Desire . . . Fiction’s Secret Power

6_17Why do we read stories?

It’s an important question for any fiction writer—or any teacher of fiction—to ask.

The Puritans forbad novels. Stories were thought to be immoral, composed of lies. And there was a time, much nearer at hand, when teachers who wanted to read a story to their students had to close their classroom doors lest the principal come by and overhear them “wasting time.” I suppose that may still be true in some schools.

I have thought about this question often over the years, as any fiction writer should. What gives these worlds I fabricate value? What are readers seeking when they immerse themselves in a story of mine, in any story at all?

I’ve come to be convinced that we turn to fiction, at least in part, to be empowered, however vicariously. We all struggle, even if our lives are blessed. And the reality is that most mornings when we get up we shoulder exactly the same load we carried the day before. We do the same the day after that. And the day after that. Change comes hard, if it comes at all, and usually if it does come it does so only incrementally.

So I believe one of the reasons we turn to story is to see someone else do what we aren’t much inclined to do ourselves. To see that person take hold of her life and give it a good shake . . . and come out on the other side having changed herself or her circumstances or both. The truth is, of course, it’s easier to do in fiction than in life.

But every story begins with a core question, “What does my character want?” Because it is the wanting that draws our readers in with echoes of their own desires. And it is the wanting that energizes and propels the story toward the empowering resolution.

Often, when a story is stalled, we can get it moving again by repeating that simple question. What does my main character want? And sometimes it’s surprising to realize how many pages we may have written without yet having understood the answer.

As anyone who has been dipping into this blog from time to time knows, I have been working on a young-adult novel called Blue-Eyed Wolf for a couple of years now. Well, working on it and setting it aside and then working on it again. At the moment it is resting. Other manuscripts—even this blog—keep pulling me away.

There is, however, something besides the pull of other work that is making it easy to step away. I have a profound question about this story I haven’t yet answered. My characters—I now have three perceiving characters—all want something. They want their brother/boyfriend/son to come back from Vietnam whole. Or, actually, what they really want, each one, is for him not to have gone in the first place. And they are all helpless to do anything about that fiercely held desire. They can only get up every morning and shoulder it again.

Just the way we do in real life.

I know where I’m going with this story. I know what will be resolved . . . and what will not. And much won’t be resolved. I know how each of my characters will change by the end of my tale. But sometimes I run out of energy for getting them there. I suspect it’s the amorphous quality of my characters’ wanting that keeps draining the passion—my passion—from my story.

And will it drain my readers’ passion, too? A crucial question.

I have to figure out how to keep my characters moving when there is no place for them to go. How to keep them energized when there is little hope. How to keep my readers caring and connected even if the characters aren’t taking charge of much . . . and how to keep my readers committed, right to the end, even when no one is being empowered.

What I count on—what I have to count on—is the deep curiosity we all carry for other people’s interior lives. It’s a curiosity about ourselves, really. Am I alone out here? Am I the only one who ever thought that, felt that, wanted that?

What does it mean to be human?

Taking our characters through struggle to a victory that empowers is time-tested way to satisfy our readers. But sometimes the simple journey into a soul’s struggle is all a story has to offer.

Can it be enough?



13 thoughts on “Desire . . . Fiction’s Secret Power

  1. Sarah Lamstein

    Oh, my lord, I’m wrestling with and resting from a somewhat similar situation in my fledgling novel, which has been fledging at least ten years. You’re always a touchstone, Marion.

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Thanks you, Sarah. Keep wrestling and keep fledging. Our best work is often not our easiest. Come to think of it, I can turn that advice around and hand it to myself!

  2. writersideup

    Another wonderful post, Marion 🙂 Thank you for that.

    I think that if a reader is looking for that kind of story—the “am I the only one” or for empowerment, then I do think the journey of characters’ inner lives (if well done, of course) is plenty to carry readers through, especially when they’re looking for a quieter, more thoughtful experience.

    There are many reasons we read fiction and I think it’s largely dependent on the reader’s personality, their mood, what they’re drawn to and what place they’re at in their lives at any given time. I simply love storytelling, but I want to feel for my characters. I want to be inside their heads or at least to feel what they’re feeling.

    And thank you for the new word—amorphous—it’s one I think will stick! 🙂

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Thank you, Donna Marie.; You’re right, of course, that different readers read for different reasons. It’s easy to assume that everyone out there is exactly like us. I guess that means it’s a good thing those of us writing stories are so very different from one another. How else could that wide audience be served?

      1. writersideup

        Exactly, Marion, and I think it reaffirms, even more so, why we should write what we ourselves are passionate about writing and not for a supposed market or trend. Both are fleeting—and we would be fools to fall for the wiles of such deceptive, cunning chameleons!

  3. Susan L. Lipson

    I opened this blog post because of synchronicity: I just posted this on my Twitter and FB author page: #YA and #MG novelists offer kids vicarious emotional rides that help them grow up without having to endure the hardships of the characters with whom they empathize.

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      I agree, Susan. On one level, perhaps it’s what adult fiction is about, too, if not growing us up as adult readers, certainly enlarging us, which is much the same..

  4. Carleen M. Tjader

    If it can be done, you are the writer to do it.
    I think this is what is missing in my picture book manuscript that I am struggling with now-showing what my character wants, more than anything.

  5. gardenlearning

    What a powerful look into the writing process – the energy it takes to push through with your characters! I love the question – “What does my character want?” so simple and yet so much strength.

    That journey into the soul is always hard but when done with faith the reader feels it and believes and yes it is enough to keep us all reading and hoping! and for me writing!

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      I like your statement “when done with faith.” That is what writing takes, faith in ourselves, faith in our characters, faith in a world that makes sense in the midst of chaos. Thank you.

  6. Norma Gaffron

    in answer to “Can it be enough?” I’d say a strong MAYBE.

    A fiction writer once said he takes a situation familiar to himself and makes it come out the way he wants it to. I like that. Sounds therapeutic.

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      I agree with that description . . . partially. Usually that’s what I do, take a familiar problem and fix it. In this story, I’m finding the story can’t come out the way I want it to. In fact, I’ve discovered it keeps getting messier, less resolved. Even what resolution I’ve found isn’t anything I would have chosen. And so I ask myself, what are stories for? Sometimes, maybe, just for exploring the heart, not resolving it.


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