To be heard. To be loved. To live a life of his own choosing. To be a hero. To not be a hero. To understand.
These are just a few of the central desires that the protagonists of books – fiction and nonfiction – carry. It is these desires and the obstacles that hinder a character’s ability to achieve them that make for compelling reading. A book – novel, memoir, or essay collection – that isn’t driven by this desire falls flat. It doesn’t work. Ever.
The reason the protagonist must have a driving force in a book is that without that central desire everything in the pages feels equally important and pressing. It’s like the looking at a map as you travel and seeing all the roads are depicted the same way and the rivers too.
There is a reason music has a melody. We need a throughline, a thread to follow.
So if you are writing a narrative, a story of any sort, ask yourself – what does my character most want, and what is getting in the way of her reaching that thing? Ask that question of fictional characters, yes, but also of the character you are creating out of yourself in your memoir.
(Side note – your memoir is not your life. It’s an artifice created to draw meaning out from one aspect of your life.)
Give your reader the gift of this central desire by shaping all the actions and choices of your protagonist around it. Then, even if the girl doesn’t get her girl, even if the guy doesn’t have that child, even if the hero can’t actually tell anyone he’s a hero, the reader will be satisfied by the journey, not lost on the map.
One desire. Stuff in the way. That’s the heart of every great story.
This post was written with one hand while Milo slept in my other arm. I feel like a superhero. What would my superhero name be, I wonder?