We’re just over halfway through our Nonfic November and UBC Creative Writing Associate Professor Timothy Taylor shares a writing prompt about character development and desire. Taylor’s first novel Stanley Park was released to critical acclaim in 2001 and was nominated for a Giller Prize, a Rogers Writers Trust Fiction Prize as well as both a Vancouver and BC Book Award. His second novel, The Blue Light Project, was a bestseller in Canada and went on to win the CBC Bookie Prize in fiction. Taylor’s most recent book is Foodville, a nonfiction account of his life as a food writer and self-identified non-foodie who is nevertheless a passionate eater.
Like Linda Svendsen, who wrote brilliantly in these pages this past June, I don’t typically make use of so-called “writers’ prompts”. A story is instead to me more like a rabbit hole. You don’t know you’re in one until you’re falling, in the dark.
That said, French cultural anthropologist and linguist Rene Girard died November 4th, just a couple days before I sat down to write this prompt. And reflecting on the life of that great man–Stanford Professor Emeritus, member of the French Academy, author of over 30 books–it occurred to me that he has embodied a kind of permanent prompt in my own writing life since first reading him 15 years ago.
I can only explain that by unpacking a bit of Girard’s first and most famous theory. In his early book Deceit, Desire & the Novel, Girard makes a mesmerizing and persuasive case that all human desire (beyond basic needs or appetites) is mimetic. That is, desires as we experience them are akin to infections we have caught from others. The implication is that the relationship between subject and desired object is not direct. It is triangular, with the third corner occupied by a model, called a mediator, who is perceived by the subject to have and hold the same object.
And that’s where it gets interesting for writers. Because in Girardian thought, it is in fact the mediator–distant or intimately close as they may be to the subject–who is the source and loci of desire. It’s the mediator themselves, due to their possession of the object in question, whose essence is desired. “All desire is a desire to be,” Girard wrote. And so we can then think of desire then as a yearning for completeness, a completeness that the subject perceives the mediator to have attained already.
How is this useful, in shaping characters? Well, first, because the structure described, when sensed by the character, is deeply distressing. Far from proving us autonomous actors, mimetic desire suggests we are puppets, with strings to be pulled, chains to be yanked. “Oh hell to love by another’s eyes”, says Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
But second, and arguably more important, mimetic desire has the unswerving tendency to put our characters into competition with their mediators. Our characters want what their mediators are perceived to possess (their status, their clothes, their friends, their self-assurance) and in their failure to similarly attain, our characters come to perceive the mediator, that metaphysical, inspiring, tormenting presence, as the obstacle to their satisfaction. (The Fan, The King of Comedy, anyone?)
Girard writes: “In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare emphasized the strength and stability of unfulfilled desire…”
What our characters desire is inspired. And while unattained, it is all consuming. It possesses. It marks the days.
“…In A Midsummer Night’s Dream this emphasis remains, but it is supplemented by an equal emphasis on the instability of fulfilled desire.”
And then the desire is attained. The dudes get the money, the girl gets the boy, or the new iWatch, or the new plum job. And the eye drifts onwards, ahead of what has been attained, instinctively, hungrily, to the next thing that has not, to the next mediator whose superior essence might be perceived and then desired.
Girard isn’t exactly a breezy read. Nobody who writes in this penetrating and implicating way can be. You might squirm. You might object. You might say: hey, not me! But in thinking about our characters–we God-like authors, insulated from the spreading world of our own pages–we can afford to consider what might be the Hermian Hell for each.