Thursday, August 19, 2010

The dynamics of wanting

On one of those advice-giving blogs I've been reading -- there's undoubtedly a good short story there -- one the writers (Edmund Schubert, author and editor of Intergalactic Medicine Show) has written a couple times about making sure your characters want something, and that this desire shapes the story in a way that sets up expectations and interest for the reader. He quotes Vonnegut, who says somewhere that a character can just want a glass of water. I was thinking about his while I was doing my daily walk yesterday and it started to make more sense and to connect to stuff I do in my teaching life on motivation.

So you start a story with "More than anything, I wanted a glass of water." And this can set the whole mouse-trap in motion. What I was thinking, though, was that desire is always preceded by need, or lack, or anxiety, or something psychological, that is, he wants a glass of water for some reason. He's thirsty, he has a terrible taste in his mouth, he's trying to recover from alcoholism. So there's always an unsaid sentence before the first sentence that sets the stage, that only the author knows, or ought to know, and say to himself. I tell my students about motivation -- which is related to want and desire -- that we tend unfortunately to think of it either in a passive sense or as a character attribute. Someone is motivated to drink a glass or water. Someone is motivated to get off the bottle. I recommend that we think of motivation as X causes (or some derivative) Y to do Z, and that this helps us understand behavior and its related thinking and feeling better. Thirst makes me want to drink a glass of water. What happens next? Well, that depends on the environment, and it depends on "thirst" (as a physical and/or psychological demand) and its depends on how Y responds to his own desire. In a situation where Y has just come in from a long walk in the sun, and gets a glass from the cupboard, and draws some water from the spigot, and drinks it, not a lot is going to be revealed. If the environment offers no water, then the situation is different. If Y's thirst, and his relationship to his own desire, is problematic is some way -- let's say he is always thirsty and his survival depends on drinking water only when he actually needs it -- then we have a different kind of story. If we replace "water" with "Jack Daniels" we have a different story. And we can play with the "more than anything" part, by asking, "really, more than anything?" 

In my own story, what does Havel want? The way I've set it up what he wants is (a) to get away from where and what he is, and (b) to get back to where and what he imagines he ought to be. Both physically being the same place. More operationally, X causes Havel to do something (or to think, believe, want, feel) something. Guilt about teleporting Bloehm and her not returning causes Havel to feel badly about himself and to want to separate himself from others. The animus of the community causes Havel to leave the garage. The betrayal of his father causes Havel to want to remove himself from the site of pain. The bounty hunter causes Havel to run. So there are a preponderance of causes for Havel to flee. But none of this answers the larger question of what Havel wants, or rather they complicate it. It seems he both wants to harm himself (by further separating himself from society and family) and to save himself (by preventing capture for his "crime," to which he admits). His almost immediate recontact with people demonstrate that his real need is to not be alone, but rather to reconnect, while the more existential dilemma of being caught becomes more acute and requires the help of others. At the higher level, Havel wants to find Bloehm, and to restore her, and thus to restore himself.

The next question, raised also by Schubert, is how I see the story ending, because without a sense of the goal, it's hard to go in the right direction. Because young adult novels have to have at least somewhat happy endings, I can't just have everyone die or go insane on the last page. I think I'd like to see Havel and Bloehm, together, returning to the parking garage to find it either gone, or with some completely other use. The notion would be that they are not in the same time-space in which they began the story. Probably they have gone further along. This is not an entirely happy ending, but it does leave space to go on with the story, on one hand, or just to go on with life, such as it is, on the other.

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