ABC’s of Fiction Writing: L is for Longing

Posted by on Mar 13, 2015 in Uncategorized | 1 comment

Gorton headshot (2)My best friend Zac has written nonfiction for as long as I’ve known him. Well, that’s not true; he was originally a poet when I first met him in grad school, but some harsh feedback sent him into his true calling with the quickness. Recently, though, he’s decided to put aside his essays and try his hand at fiction.

“It’s so much harder,” he lamented one day over Google Chat, while we were both totally not at work. “In nonfiction, you already have the people. In fiction, I have to make up all of these characters from scratch.”

They don’t really come from scratch, I told him; it’s more about cobbling than conjuring. My protagonist might have my brother’s unflinching humor in the face of tragedy, or my mom’s habit of repeating a sentence to herself in song. I pull from the people I know and then weave the parts into a whole.

But bits and pieces of personalities do not a character make. There’s more to someone than their habits and humor, in person and on the page. It seems elusive at first; you have down their physical characteristics and their general emotional infrastructure. What are you missing? Their spirit? Their soul? Some weird, third thing for which we’ve yet to find a name?

No. What you’re missing is the longing.

In From Where You Dream, Robert Olen Butler’s collection of lectures on writing, the presence of longing—“yearning,” as Butler calls it—is vital to the authenticity of any character. “Until a character with yearning has emerged from your unconscious, I don’t encourage you to write,” Butler says. He goes on to clarify this; sure, you might have a pretty fleshed-out character on your hands. But she inherently lacks any kind of real humanity if she longs for nothing, and thus her journey will be inauthentic and probably pretty uninteresting. Every human longs for something, and so does every great character in fiction. My girl Jo March longs to find a place for her voice in the world of men’s writing. Don Quixote longs for personal greatness and adventure. Mrs. Dalloway longs for the past (and Sally Seton, amirite?).

Pro tip: longing is not the same as wanting. As a writer, you can clear up a character’s want in the space of a few pages; it’s something more concrete and surface-level, something your character probably knows he wants. Longing, however, runs more deeply. It should be a product of your character’s life, his history, as all of our longings as humans are. The character may not even be fully aware of what it is he longs for. He knows he feels incomplete or empty, he knows he is searching for something, but he isn’t sure why. You need to know why, at all times. The quest to understand and satiate this longing should drive his every move, even if it’s on a subconscious level that only you and the reader recognize.

When your character longs for something out of his or her reach, possibilities for personal growth, and the growth of the story, multiply. So dig deep: what is it your character longs for? What’s in her way of getting it, and how does she try to overcome that obstacle? Will she ever actually get it? And if she does, will she feel complete, or utterly unsatisfied? The plot, to some degree, begins to write itself (you still need to do the work, lazy, but you know what I mean).

In short: If you find your characters are lacking that third dimension, that human element, it’s possible that they’re simply not in enough agony over something they don’t–or can’t–have. Agony is good. Agony is human. Agony is motivation. Discover your character’s deepest longing, and you’ll find the story you’re really supposed to tell.

Kate Gorton is a blogger and writer of short and long fiction. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield University and runs “It’s Just Brunch,” a blog and web series for writers along with fellow MFA’ers. She has been published in Spry Literary Journal and Mason’s Road Online Literary Journal, and she is a credited proofreader of You: An Anthology of Essays Devoted to the Second Person and Essaying the Essay. She lives in Rhode Island.

1 Comment

  1. I love this perspective, and I’ve seen Brady Udall say something similar about longing making a good story. Do you have any other recommendations of fiction that really captures this longing? I’m thinking of Udall’s story Otis Is Resurrected, or Love in the Time of Cholera. I’d love to read more like that.

    Thanks for this post!

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