A story is a spiral. A vortex. A character in an interesting story does not move toward the climactic confrontation in a linear fashion. They circle around it, guided by both centripetal and centrifugal forces, wanting and not wanting to get to the center of the vortex, where they will be transformed.
Wanting and Not Wanting
Sometimes structural paradigms make it seem like a story is simply about a character traversing obstacles on the way to the objective. And some stories are that. But often, the protagonist feels some ambivalence about getting to the prize.
They both want and don’t want their desire. I realize that sounds strange. How can someone not want what they desire? Desire is by definition that which a person wants. (For more on irony in storytelling, click here.)
But our yearnings are rarely ever pure.
Sticking with the vortex analogy, we might call wanting a centripetal force and not wanting a centrifugal force.
The centripetal force pushes them toward the center, compelling the character toward the inevitable showdown where they will succeed or fail at getting what they want.
But a centrifugal* force pushes them away from the center, compelling the character to avoid the pain of the showdown and their desire.
There are a few ways in which our desires can become somewhat undesirable.
In a quest narrative, the protagonist follows a trail of crumbs to get to what it is they yearn for. But in order to get to the next crumb, they have to face antagonism. That’s centrifugal force number one: conflict, opposition, setbacks, obstacles.
Antagonism means that obtaining the goal will be hard, and that’s enough to scare off many people.
But conflict is not the only centrifugal force. In fact, in the real world these days, we’re seeing a different variety playing out: denial. This is especially true for stories in which the desire is to escape or solve a problem. Characters deny the problem.
This centripetal/centrifugal paradigm doesn’t mean there isn’t escalation. Denial definitely escalates (I’m looking at you, America, and your pandemic response). We may begin by denying the existence of a problem and then by denying its severity and then move to denying its personal effect, etc. There’s still escalation there. In fact, when we deny a problem, it only gets worse. So there’s actually some inherent escalation to denial.
We often subconsciously desire the opposite of what we consciously desire. In Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s short story, “The Lion and the Spider,” for instance, the main character wants to confront his father, who returns home months after saying he’d be back in two weeks. Subconsciously, though, the protagonist wants his father’s love. And in the climactic moment when his father returns, these two desires compete within the protagonist.
This is not a story in which the main character is on a quest to find his father, so there aren’t really events that move us toward the reunion. The main character works on the loading dock at a home improvement store; that’s the bulk of the action in the story. However, his work at the store always dances around his concerns about his father, such as when he fantasizes about finding a baby in the back of one of the trucks he’s unloading.
The subconscious desire thus seeps through most scenes in one fashion or another, and again, there’s escalation there as the subconscious desire presses on the character more and more until he’s forced to recognize it in the climax.
A final centrifugal force is need. In order to be able to get the object of desire, a character may need to fundamentally change in some way. A character may want a promotion, for instance, but may need to become a better team player at work in order to get that promotion.
Need and subconscious desire can often be conflated. The difference between them is that a need must be fulfilled in order for the character to obtain the desire. Whereas a subconscious desire is what the character actually wants but isn’t aware of until near the end of the story.
I should say, too, that there’s plenty of denial that can occur with subconscious desire and need, but that’s a different kind of denial than denying a problem.
A Totally Random Example
America faces a problem: a pandemic.
Desire: It wants to overcome that problem and get back to “normal.”
Antagonism: However, it faces several conflicts and obstacles along the way: limited supplies, limited facilities, limited understanding of the disease, difficulties with quarantining, etc.
Denial: And large swaths of the country fail to take the pandemic seriously and thus fail to take proper precautions.
Subconscious desire: We actually want a completely new world order; we don’t want “normal” at all.
Need: In order to get back to normal, we need to care about one another and cooperate, which are difficulties for a country so wedded to an independent spirit and “freedom.”
This paradigm of centripetal/centrifugal force—or a want/don’t want dynamic—may be more helpful than some other paradigms which propose various stages to a story’s progression. Particularly within short stories, which often experiment with form a little, I see the want/don’t want dynamic playing out. Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners” is a very long, meandering story about a boy whose group of friends is obsessed with a TV show called The Library. It’s not always easy to see how we’re moving toward a climax, but there’s a tension between what Jeremy wants and doesn’t want on every page.
Here, then, are some questions you can ask of yourself anytime you’re drafting a story.
First, what possible centrifugal forces are operating on the character? Is there an opponent or force of antagonism that the character doesn’t want to face? Is there a problem the character is denying? Is there a subconscious desire? Is there a need the character is failing to own up to?
Second, where does the story come to its apex? That is, at what point and under what circumstances does the protagonist face once and for all their antagonism, their denial, their subconscious desire, their need?
Third, the story up to that point is about pushing toward and pulling away from that apex, circling it in a spiral motion. How can you create scenes in which the character both wants and doesn’t want?
*Now, you scientific purists may quibble with centrifugal force as an imaginary force, to which I say 1) this is an analogy; don’t take it too far, and 2) yeah, the centrifugal force in a story often is entirely within the character’s head.
Thanks for this timely info. Centrifugal forces certainly play a great portion of my MC dilemma. You’re always hitting my novel deepening my ability to “understand what’s needed.”
I’ll just say this. Done well, this should engage the reader at an even deeper level as character and reader are now somewhat twain.
Really helpful in thinking about characters — and my own crap. We tend to put off and dance around what we NEED to face down — to grow and feel truly satisfied.
Definitely. So much dancing around. 🙂
This is an effective distillation of how tension works in compelling stories. Really well put. Thank you for this!
So much to unpack here, Tim. I love how you bring so much to the table to ponder. The interesting thing is, I can apply this idea of centrifugal force to real people in my life, to loved ones I can observe almost the way a reader observes a character. Only in real life, I am powerless to affect change in the way I want for my loved ones. But the beauty of being an author is that I CAN control the outcome…or can I? Characters have a life of their own. But even in writing memoir, this idea helps me to focus the narrative. I know the whole story, but what are the details that pertain to the particular story I’m telling? What are the details that make a centrifugal force? Great lesson, as always.
Thanks, Polly! Yeah, these centrifugal forces feel very authentic, don’t they? People are constantly undermining their own desires in some way or another.
So, the desire is for this bad boy already who’s already trouble and is also willing to take others along. When our chaste and sterling Hero, with skeletons of his own decides to help, he’s reminded of his sketchy past and is told – by his mom, no less – to stop picking at it and leave all the murder and mayhem to the police. But, the Hero just can’t. Also, he doesn’t think he’s meddling in official business, he’s just trying to help(save) the cool guy from doing something stupid. He knows, deep down, he also wants to be in there shoulder-to-shoulder with his bro’ fighting bad guys, too. But, the Hero’s real need is to be seen as both caring and involved in not only civic matters, but also in terms of helping the weak and wounded. Did I apply that correctly? Asking for a friend.
Here’s the first thing I’d quibble with, Daniel: “his need is to be seen as both caring and involved in not only civic matters, but also in terms of helping the weak and wounded.” Need is rarely about “being seen” as something. Need is usually a deeper truth.
Yes, I can accept your cavil but would suggest he is at once shallow and naive, or at least quite young, and tends to measure his own character against societal expectations.
Cavil, eh? 🙂 I like that he’s a little shallow and naive and that he measures his character against societal expectations. Perhaps his need is not to do so?
As I’m even now working on the character’s internal world – she’s desperate to see her father and is, at the same time, terrified that he will reject her – this couldn’t have been more timely, Tim. Thank you so much.
Oh, cool! I love serendipity!