What We Want

As I wrote in May (“The Last Arc”), I see each story as possessing three arcs: the physical, the emotional, and the intentional. The physical arc is everything that happens; the emotional arc is the changes your characters experience while doing everything that happens; and the intentional arc is what the story is actually about, the reason you wrote it—it’s meaning, if you will. I’d like to look again at the emotional arc. As I mentioned in my prior article, the emotional arc is most easily described as what each of your characters wants. As Kurt Vonnegut was supposed to have said, every character in every one of your scenes has to want something, even if it’s a glass of water. True enough. But I am going to take it one step further and say that the only thing any of your characters ever actually wants is to be at peace. Why? Because that’s all human beings want.

This is often difficult for us to remember. Someone shouts at us from a car, breaks into our house, cuts in front of us in line, and we might think—well, I won’t print what we might think. But the truth is, just because someone does something awful like rob, cheat, or even murder does not mean they aren’t seeking peace, it just means they have a mistaken idea of how this peace will be achieved. Murderers believe, if only for as long as it takes to pull a trigger, that they will not know peace as long as this other person can draw a breath. They soon learn the truth of it, but not until they are labeled monster for their mistake.

Mistakes are what make our characters so interesting. So much of fiction is about characters taking strange and even disastrous routes toward their own peace. As writers, it is our job to understand why these characters, both antagonists and protagonists, believe in their routes, and what it takes for them to learn the truth. It’s called compassion, a writer’s greatest tool. Writers spend a lot of time constructing a character’s personality, that veil of desires that keeps each one running this way and that—yet beneath the veil there is always the same current of human potential, the desire to see that which we know within us revealed to others as it has been revealed to ourselves.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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