Too much is made in writing how-to literature of the main character’s Want, the motivator which propels him through his story. In describing this force in terms of a desire, would-be writing gurus are doing their readers a disservice. Want isn’t as important in fiction writing as you think.
Most heroes, I would argue, are not driven by anything as grand as Longing. Take, for example, Chief Brody from Jaws, whom I cited in earlier posts. Does he have a desire which forces him out to sea to take on a three-ton Great White shark? I don’t think so. He’s just doing his job. Want makes it sound so much more romantic than it is. Even Luke Skywalker, who starts with a dream of leaving his backwater planet and exploring the galaxy, moves into what I would deem a professional mode once he’s thrown off the bonds of his ghetto homeworld. He takes on the Empire a) because he’s in a unique position to do so, and b) because it’s the right thing to do. Although both he and Brody are, in hindsight, heroic, they both have a job to do and they do it. Byronic mooning about doesn’t enter into it.
Maybe I’m splitting semantic hairs here, but I believe all of this talk about Want pushes budding writers in a subtly wrong direction. It’s probably better if not every protagonist navigates his story as a creature defined by Longing. Down that path lies an epidemic of histrionic youths as literary heroes. Perhaps, to some extent, that’s what we already have.
Again, in a previous post, I gave a simple equation for plotting: Character + Problem = Plot. Let me be more clear on what I mean by “Problem”. Problem is where the protagonist’s need to do his job — or, in extreme cases, fulfill his Want — meets an impediment. This impediment could come in the form of the Antagonist, Mother Nature showing her dark side, or simple bad luck. It’s important that we realize too that, often, this impediment is an outside force that instigates the very need to do the job in the first place. Were it not for the Great White terrorizing his town, Brody would never have ventured out to sea. He’d have no cause to. The shark itself is the motivator, and there was never a preexisting Want. In this case — and the case of many, many other stories — the Antagonist is both a character and also the motivator which calls the Protagonist to action.
I prefer this more Blue Collar approach to plotting and motivation to the more hippy-dippy characterization of heroic drivers some other writing advisors float. Remember: Want isn’t as important in fiction writing as you think.