The Mystery of Desire

And what your character is willing to sacrifice for it

I’ve been working away at DRAFT #1 of a manuscript, got to Act 3… and realized some thinking needed doing before going on to DRAFT #2. Or even before finishing Act 3.

And although I LOVE my story, and I’m quite nearly in love with my characters, and writing it puts me into just the sort of voodoo headspace where you know you’ve plugged into something, I also know I haven’t examined these people nearly enough. I haven’t put them on the therapist’s couch or taken a scalpel to their hearts.

Character motivations are more important than plot, to me.

Tell Me What You Want. What You Really Really Want.

Okay, yes, we all know that we have to give all of our characters their one true desire. Even the secondary ones. Even the quinary ones.

Well, What’s Stoppin’ Ya?

Yes, we all know this too. We can’t let our characters have what they want. Otherwise there’s no book.

But here is where it gets good and juicy.

What Are You Going to Give up for It?

Sacrifice! Desire is not worth the sultry steam on your window if they’re not willing to give up an arm. Or a marriage. Or a career.

Yes, But What Are You ACTUALLY Going to Give Up For It?

Sometimes, what your character is willing to sacrifice is not the same as what they end up losing. And that can HURT. And characters who hurt are characters readers can’t forget.

Was It Worth It?

Did they get what they want? Maybe, as that other song goes, no. But they got what they needed.

To Help Illustrate All This, I put Together A Handy Chart using some books I’ve loved. If you’re afraid of spoilers, look away

BookWhat does MC want?What’s stopping them?What are they willing to sacrifice?What do they sacrifice?Do they get what they want?
Interview With The Vampire by Anne RiceLestat wants a companion. It’s dreary being a vampire for hundreds of years all on your lonesome. He’s a vampire. Human companions die and other vampires are annoying. His way of life. His way of looking at the world. Money. Well being. Quite a bit, actually. He’s REALLY lonely. He’s almost killed and spends about a hundred years reconstituting himself in a swamp. Yes and no. As all good books, and life are wont. He gets his companion, but this person grows to resent him and even hate him for a while. Just like life.
Sean Duffy series by Adrian McKintyTo make the world a better place. Specifically, make Northern Ireland betterNorthern Ireland in the 1980sA better future and a calm, peaceful life elsewhereAlmost life, career, body partsNope. But he gets to solve his cases and some justice is served. He doesn’t save the world, but some victims get avenged.
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terri PratchettAn angel and a demon want to prevent Armageddon because they like life on earth and indulge in what it has to offerThere is a plan in place for a boy to become the antichrist and begin the end days. It’s their job to make it happen. Their liberty and even existence. Their good standing with their respective bossesThey both lose their earthly possessions and are almost punished out of existenceYes! Armageddon is averted, humanity gets to live a bit longer, the boy remains a boy and earthly possessions can be replaced
You books by Caroline KepnesTo have the perfect love with the perfect womanNobody is perfect once you get to know themHis freedom and peace of mind. Willing to kill anybody who suspects him or stands in his wayHe loses his perfect love and his own freedom is no longer assuredNo. Because it is not possible. But there’s a glimmer of something in the third book that speaks of getting a real deal eventually.

How about you? Can you apply this chart to your WIP? Will it help if you’re stuck? What about books you’ve read and liked?

Emilya Naymark

Emilya Naymark is the author of the novels Hide in Place and Behind the Lie.
Her short stories appear in the Bouchercon 2023 Anthology, A Stranger Comes to Town: edited by Michael Koryta, Secrets in the Water, After Midnight: Tales from the Graveyard Shift, River River Journal, Snowbound: Best New England Crime Stories 2017, and 1+30: THE BEST OF MYSTORY.

When not writing, Emilya works as a visual artist and reads massive quantities of psychological thrillers, suspense, and crime fiction. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her family.


  1. This is brilliant! I got so stuck on a first draft I put it away unfinished. Had a breakthrough the other day and what you have given us here provides a structure for the story. Thank you! I’m printing this post and pinning it to my board.

    1. I’m so happy! That’s how I felt when I came up with it too. I was completely stuck with why my people were doing some things other than that it made the plot move along, but it didn’t make any sense. Once I applied this method, it really changed the framing for me.

  2. Emilya, for me, character motivations drive the plot. Otherwise it’s just listing event after event like an action movie where the action is the point.

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