Every writer knows that it’s important to find a character’s motivating desire, and those desires are often pretty simple: make money, find love, get revenge, get away, get laid. These are essential human desires, but when they’re distilled down to basics, they can feel too simple. In our minds, our lives are messier and more complicated than any of these desires, which is why we’ve all heard someone say (or we’ve said), “It’s not just about ___. It’s the principle of the thing.” In life and in stories, there’s the desire itself and the invisible architecture of thought, rationalization, philosophy, theology, and politics that we construct around it. Sometimes we become so invested in this architecture that we forget about the desire upon which it’s built.
Octavio Solis crafts an entire story around the distance between the architecture and desire in “The Want,” which you can read in its entirety online at Huizache: The Magazine of Latino Literature.
How the Story Works
The premise is simple. The narrator is home from his first semester of college and feeling lonely. He goes for a drive and thinks, “I need a girl, some girl to lie to, hold, feel against me, someone to give me a little nighttime CPR, for god’s sake. Just one time. One night. That’s all.” It’s a pretty straightforward desire, and if the story proceeded from there, the plot would be the same as any of a thousand movies about young guys trying to have sex. But Solis begins to build an architecture of thought around this desire, and the story changes.
Here is the next paragraph:
The loneliness is hurting real bad now. It’s not in the heart but in the head like a migraine shooting icicles into the back of my eyes. It’s in my throat too, sore with the whispers that keep hissing out of my mouth like bile. All around me, the streets are barren and shiny in the night. All mortals hidden, out of reach. This is what my born-again high school teacher said would happen. You abandon the Lord and you’ll feel the desolation of that choice. You’ll be more alone than you could ever imagine. Painful and paralyzing is the sinner’s harrowing.
The desire has been enlarged, spreading from the heart (and, probably, another organ) to his head and eventually to the entire world (“the streets are barren and shiny in the night. All mortals hidden, out of reach”). You’ve probably been taught about the pathetic fallacy: the giving of human emotions to non-human things (animals, the sky, trees). At it’s worst, it’s an emotional shortcut. A character is sad, and so the weather is sad and rainy. That’s sloppy writing. But Solis is using the same basic idea in a different way. His narrator sees the world (empty streets) and perceives it through the lens of his emotion (lonely, horny), and so in his mind, the street seems to reflect his own feelings back at him.
The desire also becomes about more than just sex. Now, religion is part of it.
Into this new enlarged sense of desire comes a girl, walking alone by the railroad tracks. She’s pregnant. The narrator offers her a ride. The scene that follows depends completely on the distance between the narrator’s physical desire (find a girl) and the thoughts he’s built around it (“All mortals hidden out of reach…abandon the Lord…more alone than you could ever imagine.”) In short, he forgets (or pretends to himself that he’s forgotten) about looking for sex. He tells himself (and her) that it’s human connection that he wants: “I tell her that I draw strength from her company.”
The girl cuts through this. I won’t say how. You should read the story. But it’s important to note what she does not do. In stories by beginning writers (and in some scripts by professional TV and film writers), a character like the girl will dispense wisdom. She’ll be a kind of guardian angel, swooping into the story to help the main character feel better or learn something. If that’s the point of the story (Highway to Heaven, Quantum Leap, Touched by an Angel), then so be it. But it’s crucial to look out for lazy tropes. For example, when a character like the girl is black, she too often becomes the magical negro. Solis avoids this problem. The girl doesn’t dispense wisdom. She acts and speaks in ways that match her own desires in the moment.
The result is a great, tense passage. Read it here.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s create tension between physical desire and the architecture of thought a character builds around that desire, using “The Want” by Octavio Solis as a model:
- Find the basic desire. Keep it simple. What does your character hunger for? Or, what is an absence that is unacceptable to your character? The objects will be some of the usual ones: money, food, shelter, security, love, friendship, sex. Once you find the desire, put the object at its center just out of reach. Solis’ narrator wants a girl, but he can’t find one. The bar is full of “older blinder boozers” and the streets are empty. What does your character want? How can you make it seem impossible to get?
- Lay the foundation for the architecture of thought. The story begins on Christmas, and so there is a series of Christmas imagery: Bing Crosby on the radio, a city light that reminds the narrator of the Christmas star. The character is home from college, and so he flips through his high school yearbook, looking at pictures and notes written by classmates. The yearbook suggests a different kind of loneliness, not just sexual but more general. And, it’s a pretty short jump from Christmas imagery to theological loneliness. So, give your character and story something to work with. This is basic narrative work: what details in the setting and situation stand out to the character?
- Build the architecture of thought. When your character is alone in his/her head, thinking about these details while in the midst of the basic desire, what thoughts come up? Keep writing. What do they spin themselves into? In “The Want,” we soon realize that the narrator is struggling with his religious beliefs (or has moved past them and is struggling with the aftermath). We also realize that he’s not quite sure how to be an adult (reading the yearbook). He goes into a bar but doesn’t like the company he finds there. Like anyone does while driving, he thinks and thinks about these things and develops some ideas. To some extent, he’s created his own diversion from looking for sex. He’s distracted by his own thoughts. What are the thoughts that your character might become distracted by?
- Bring another character into the story. This character will not be aware of the invisible architecture of thought in the first character’s head. The girl in “The Want” only knows what she sees: a guy has picked her up. It’s natural, then, that her actions and words will cut across the world the narrator has created in his mind. She interacts with him based on his desire (which is evident), not his thoughts. Conflict ensues. So, what character can you bring into the story? How does that character fit into your main character’s basic desire?
The goal is to create conflict and tension by giving your main character/narrator both a desire and an architecture of thought build around that desire. You may know what those thoughts will be beforehand, or you may need to explore the premise a bit to discover them. Once you do, bring another character into the story.