For most of my life, I’ve dodged hunger. The mere threat of a rumbly tummy sent me straight to the Ding Dongs, HoHos, PopTarts, or on gourmet evenings, to a box of mac-n-cheese and a fruit pie for dessert.
Predictably, this led to some serious poundage by my fourth decade. Within a few hours of vowing to behave, I would be hungry, and then would dodge the feeling by eating. Finally, the lovely folks at UCSF Weight Management program suggested a “medically supervised, VLC (very low calorie) meal replacement program.” Instead of my impulse-based 3000 calories a day, I eat carefully prepared 200 calorie doses, five times a day. Surely I’ll fail at this as much as I failed at everything else diet related, won’t I?
Turns out, I am 100% compliant with the program, twenty pounds down and a few more sets of twenty to go. And I’m hungry all damn day. Hungry, hungry, hungry. But with the help of a whole team of medical professionals, I’m able to now just feel the hunger and let it go.
There’s a trick to it, of course.
At 1000 calories of “food” like the early astronauts ate, your body and most of your mind loses interest in food of any kind as it settles into a safe, medically-supervised ketosis. However, I’ll eventually have to go back to the real world of making choices about food, and feeling all my feelings instead of stuffing them down with giant pasta feeds or extra large pizzas. So I’m hard at work on all these things while the relative quiet of the program gives me a little extra time and space to sort things out.
What has any of this to do with writing? A whole heck of a lot. Now that I understand hunger instead of run from it, I can use the concept of hunger for both character and plot development. It goes a little something like this:
1. Figure out what the protagonist needs more than anything else in the universe. For example, Sam Spade needs to believe he isn’t as morally corrupt as everyone around him is—he needs to know he has his limits on the downward slope. So he has to find out who really killed his partner—if it was his partner’s wife, he’s partly to blame. In a newer example, Lily Ivory in Juliet Blackwell’s Witchcraft Mystery series needs a community—she was robbed of one because of her powers. Throughout the series, she takes incredible risks that we believe, because we know how much her new friends and position in the local community mean to her.So for fictional characters as well as real ones, hunger is both a friend and an enemy. Please tell me, what do you hunger for, and what threatens to take it away?
2. Figure out what the flip side of that need is, what endangers it or threatens it. Back to our examples: Sam Spade’s desires threaten to overrun his morality—after all, he’s sleeping with his partner’s wife when the story starts, and Ms. Wonderly is in a whole new league of femme fatale. And Lily, if the “establishment” finds out about her gifts, or if the new men in her life freak out, she’s at risk of losing her newfound community. We know this would be like death for Sam or Lily, and yet it’s so likely they will be overwhelmed that we just have to keep reading.
3. Find every situation you can that both promises more of what the protagonist needs and threatens to take it away, preferably in the same scene! Sophie Littlefield has mastered this with her Stella Hardesty series—after a lifetime largely shorn of adult love, Stella needs the affection and approval of a romantic partner. The object of her desire, however, threatens her safety, her freedom, and her new day job. We can’t imagine how she’ll resolve this contradiction between absolute need and nearly certain failure, so we have to keep reading.