What is desire?

A lot of writing advice tells you to focus on narrative conflict. “Conflict” to many people implies some kind of battle in the style of the Campbellian hero’s journey. However, I find conflict-driven narrative to be a highly Western model of telling stories. Not all stories have to be about the difficulty of a battle. Instead, I find it more useful to conceptualize your story in terms of desire.

As a concept, “desire” encompasses the needs, wants, and compromise behind character motivation and narrative tension. All your characters want something. Whether that’s a need they’re lacking, or a want that they’re trying to achieve, your characters have something that drives them throughout the whole story.

I find it helpful to refer to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to see where my characters are at:

Figure 5. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as illustrated by Saul McLeod.

The needs do not need to be filled in a step-by-step progression. Maybe the tension in your character is that they are trying to self-actualize while their most fundamental needs like food and shelter aren’t being met. The following graph view of Maslow’s hierarchy shows that phases often overlap on a person’s journey through self-actualization:

Figure 6. Dynamic graph of Maslow’s needs as illustrated by Philipp Guttmann.

Maslow’s hierarchy has some shortcomings, but addressing those flaws is outside the scope of this course. You can view the hierarchy as an imperfect tool for helping you get unstuck in your writing.

Reading comprehension exercises

  1. Conceptualize a story you could tell on each level of Maslow’s hierarchy. For example:
    • A story about a character who lacks shelter could be about a protagonist in a leaky, dysfunctional haunted house.
    • A story about belonging could involve a Stooge-type character struggling to find companionship despite all his material needs being met.
    • A story about self-actualization could be about a character who knows who they are, but is told repeatedly by outsiders that their identity isn’t valid. (See:At Your Dream’s Edge” by S. Qiouyi Lu)