“It is not the mountains that we conquer, but ourselves.” ~ Sir
Steve Almond says it simply: in any narrative, we care first about the character, and then we care about what that character cares about. More than anything else, this is what compels a reader through a narrative.
It seems that Almond is referring to character motivation, and on one level, he is. But motivation runs even deeper. As Jennifer Van Bergen points out in Archetypes forWriters: Using the Power of Your Subconscious, it is a very small subset of motivations, which she calls “Universal Drives,” that motivate compelling characters: to survive, to love, to be loved, and (my addition) to matter.
These universal drives (I’m not keen on Van Bergen’s capitals, which smack of jargon) underlie virtually everything that matters in our lives, and in the lives of our characters. Universal drives are not conscious, nor are they situational. They are not emotions or reactions or beliefs. They are not doable in and of themselves. Being in love, for instance, is not a universal drive; rather, it is a situation compelled by the universal desire to love and be loved.
As writers, we discover the universal forces that motivate our characters by first acknowledging that our characters exist inside us. Despite the language we use to talk about characters – building, crafting, developing – character work is as much about discovery as anything else.
Though it seems inefficient, we typically uncover the universal desires of our characters by working backwards. My recently completed novel Cold Spell features Ruth, single mother of two, who becomes obsessed by a glacier. What’s behind this obsession? In part, that’s what the novel’s about, and what I had to discover myself in the process of writing it. Surface-level motivations – Ruth’s husband taking off for Florida with another woman, her fear that she’ll get stuck in her small Midwestern town, her deep hurts and longings – led me to her fundamental desire to love (her daughters especially) and be loved (by her girls, and by herself). As I sifted through these layers, it became more and more clear what’s truly at stake when Ruth abandons all that’s familiar and follows a man to the glacier.
In order to write effectively about our characters, Van Bergen points out that we must understand them from the inside, and with deep empathy. Readers care about characters who are motivated by universal desires. We all want to be secure. We all want to love and be loved. We all want to feel like we matter.
By definition, universal desires exist at all times, in everyone. In other words, they’re as common as dirt, yet they’re also highly intriguing because in each person these desires are uniquely manifested and suppressed. We are all damaged goods, pummeled by forces that keep us from attaining what we so desperately and fundamentally desire. What stands between our characters and their universal desires is what makes their stories truly compelling, along with the fact that the nature of these desires is such that none can ever be sure that they’ve always and forever achieved them.
Check This Out: In Archetypes for Writers, Jennifer Van Bergen taps into acting strategies to explore archetypal elements of characters. Her insistence on Greek-based nomenclature (universal drives, for instance, are “nos-amianthy) is cumbersome, and the prose in some parts reads more like notes, but there are some useful ideas in the book, and plenty of exercises.
Try This: Modified from Van Bergen: Identify a character’s goal or goals within a single scene from a short story, then consider the same character’s goal or goals within the entire story. Finally, identify the universal desires that underlie these goals.