The power of competing desires in a story

by | Jan 14, 2020 | Writing Advice | 1 comment

Every character in your novel has to want something. Full stop. When you reduce novels down to their essence, novels are about a bunch of characters who want different things bumping up against each other to see who gets what.

For your minor characters, the things they want can be relatively simple and straightforward.

But for your protagonist… 1) Give them more than one thing they want. And 2) Make the things they want at odds with each other.

There is a huge amount of narrative power in a character who has to decide between more than one desire.

Competing desires are powerful

Casablanca is one of my favorite movies of all time and it features a justifiably iconic climax.

(Spoilers ahead but like come on you haven’t seen Casablanca??)

The dramatic shootout with a Nazi and Rick’s final speech to Ilsa (“You’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow…”) hinge on whether Rick is going to choose Ilsa, the woman he’s always loved, or act on his latent idealism and aid the war effort.

He can’t have both. And he ultimately chooses to act on his idealism. (A “beautiful friendship” with Claude Rains’s Louis isn’t a bad consolation prize.)

You can craft a hugely powerful climax if you set up an agonizing choice for your protagonist between two or more competing desires. Not only do they have to overcome the villain, they have to sort out their internal battles as well.

Internal vs. external desires

Often what you’ll see in more nuanced protagonists is that the characters want something external and concrete (saving their land from danger, rescuing something, finding an important talisman, etc.), but they also want something more internal and intangible (revenge, inner peace, resolution).

Throughout the story we’ll see these characters pulled by these different desires. There are multiple centers of gravity that act upon the character.

This tension builds toward the climax, when the character is forced to make a difficult choice about what’s most important to them.

As one of my favorite Ray Dalio sayings goes: you can have anything but you can’t have everything.

Why competing desires work

I have a personal theory that we gravitate to stories because we want to see how people who are different than us go about trying to get what they want. It’s fascinating to watch characters navigate obstacles and be forced change and evolve in order to go after the things they desire.

But life is complicated. It’s often hard to sort through what you want. You can’t have it all.

So being forced to choose between competing desires is one of the ultimate tests of character. It shows us what the character really wants. We see how and why they made the ultimate decision. We sympathize with what they have to sacrifice for their choice.

Set up those competing desires and craft your climax around them. Your readers will be gripped by the choices your protagonist has to make.

Art: In front of the mirror by Anton Piotrowski


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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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