The other day I was at the Tribeca Whole Foods playing Magic: the Gathering with some of my friends. We were having a great time—playing some great games, laughing, and guilty of not paying attention to the environment around us.
Then this woman started screaming.
The Tribeca Whole Foods is a mecca of meeting places; it’s where my writing workshop meets, where gamers of all kinds gather, a haven for book clubs and therapy groups, all pretty much because it neighbors a nexus of subway lines, has tables longer than most railway apartments, and has a buffet.
Magic: the Gathering is a collectible card game that I play weekly, casually or in tournaments.
To sum: a friend of mine just opened up a new pack of my cards, and pulled an incredibly rare and expensive card out of the pack, and made a bit of a comedic fuss about it. My playgroup laughed uproariously.
Then, from behind me:
WILL YOU SHUT UP I CANNOT HEAR A THING IN HERE YOU NEED TO STOP SCREAMING!
I turned around to find a woman glaring at me, her Beats head phones dangling around her neck, her eyes bulged, pug-like, almost about to roll out of her skull. She was in her sixties, possibly older, perched in front of a shiny MacBook Pro and (unconfirmed) cranking out Girl-Talk-esque mashups.
I AM SERIOUS YOU ARE BEING SO LOUD AND I CANNOT TAKE IT ANY MORE IT IS DISRESPECTFUL SO SHUT UP!
Part of living in New York City is dealing with personal space. People in NYC, because they have so little personal space, are very defensive about it. They protect it when they have it, they try to grab it where they can get it, and they crave it when it’s gone. When someone’s on a subway with their legs spread farther apart than a Fox News nightmare—that’s an attempt to get some personal space. When someone’s put their bag on the seat of the bus—staking out territory. Rapping/singing with headphones in? Loudness claims the air others breathe.
Space vs. New York is one of the things that baffles tourists—how quickly New Yorkers dart around them, the glares New Yorkers give them when tourists Red Rover the sidewalks. Pretty much every other major metropolis and every suburban setting either has a much smaller population or much wider communal areas (sidewalks, malls, etc.), so space for them is a privilege they don’t know they have. When they hog it when it’s scarce, like in NYC, they’re befuddled, irritated, perplexed at how the natives react to them.
But anyway, an old woman was screaming at me to stop being loud. As I saw it, I had three options:
- Politely apologize and police my play group into library-like silence.
- Escalate the situation to defend my territory and my right to be as loud as I wanted because it’s a free country and in a Whole Foods cafeteria there are no “rules” and exactly no one but her had a problem with my group’s laughter in the first place SO BRING IT ON LADY.
- Deal with the situation in some other manner, preferably without escalating.
I wanted today to talk about desire-as-plot. It is not enough to have a compelling character or a bunch of compelling characters moving around in interesting scenery. They’ve got to bump shoulders/elbows/heads. They need to have needs, desires, frustrations, redemptions, flaws. They need to disagree, to fight, to have contradicting opinions about the winner of Master Chef. To want something is to have a destination in mind; and the trials and tribulations of achieving that “thing” is mapped out in plot. A character without wants is not worth reading.
Desire is often expressed linearly: character A (protagonist) wants THING, but character B (antagonist) wants to stop them. Some examples of this:
Harry Potter doesn’t want to die vs. Voldemort wants him dead
Batman wants to save Gotham vs. Joker wants to destroy it
Katniss wants to go home vs. Everyone, like, ever, wants to kill her (Except Peeta. Oh Peeta.)
These are MACRO desires. They define the plot, and usually appear in some way on the Back Cover Copy of a book.
I AM SERIOUS I WILL CALL MANAGEMENT YOU ARE MAKING A SCENE.
Tied up in these MACRO desires, however, are the many more interesting MICRO desires; smaller desires that have less to do with the MACRO plot and are more character-specific, giving characters depth and humanity and reasons for the way they behave.
The first example to come to mind (honestly, probably because I was just thinking about Hunger Games and the fact that it’s lunch time) is Woody Harrelson’s character Tallahassee in Zombieland. Dude’s in the middle of the zombie apocalypse and all he wants in a G-D Twinkie. It’s brilliant in how it plays against the horror backdrop, but when added to his other desires, he becomes a complex web of wants and contradictions.
You know, a human.
Let’s look a little deeper.
MACRO desire for Tallahassee: Survive vs. Zombies (antagonists)
MICRO desires for Tallahassee:
- Eat a Twinkie vs. there are no Twinkies because the world has ended
- Stay alone because friends may up and die out of nowhere vs. Have a companion and employ the “Buddy” system in the apocalypse
- Mourn his son vs. Find new purpose for living
While each desire creates depth, it is how these desires bump into each other that creates dimensionality. Plot thickens where it is dissonant with other plots; that’s why the whole protagonist vs. antagonist is the foundation of conflict. However, where plot is dissonant internally, where the conflict is the roiling desires of a single character, that’s character development. And it’s damn sure to be interesting.
I AM JUST MINDING MY OWN BUSINESS AND YOU HAD TO BE SO LOUD.
Tallahassee isn’t an interesting character because he wants a Twinkie. That’s interesting, but it’s more of a punch line than anything else. It is how his friendship develops with the protagonist, how they shift from wanting to be alone to developing a bond, and the slow reveal of how we come to see Tallahassee is mourning his son (originally, due to the protagonist’s confusion, thought to be a dead pet) that we see Tallahassee as a complex human and not a figment created by light and sound. That fight, that push-and-pull, is superb craft at work.
The other side of this is how characters can want something, and their want for that something is what ends up destroying that thing. The most poignant reference to this I can conjure is in Raymond Carver’s short story So Much Water Close to Home. Read it. It’s much more deserving of attention than this summary:
A man goes on a fishing trip, finds the body of a missing woman floating in the river, drags the body to shore and finishes his fishing trip. At the end of the weekend, he comes home and reports finding the body to the police. While he’s being heralded as a hero, his wife is horrified: why didn’t he tell the police immediately? Why did he finish his fishing trip, hooking the fish that had probably feasted on the woman’s corpse?
The story closes with the image of the woman’s son playing in the backyard. The woman’s chief desire, it could be argued, is to make sure her son has a safe home. She wants to leave her husband… but how could she provide a safe home for her son if she leaves her husband? The answer, according to Carver/character/and the time the story takes place:
What she wants will be destroyed as soon as she gets it.
I MEAN IT I AM GOING TO GET THE MANAGER RIGHT NOW IF YOU DON’T STOP BEING SO LOUD.
The wants of a character define them more than their description, since it’s their wants that’ll turn the page, and not their outfit as seen on page 14. These wants can be big things: finding reasons to live, trying to survive; or they can be small things: a Twinkie, a song on the radio, a left glove. Important in showing desire is how desires oppose other wants, like being alone versus having a friend, or how desires can contradict themselves: staying in a bad situation to avoid a worse situation, or shouting for silence.