The flip side of the heart of longing

As I think I’ve mentioned here before, the number one thing I need in order to write a book is the heart of longing. I have to feel a sense of desire in the skin on the back of my arms. Maybe it’s not something I can put in words. Maybe it’s only a set of images or a single image. Maybe it’s a memory or a song. But somehow a book has to be actuated by the kind of desire that makes people do insane things.

That’s only half the story. The other half, which is equally as hard though perhaps not as necessary, is to find their power. You know how there’s all this talk about making characters likeable? Well this is the part of the character that makes me like them: the thing that makes them bigger than life. Their power is the way that they differ from other people: it’s their sensitivity or their ruthlessness or strength. It’s the things they will do that nobody else would. It’s the wish fulfillment aspect of the book, essentially.

Pairing a character’s desire with their power isn’t an easy  process, and it often doesn’t happen until the story is pretty well fleshed out. Usually this is because any desire is, generally, pretty achievable for a powerful enough character. So you often either need to tone down their power, increase their desire, or increase the opposition to their desire. I’m making this sound like something very mechanical–something you could distill into a worksheet that’s on a perforated page in the back of a screenwriting manual–but it’s not. This is probably not something anybody else other than me could do, and even I don’t think about it in a straightforward or logical way. It’s more of a post facto assessment. “Oh, why am I having trouble writing this character? I think it’s because I haven’t yet found their power.”

Right now I’m cooling my heels, trying to put something together for my novel for adults. I keep trying to work on one of the viewpoint characters, but I just don’t have his power yet. I have his desire, but not his power. I’ll get there, but it’s a little frustrated, since sometimes it feels like if I don’t have both sides of the equation locked down, there’s almost no point in writing.

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