Charlie Jane Anders is writing a nonfiction book—and Tor.com is publishing it as she does so. Never Say You Can’t Survive is a how-to book about the storytelling craft, but it’s also full of memoir, personal anecdote, and insight about how to flourish in the present emergency.
Below is the thirteenth chapter, “One Easy Way to Feel Better About the World.” You can find all previous chapters here. New chapters will appear every Tuesday. Enjoy!
Your Feelings are Valid—and Powerful
One Easy Way to Feel Better About the World
The world is kind of a garbage fondue right now. There are carnivorous office pigs with razor-sharp key-fob teeth, and fifty-foot-tall swans are scooping people up in their palatial bills. Dirt bikes have come to life, ridden by people made of dirt, and they want to turn the entire world into a dirt world. It’s a whole thing.
But there is one easy, and hopefully fun, way to feel less despondent about the state of the world—and to get in touch with your own sense of optimism and possibility. You can write about people who want things.
This is one of the main reasons why fiction is great: it allows us to model desire. People in stories generally have goals—even if they struggle, even if they face setback after setback. They have dreams and wishes and hopes. They strive towards something that they’ve enshrined in their hearts.
A lot of writing advice talks about motivations. We talk endlessly about finding your character’s motivation, and making sure your characters have motivations that are clear to the reader. Or if the characters are ambivalent or torn, as is frequently the case, we understand what they’re torn between, or what they’re ambivalent about.
But maybe instead of talking about motivation, we should talk about desire. And ambition. And lust. Craving. Longing. Yearning. Let’s stop being so technical or polite, and start talking about raw, naked, shameless want.
It’s no accident that many of my favorite characters are people who have their hearts set on a thing, and let nothing stand in their way. Lately, I’m taking a lot of solace in reading young-adult novels in which the main characters chase their goals with a reckless intensity. As I mentioned before, I also have a soft spot for characters who want something that they can never have.
Your characters’ desires don’t have to be reasonable or fair and—in fact, it’s often better if they want something that we know they shouldn’t really have. I obsess way too often about Wreck-It Ralph’s quest for a ribbon that says “HERO,” which is obviously not going to fix his life, but which I can feel in my frickin’ bones. Even if someone’s goal is actually terrible, we can sympathize or at least understand their point of view. And we can get wrapped up in their struggle to achieve their goal, whether the judgy part of our brains thinks it’s a good idea or not.
Desire is an important part of story-writing, and it’s a major part of the emotional landscape of any story that’s not unbearably bleak and drab. But also, writing about fictional desire can be a source of comfort, and a good reminder that it’s okay to have dreams and desires of your own.
And during the trash-fondue times, I find myself getting scared to wish for anything.
Both because it feels like tempting fate, and because it feels selfish to want things when so many people are suffering. Plus, people from marginalized populations have been told over and over that our desires are not valid and our dreams are unreasonable—that’s part of the stigma of marginalization.
So those moments when I most feel as though I’m stuck at the rock bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of goddamn needs? Those are the exact moments when I find it healing and freeing to imagine a character who goes for what they want, shamelessly and ruthlessly.
You can’t get what you want if you don’t know what you want
I’ll tell you a secret: I’m working on a new fantasy project right now.
I can’t go into too much detail just yet, but I’m increasingly focused on the notion that doing magic requires you to focus your intent. In other words, you only have power if you can figure out what you want, and can express your wishes clearly. This, in turn, requires people to admit what they actually want, and to believe that they deserve to have it.
I’ve been finding this a really comforting metaphor, and an enriching project, while I’ve been hiding from the dirt people riding their dirt bikes to dirt-town. And I’m really hoping that by the time these essays appear in book form, I’ll be able to be way more specific about it.
Perhaps the most frustrating, and yet also the most thrilling and therapeutic, aspect of fiction-writing, is drilling down to the core of your characters’ life goals. This is one of the trickiest aspects of troubleshooting, in general—a story where the characters have flat or muddled desires is liable to be dull, even if the plot and worldbuilding are both resplendent.
(Again, I’ve got nothing against ambivalent characters—but even the most ambivalent character is torn between conflicting goals. Or they’re trying to make sense of a confusing stew of impulses and passions, or they’ve internalized a lot of repression that’s keeping them from admitting what they want. Any of those things is interesting in a way that “I want to stumble glassy-eyed from plot point to plot point” isn’t.)
So how do you figure out what your characters actually want? By figuring out who they are. Their desires come out of their backstory, their ideologies, their identities, or their self-images.
Something happened to them when they were younger, and they desperately want to make it right.
Or they’re invested in seeing themselves as the champions of the downtrodden, to the point where they will go to the ends of the Earth to right a wrong.
Or perhaps they’re in love, or they crave power, or they need revenge, or they want to get back a stolen family heirloom.
You know that action-movie cliché where the hero shakes their fist at the camera and says, “This time… it’s personal”? In a good story, it’s personal every time. It’s much easier to stan characters who have a deep emotional connection to whatever they’re chasing. They’re not just on a quest because they got some “call to adventure” nonsense, but because they feel positively itchy with need for the thing that will complete them.
As with most other aspects of writing, I have a tendency to get this wrong, at least at first. I’ll assign goals to my characters that don’t actually hold up over the course of a story. I’m brilliant at trying to force my protagonists to want what I think they should want, rather than they actually do want. Often, my characters are more selfish than I think they ought to be—again, judgy!—and their goals are frequently ignoble.
But sometimes it goes the other way: in my upcoming young-adult novel, I realized that some of my teens from Earth were being too petty and self-centered, when they were encountering injustice and misery on a galactic scale. When I allowed them to be more outraged, and to thirst for justice more openly, they started coming to life in a whole new way.
Still, a character’s aspirations can often be more personal, and more self-centered, than the stakes of the story overall. Take the original Star Wars: neither Luke Skywalker nor Han Solo is motivated by a desire to blow up the Death Star. Luke wants to escape the moisture farm and follow in his father’s footsteps, while Han wants to get paid so Jabba doesn’t turn him into an ornament. Their goals end up aligning with the Death Star demolition, especially Luke’s—but Han is arguably a more interesting character, because he wants something beyond the confines of the movie’s plot.
I often get a lot of juice out of the tension between what particular characters are after on the one hand, and the thing the story needs them to chase on the other. I pushed this about as far as I could with All the Birds in the Sky, where Patricia and Lawrence are unaware that they’re on an epic quest until almost the last page of the book. The disconnect between stakes and motivations can be a source of energy. We’ve all yelled at the screen or the page, while characters dwelled on their own personal issues while we knew that an army of goblins was about to smash their hometown. A lot of good suspense can come out of waiting for the characters’ goals and the larger stakes of the story to align.
But in general, I like characters whose concerns are smaller and easier to identify with than whatever grand thing the story is trying to get them to chase.
Desire is complicated and messy, and that’s why it’s so great
All storytelling comes down to conflict, one way or another. You and I both want to be Homecoming Queen, but only one of us can wear the crown. I want to be Homecoming Queen, but my death-cult-priestess mother believes that such celebrations are vain and idolatrous, and has forbidden me from participating. I very much do not want to be Homecoming Queen, but winning the crown is the only way to save the school from falling into a radioactive chasm.
There are always going to be other people who don’t want us to achieve our goals, for one reason or another. But also, desire is constantly at war with fear and guilt in most people. And life is full of situations where we have to choose between two mutually exclusive goals—like going to college, versus going on tour with your neo-skiffle band.
Like Faulkner said, good storytelling is all about aortic civil wars.
I’m all in for characters who feel guilty for their desires, or who know for sure that they shouldn’t get the things they want. I’m also a passionate fan of characters who know that their desires are selfish and wrong, but they just don’t freaking care. And characters who chase something they’ve been taught is immoral have my axe every time—like Yetu, the hero of Rivers Solomon’s excellent The Deep, who defies tradition and flees from her appointed role as the keeper of her people’s worst memories.
Years of storytelling have conditioned us to expect heroes to suffer or cause misery when they run towards their goals—especially if they’ve defied convention, their friends’ wishes, or their own hang-ups in the process. And this can be a great source of character growth (see Wreck-It Ralph, which really is a masterclass in motivation and transformation).
But especially during a trash-fondue time, when everyone is being punished for just existing, there’s something wonderful about seeing a character achieve at least a partial victory, or level up in their quest. Especially if this character is the sort of person who’ll get called a “Mary Sue” by online misogynists for the crime of attaining any amount of power or satisfaction. A partial victory can be as satisfying as a complete one, especially in the middle of a story.
I like a good ratio of setbacks to power-ups. The principle of variable reward teaches us that we’re more likely to get addicted to pushing a lever if we get a peanut only every other time, or every few times. Or if every time we push the lever, we might get a peanut, an electric shock, or nothing—we’ll keep pushing that lever until it breaks. The same is true for getting yourself hooked, as a reader or writer, on a character’s struggles.
Once your characters are fired up with the need to achieve something or prevent something, that will help you, the storyteller, to know what it is that you care about. What are you hoping will happen, and what does the narrator think about all this? (And yes, you and the narrator are frequently two different people.) The best stories are a giant stew of unrealistic and unreasonable wishes on the part of the characters, the narrator, the author, the readers and the universe. It’s fun to watch them all collide and hopefully explode—and getting in touch with desire might just help you to feel like you can want things in real life, too.
Charlie Jane Anders’ latest novel is The City in the Middle of the Night, which won the Locus Award for best science fiction novel. She’s also the author of All the Birds in the Sky, which won the Nebula, Crawford and Locus awards, and Choir Boy, which won a Lambda Literary Award. Plus a novella called Rock Manning Goes For Broke and a short story collection called Six Months, Three Days, Five Others. Her short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Boston Review, Tin House, Conjunctions, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Wired magazine, Slate, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Lightspeed, ZYZZYVA, Catamaran Literary Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and tons of anthologies. Her short fiction has won Hugo, Theodore Sturgeon, and Locus awards. Charlie Jane also organizes the monthly Writers With Drinks reading series, and co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct with Annalee Newitz. She is writing a Young Adult space fantasy trilogy, to debut in early 2021.