The mistaken desire

Sometimes in stories what the major character wants is a big mistake. Not a mistake in storytelling terms, but in terms of what the character needs to learn. She firmly believes something is worth pursuing.

But she learns that she is wrong.

What she wants will be revealed as utterly false or superseded by a deeper, more urgent goal. In stories like these your basic story structure must be carefully handled so that you deliver a satisfying read, not a broken one.

There are several ways to play bait-and-switch with what the character wants:


This is when the character is placed in a unique position to sacrifice a personal goal for something greater. This may be a classic case of a moral dilemma, as in: Will the character give up a strong ambition for something larger than himself? In these stories, the ordinary–or the self-obsessed–person rises to heroic action.

Coming of age

Switching out the character’s driving desire is a classic strategy of coming of age stories. Your young character (or sheltered young adult) longs for something that is unworthy of them. (But not too unworthy, or it may be difficult to establish empathy with them early on.) She is naive in some basic, forgivable way.

Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz yearns for the excitement of distant lands. But in time what she desires is simply to go home. To put this approach in simpler terms, the character learns “what matters.”

The false ambition

The trick here is to make the first goal implicitly worthy. The story set up should provide a context within which we root for the protagonist’s goal. Make it a universal desire. But let other characters belittle the ambition. We establish empathy partly in reaction to mean-spirited obstacles. But the reader isn’t thinking deeply about the goal at this point–exactly the same position as the protagonist.

The character then embarks upon a journey of self discovery. And another goal gradually supplants the first. The character becomes someone capable of a larger vision.

As the story unfolds, more discerning characters cast doubt on the goal. But they aren’t to be trusted, perhaps, because they have their own agenda. The hero listens, but can’t give up the goal that has defined her. At this point the reader may well be ahead of the character. We know this is a fool’s errand. She does not.

This kind of story is tricky to plot. You’ll have important choices as to when the character intentionally abandons the false ambition. Plot point two, in film making terms, is a good place for a grand reversal. At this point, you must have a worthy goal lying in wait, a call to higher moral purpose that has been growing on the character. But let the reader still doubt whether the character can make the transition. This happens at the climax. The hero gives up the false desire and irrevocably acts on the greater one.

Some stories cry out for a bait-and-switch story goal. When handled with finesse, they can add an extra layer of interest to a character-driven story.





6 Responses

  1. Jay Noel says:

    Wow. This is deep stuff.

    My current WIP fits the “false ambition” perfectly. Talk about difficulty level! Whoa. You want the reader to sort of get there a little ahead of the main character – then it becomes dramatic irony.

  2. The TV show, Monk, used the false desire. Monk spent years trying to get reinstated to the police force. When he finally got reinstated, he realized that he had been happier as an independent consultant.

  3. Kay says:

    Right, Jay. In these cases, I think that the story will develop a more robust theme than most stories. That is, the author is implicitly saying that one goal is more worthy than another–and with theme, the story has an interesting resonance. The job too, is to hide the theme, so that only the author knows it. Thus it doesn’t come off as preaching.

    More deep stuff!

  4. Kay says:

    Great example. Once you put a name to these techniques, you see how they’re used all the time.

  5. Stephanie says:

    I read a comment that asked “Why don’t you write for writers like L. Brooks does?”

    I read Brooks site and it has been very helpful. Yours is on a different yet powerful level. Extremely helpful and I too would buy the book of all the wisdom you have shared with us on your site. (Even if that doesn’t happen I would still like to add your site to mine?)
    Thanks for all your hard work.

  6. Kay says:

    Thanks, Stephanie! Your encouragement is much appreciated. I have it in the back of my mind to edit these and get them into an ebook… but I think it’s “way back”! Thank you for commenting.

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