third talk: desire and obstacles


An investigation into the structure of fiction also turns out to be an investigation into structure of our own lives. What do we mean, after all, when we say that someone has “character?” Isn’t it close to the same definition we have for a fictional character? Try this on for size: a character is a person who wants something enough to pursue it through, around, under, and over obstacles. Because of this, a character is someone who gets into trouble. With herself and others. It’s nearly impossible to write a story without trouble. It may not be big trouble, but it’s trouble nevertheless. What Tolstoy didn’t say: there aren’t many stories about happy families.

When we talk about “character” as a desirable personal quality, again, we are probably teaching ourselves something about fiction: a willingness to pursue a noble goal through obstacles. Like integrity. Like determination. Like commitment. In fiction, character doesn’t always concern itself with integrity except in the most clinical sense: the protagonist, at least, has a desire that may be turned or transformed, but is almost never backed away from.

In our daily lives, mostly our default response is to avoid trouble. When madmen run down the street with guns, we lock all our doors. When our lover has huge emotional problems, we find another lover. When the Dave Matthews Band show is sold out, we stay home and see what’s on TV. Then watch Lost.

But there are those among us who have something else going on. For the purposes of his lecture, we’ll call that special something “desire,” although there are probably a thousand names that we could call it: character, integrity, motivation, a wild hair up his/her ass, etc. These people, under the right circumstances, will confront those madmen, they will wait while their lover spends six months in a halfway house where she is forbidden to see him, they will call every single person in their address book and then, ultimately, flirt with a roadie in order to get tickets to see the band.

I can’t tell you exactly why this is, but fiction, of any kind, just doesn’t work well without desire and desire’s partner-in-crime, obstacles. It’s been that way since long before Aristotle told us it was that way. And it’s very difficult to have one without the other. In fact, we can say that one defines and determines the other: without obstacles, how can we really say that we want anything? Does the man who orders dinner from his faithful butler, who then brings it without complaint exactly as he requested, really want dinner? Maybe, but there’s no real way to know. We have to take his word for it, and taking his word for it is not a very powerful way to encounter his life. If, on the other hand, our character is Batman and the butler is Alfred, and Alfred requests that Batman save a busload of children from terrorists, clean up Gotham City, and make sure that the door to Batcave is closed before he gets his meatloaf sandwich, we can be sure our diner is motivated once he does all those things. In fact, one way to increase the desire of a character is to increase his obstacles. This is why when you’re casting a Batman movie, you give Michael Keaton a nice salary, but you give Jack Nicholson enough money to buy The Lakers. The better the villain (obstacle), the greater the hero has to be to overcome the villain (desire).

It’s easier sometimes to see these things in terms of movies because movies are a big cartoonish form where the structure is easy to see. Also, the movies are an art form which hasn’t yet been destroyed by the endless talk of English professors like me. Let me bottom-line it for you: a character who doesn’t want anything and isn’t willing to do anything to get it isn’t a character – he’s a bunch of words

Of course, this is a really simplistic approach to fiction. But the internal combustion engine is pretty simple, too. When buying a car, we tend to focus on all the goodies that adhere to the chassis, and we think less about the engine and drive train. In a story, desire and obstacles are the engine and the drive train. Without them, nothing. With them, you can talk about air conditioning and upholstery until the cows come home.

That’s not to say that the power windows and six speaker stereo aren’t important, but it is to say that when designing the car, they might not be the first things we think about. Many contemporary stories suffer from what I think of as “the slice of life” problem. Honestly, a slice of life isn’t that interesting unless the storyteller reaches down into the heart of it, beyond all the BS and evasions, and figures out how far his characters are willing to go to get what they want. The character that I know best is myself and, unless I’m involved in some struggle with life (desire), I’m mostly thinking about food and when I’ll be able to watch movies again (my son is two years old, so the answer to that question is “in about three years”).

What about a character who doesn’t want anything, Professor Barden? Aren’t their characters like that? Yes. And no. When a successful fictional character doesn’t want anything, I will say, mostly they want nothing. That is, they are passionate in their commitment to nothingness or absurdity. The example that students sometimes give me is the protagonist of The Stranger by Albert Camus. Now there’s a guy who wants his absurdity so much that he’s willing to die for it!

As I pointed out in an earlier lecture, a guy watching television is not a story, but a guy fiercely changing channels because he knows there has to be a freaking John Wayne movie on somewhere is. A guy watching television as he tries to get to the bottom of his sad hopeless life might be a story, but I’m much more interested, actually, in the guy who’s looking for the John Wayne movie because I have a strong suspicion that, given enough obstacles to his desire, we’ll get to the bottom of his sad life as a matter of course.

And here’s an extra credit question about your own character: what desire will be big enough to get you through the obstacles of this course? What desire will inspire you to complete all the assignments, faithfully do your daily workbook writing, and be honest with your community on the discussion boards? Do you want to get published? Do you want to become a great writer? Do you want to have a really fun fourteen weeks?

How badly do you want it? What are you willing to do? What obstacles will you overcome? How motivated ARE you?


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