS is advancement, but in order to save Catherine, she has to defy her superiors and jeopardize her graduation from the academy.

It’s usually true that the external desire will be a selfish want – something the protagonist wants for him or herself, and the inner need will be unselfish – something the protagonst comes to want for other people. This is a useful guideline because it clearly shows character growth.

So I bring all this up this morning because I’m looking for good examples of inner and outer desire, especially inner and outer desire in conflict, and I wanted to throw that out to the collective brain, here.

On another topic entirely, the lovely and talented Michelle Gagnon made a comment a few days ago that I thought was worth following up on.

She said that she wasn’t convinced of the usefulness of drop-in book signings – and cited that clerk we all have met – young and clueless, who couldn’t care less that a real live author is standing in front of her, offering to sign books.

Well, it so happens I’m on a mini tour, yesterday and today – my friend, paranormal author Jenna Black and I drove from Raleigh to Virginia Beach yesterday to do a signing at the grand opening of the Virginia Beach Books-a-Million. We hit four other area bookstores on the way yesterday and are doing another eight today. Is it useful? Oh, hell, yeah.

Even though the very best time to do this is when you have a book just out and the stores are more likely to have a number of your book in stock, this trip has been gold for me. Virginia Beach turns out to be a very bookstore-heavy town, they love the supernatural and paranormal, and our reception has been fantastic. The stores that didn’t have the books ordered them in on the spot, and we’ve had multiple requests for signings when our next books come out in December.

I feel like I’ve cracked another market that wasn’t particularly aware of me (I’ve never done any events in Virginia before) and I have a new buddy to make these drop-in trips with.

I do want to say that the key is NOT to rely on the first clerk you talk to but to ask to speak to a manager or CRM. Most will be thrilled to see you, really.

So my other question of the day is – do you do bookstore drop-ins, and do you have helpful tips for those on the fence about it?

We’re off on the rounds now, but I’ll check in later today.

– Alex

14 thoughts on “Need, Desire and Motivation

  1. Louise Ure

    I’d love to see that inner/outer goal analysis done for Lee Child’s Reacher. The outer goal is usually obvious. To find a missing person, to stop a killing, to get the bad guy. But the inner? Is it something about being needed by someone?

    I haven’t done many drop in signings, Alex, and those I have were about half Michelle’s experience and half yours. So I’m still on the fence.

  2. toni mcgee causey

    A recent movie, inner/outer goal: in Wanted, Wesley wants to matter by avenging his father, but the real inner goal was to have been important in and of himself, to have been loved for who he was, not just what he can do for people. He replaces being a drone / bossed around in one organization for another (albeit, a more powerful one) and has to learn how to think for himself.

    I think drop ins have been successful for me–I feel like they do open up markets, but I haven’t done nearly enough of them.

  3. Rae

    I think Robert Crais’s Joe Pike is a great example of inner and outer desire in conflict. Joe’s childhood was extremely difficult and caused him to create a very hard shell and a tough guy persona. But inside that shell is a guy who really wants a life like other people. It’s something he’s alluded to several times during the course of the series, but he just can’t come out of his hiding place.

  4. Stacey Cochran

    I love the insight of the dueling motivations of a protagonist, Alex. That’s really interesting.

    If you think of THE SHINING, Jack Torrance ostensibly wants a second chance… a second chance at his crumbling marriage, a second chance at gainful employment. But what he really needs is serenity, a subconscious peace of mind.

    What seems to happen is that his desire to hold his family together and do well at his job tear apart his peace of mind… quite dramatically.

    The two can’t seem to work together. And ultimately, his obsession with his job unbalances him and sends him over the edge.

    What King does so well (and did very well for most of his career) is that he creates “wants” that are universal, stuff that we all can relate to… usually in the form of characters who are ordinary and unpretentious.

    It’s a the sign of a writer who is very secure in his/her craft.

  5. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    Another thought-provoking post, as always!

    Dick Francis’s books also centred around main protagonists who were apparently ordinary, and had to dig deep to bring not only the story arc, but their own personal arc, to a satisfactory conclusion. FOR KICKS is one that particularly springs to mind, and PROOF.

    On the other hand, I confess like my heroes to be, well … heroic, and that will always be the appeal of characters like Reacher.

    And on the drop-in front, I’d rather ring a bookstore ahead of time to arrange to stop by and sign stock, rather than turn up out of the blue. Saves embarrassment all round.

  6. Robert Gregory Browne

    I think it was my comment that Michelle was responding to, and I’ve found that it doesn’t hurt to get that SIGNED BY AUTHOR sticker on the book, and see them actually place it at the front of the store, or put it on display on the Information counter.

    Yes, I’ve run across some of those college students just trying to make a buck, but for the most part the drive bys have been worthwhile. Or, at the very least, they make me feel as if I’m doing something to further my career.

    The thing we have to remember about marketing is that we can’t expect fabulous, instantaneous results from everything we do. Building name recognition is a slow, laborious process.

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    So of course we got lost yesterday and I didn’t get back to the blog! Thanks for the great responses.

    Louise, I’ve said this before, but a lot of series characters like Reacher are more in the “mysterious stranger” category – they’re the ones who roll into town and fix everyone else’s problems, but they’re generally pretty perfect as they are and don’t NEED to change.

    I personally would hate to think of Reacher as mending his wicked ways and settling with just one woman, for example, and being on a search to find her… because his appeal is that he’s can be everything to ALL women – for a night or two.

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    That’s a great example of Wesley in WANTED, Toni – thanks for that analysis!

    I have to say for everyone, on the drop-in front – Virginia Beach is a FANTASTIC place for drop-ins. There are a good dozen Borders, BAMs, B&Ns and some surprisingly large and active Waldenbooks, all in a comfortable driiving loop, and it is clearly a book town. The managers and clerks were enormously receptive. Any store that didn’t have my books ordered them on the spot and we got multiple requests for signings. And then, of course, there’s the beach! 😉

    Highly recommended.

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Rae, this is about the third time in the last two months you’ve mentioned Crais. I’m sold. If you think this guy is good, I’m getting him today.

    Stacey, you couldn’t be more right about Stephen King: universal (and passionate) wants in ordinary characters. I

  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Z, I suppose it would be more polite to call first, and I certainly do that for independent stores, but Ken Wilson, the Los Angeles media escort, is the one who convinced me that bookstore chains are supposed to welcome authors with open arms (in fact it’s in the Borders corporate manual that they’re supposed to offer beverages from the cafe, etc). Signed books sell better for the store, so we’re doing THEM a favor by stopping.

    Going in with that knowledge (and being super friendly, of course) overcomes any potential shyness.

  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I agree, RGB – building name recognition IS a slow and gradual process. What I love about drop-ins is that it gives you wide exposure in an area in a very short time, on a very personal level.

    We could have just gone up to Virginia Beach and done our scheduled signing, sold some books, made friends with the booksellers at that store and a few new fans. Instead, in the same 30-hour time frame, we did all that at that one AND hit eleven others, and made some really great contacts at almost all of those stores as well.

    I’m really into the biggest bang for the buck.

  12. j.t. ellison

    Alex – I love this post. The need versus desire question drives my books, and I love to see it analyzed.

    I love drop in signings. The worse thing that happens is they don’t have the book — and if you aren’t a model title (automatic reorder) then they order it on the spot. There’s nothing better than a CRM finding your book on the shelf a year after pub date, and that smile becomes bright and happy. They LOVE to meet authors.

    Be professional, introduce yourself and your publisher “I’m JT Ellison, I write the Taylor Jackson series for Mira Books.” Even if they don’t recognize your name, they usually know the house, and that gives you an in.

    It would be good to follow this with Allison’s guest blog, because I think giving benefit of the doubt should apply to bookstores too. Sometimes you’re going to hit them on a bad day. Relax, check your ego, and move on. Don’t let one or two bad experiences ruin it for you.

  13. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Alex,Great post. I’m sorry I didn’t get to it until today.

    Yes, I love drop-ins, too. And they’ve never gone amiss; I’ve only been treated well.

    Your lesson (that’s what it feels like, a wonderful lesson in writing) today about internal/external wants is fascinating. I’m curious about Robert Parker’s Spenser.

    I think his deep want is to save people, to help the little guy. But I’m not sure about the external want.

    Any ideas, anyone?


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