What defines the strongest fictional characters? The most intriguing ones are often developed, revealed or transformed based on their wishes and desires; in other words, what they crave. The more intense the craving, the more commanding the character. In fact, character cravings frequently create the conflicts and plots. What would the evil stepmother in Sleeping Beauty be if she didn’t crave being the most beautiful woman in the land? Lady Macbeth is summed up by her cravings for power and her willingness to commit murder to get it. Most of the heroines in the Jane Austen novels are driven by longings for love and marriage. They are so desperate with these desires that contemporary readers who no longer believe the outdated notions experience the urgency.
When I was searching for a title for my most recent short story collection, Cravings, I wanted a word or a phrase that would link all the somewhat disparate stories and characters (female and male, varied POVs, as well as older characters and young children). After brainstorming with friends and the director of the University of Wisconsin Press, I realized that most of my characters in the new book were driven by what they craved most, be it food or friendship, thus the title, Cravings. I cared about them because they cared and wanted something badly, even if it’s bad for them or out of their reach.
Yes, most people/characters want something, but not all are defined by their yearnings, nor are plots always shaped by these desires. Olive Kitteridge, one of my favorite characters, had few personal cravings. She, like many fictional characters, simply reacts to events and conflicts. Early in my reading of Trust by Hernan Diaz, I was surprised to see that a main character Benjamin Rusk “had no appetites to repress.” The story, the lush prose, and the experimental structure of Trust carried me, not the characters. Generally, I care most about characters who can’t help themselves, characters with large appetites. I am curious to see what lengths they will take to fulfill their desires—as well as whether they will achieve them.
The seven books below exemplify what it means for complex characters to be defined by their cravings, and how their yearnings help establish relatable plots for all of us who have ever intensely wanted something.
Yellowface by R. F. Kuang
The main character in this engrossing narrative is fledgling author June Hayward, an ordinary white girl, who craves fame and fortune (mostly fame) for her literary prowess. She publishes one book to no acclaim, while at the same time her college friend, Athena Ling En Liu gets a multi-book deal right out of college, and then soars in the literary world. She earns so many accolades that even a “…Netflix deal was not a life changing event.” Who could begrudge June a bit of envy? But then Athena dies unexpectedly, giving June the opportunity to steal Athena’s most recent unpublished manuscript and, with a little revision, submit it to her agent as her own. From that moment on I could not turn pages fast enough to see what June would do to get what she wanted—plagiarize, lie, rationalize, even change her name to sound more ethnic. Amazingly, I didn’t dislike her—Kuang does a brilliant job of making June marginally sympathetic; her family has no interest or faith in what she does and at one point she considers changing agents to find one “who might make her feel like more of a person.” But I was continually astounded by her desperation and unwillingness to recognize her dishonesty even as it is bringing her down.
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin
Like the character in Yellowface, the three main characters here want fame and fortune, but that’s secondary. This novel is a multi-layered odyssey that follows the journey of the two primary characters, Sadie and Sam, from when they meet as children in a hospital to adulthood. At first they desire friendship and mastering video games. As they grow and mature, so do their cravings; they want to design games so compelling that praise and wealth comes to them by virtue of their talent, inventiveness, and vision. Unlike June in Yellowface, they want well-earned recognition. The book is a study in story-telling and in the making of art. Until reading it, I never realized how much writers of serious literature and the best game designers have in common. Both are driven by a vision that they won’t fully understand until they’ve finished creating it. The descriptions of the games they invent are like miniature novels within the novel. The multitude of desires displayed by these talented and well-drawn characters keep readers absorbed during the entire 400-plus page book that spans a period of 30 years.
The Guest by Emma Cline
Alex, the protagonist in The Guest, craves security. She wants to live in a nice house, have access to money, attend parties and dine at fine restaurants. She doesn’t crave love or personal success, the stereotypical cravings of young women. She wants a desultory existence that requires little more than looking pretty and smiling. Almost sounds simple. The tension comes from the fact that she is incapable of doing any of the usual things required to achieve her desires—telling the truth, working steadily at a job, or caring about others. In her murky past, she worked as an escort or a vague kind of sex worker but couldn’t keep up with her share of the rent and stole from one of her more dangerous patrons. She is teetering on the edge when she meets wealthy businessman, Simon, who, thinking she is an ordinary attractive young woman planning on graduate school, invites her for an extended stay at his place in the Hamptons. Ensconced in his house, with the help of painkillers to blur the lines, she manages to keep her aimless existence for a while—swimming during the day and smiling as Simon’s arm candy in the evenings. Her dishonesty and her inability to pass up a moment of pleasure gets her kicked out. The rest of the novel is consumed by her reckless longing to regain Simon’s affection and her place in his beautiful home, along with her total disregard for anyone standing in her way. By the end—whose meaning has been debated by critics–we wonder if she destroyed herself along the way?
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
What could be more powerful than craving freedom? Cora, the woman at the heart of the novel, is enslaved on a plantation where the unbearable is threatening to grow even worse when following the owner’s death, his sadistic and greedy son, Terrance, takes over. The novel is packed with idiosyncratic characters, both good and evil, who want things, frequently to the point of desperation. As Cora travels north, characters risk their lives to hide her and assist her on journey. Others have nefarious intentions. Ridgeway, a bounty hunter, wants to return people he captures to the places from which they fled. But his desire seems to be mostly for the money and respect for his ability. In fact, he sets free the only slave he buys. Ironically, that person doesn’t appear to want his freedom—though it seems likely that he doesn’t believe freedom as a black man on his own is possible. All the while, Terrance’s obsessive desire to capture and torture Cora hangs over the novel.
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
Esch, the young African American narrator, wants out of her bleak existence. Her mother is dead and her alcoholic father is often absent. Located in a garbage strewn place called “the pit,” the house where she lives is falling apart. She has only her brothers and their friends for company. To escape she focuses on Greek mythology she learned in school, particularly the story of Medea whose life seems to parallel her own in ways. Her brother is obsessed with his dog, China, and China’s puppies, wanting them to live so he can sell them off. In the background, Hurricane Katrina is forming over the ocean and her father, called Daddy, wants to prepare for it but no one takes his warnings seriously. In this novel, characters’ desires seem to be bare minimums. I struggled with whether to include this book on the list, asking myself whether needs and cravings were the same? But given what little these characters possess, their basic needs are intensified, transformed into obsessive cravings.
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
In this darkly funny novel, Korede, the first person narrator, a nurse, cleans up after her sister’s murders. The snappy chapters, the lively writing and the absurdity of the situation keep the story moving. For a while, Korede doesn’t seem to want much except to help her beautiful sister, Ayoola. Yes, she wants her sister to stop killing her boyfriends, and she wants her sister’s love, yet she passionately craves neither. Korede brings bleach to the crime scenes and perfunctorily destroys evidence. She seems to have accepted her fate as the plain sister trapped by her sibling’s murderous behavior. The novel’s pace and dynamism increases when Korede begins to crave something for herself—attention from the handsome doctor at her hospital, Tade. Even more important, Korede wants to protect Tade by keeping him from falling into her sister’s clutches and winding up dead. Near the end, readers begin to wonder which of her desires will win?
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
We often associate cravings with food and drink. Lots of us crave coffee in the morning. Pregnant women crave weird food combinations, like pickles and ice cream. Depressed people can crave copious amounts of food, attempting to fill the empty holes inside themselves. In Kang’s remarkable and strange novel, The Vegetarian, the main character Yeong-hye doesn’t, as the title suggests, crave vegetables, rather her desire is to avoid meat at all costs. After a series of nightmares about meat and slaughter, she develops such a strong revulsion to meat that she empties the family freezer of meat and later clamps her teeth shut as her father attempts to cram beef in her mouth. While her resistance might be considered excessive, her family’s reaction to it is even more bizarre. Why does her family need her to eat meat so much? It all has to do with other characters’ individual desires. Yeong-hye’s father wants control. Her husband wants to appear average and socially acceptable. Her brother-in-law craves her body as a canvas. In the end, as Yeong-hye turns away from all food, and we’re left wondering if what Yeong-hye craves is the peacefulness of nonexistence, and no longer being at the center of her family’s desires.