In this blog series, I am articulating six cogent alternatives to the Hero's desire—multiplying not only our sense of what desire can be but also the responses our characters can have to it. Throughout the series, I will provide character examples from existing scripts, which already hold clues to these alternative forms of desire and responses to it. I will cite examples from stage and screen plays. In this final installment, I examine renouncing and diversifying desire among characters in our scripts.

As I conclude this series, I’m reflecting on how prevalent this idea is in our theatre subculture—that the question “What does the character want?” has one type of answer.  This is not only a false notion, but also one with real consequences because it limits representation of desire on stage and screen. I want to get into how vital it is that we diversify the depiction of desire in our stories. However, before I do so, I’d like to introduce one more alternative response to desire—the Sage’s desire.

Sage Statute.

The Sage’s Desire—“I know what I want, but I am not going to act on it.”

In our fervent focus on action in scripts, we have forgotten that sometimes the best choice in a story can be non-action. A couple of summers ago, I attended a workshop where the film Liberal Arts was critiqued. The dramatic writing professor who ran the discussion claimed that the film’s writing had “flaws” because the 35-year-old protagonist chose not to sleep with the 19-year-old in the story. His claim was that every good storyline features the pursuit of the object of desire at all costs, so because this character did not act on what he clearly desired, it meant he was a badly written character, in the professor’s eyes. The character—and I would imagine, the screenwriter—saw it differently. When faced with the choice of whether to sleep with a willing 19-year-old virgin, his conscience gets the best of him. He says, “Guilt before we act is called morality.” This one statement reveals the entire structure and integrity of this character. Similar choices for renunciation occur in the films Copenhagen, Last Night, and Thank You for Sharing.

The truth is sometimes in real life, and our stories too, the best choice is non-action. For example,  there was a long tradition of analyzing Hamlet as a “passive” character, largely because he does not kill his stepfather until towards the end of the play. There has been a recent spate of analysis calling him entirely “active” because he strategizes, researches, plays insanity, and commits other active tactics. I would say he chooses when to act. In speaking about renunciation, I want to analyze the moment Hamlet sees Claudius praying in Act III. At this point in the play, he has proof that Claudius murdered his father; he is set on killing him in retribution, but he pauses. Why? In Hamlet’s time and culture, if a person were killed during prayer, he/she would ascend to Heaven. The last thing that Hamlet wants is to reward Claudius’ betrayal. So he does not act in this moment. It is key that we do not dismiss this moment as passivity, but rather recognize it as the character’s strong choice to renounce.

When we deny our characters the right to renounce desire in certain situations, we forget the inherent wisdom in renunciation, which often functions as the cornerstone of morality. This means we run the risk of writing immoral or amoral characters—which is fine if the intent is to write Mad Men, American Psycho, or No Exit. When we intend to tell a story where renunciation is key to the protagonist’s decision-making, we must have room in our script analysis conversation to view this as a writing strength, not necessarily a “flaw.” We don’t have to write spiritual or religious characters, though we can. We don’t have to write moral characters, but we should have the option to do so. Spiritual, religious, and moral traditions across the world claim that, at times, renunciation is the best choice. There is a certain wisdom to a choice like this, which is why I’m referring to it as the Sage’s desire. Who are script writers to deny this option entirely?

The Diversification of Desire on Stage and in Film
Based on the same set of circumstances, even desiring the same thing, different characters respond to their desire differently. Or they should. Most of the time, when scripts are analyzed, performed, and directed, there is a prevailing notion that every protagonist is a Hero, who takes concrete actions to get his object of desire at all times. From the examples above, we have seen that strong script writing can include moments of renunciation. Even the climax of the play can be a choice not to act on an impulse. As such, the Sage’s desire is a powerful and necessary alternative to the Hero’s desire, as are the other five alternatives presented in this series (the Caregiver, Receiving Lover, Defender, Trickster, and Child).

Since desire functions differently for each character, and each character responds differently to the experience is his/her desire, we need to diversify our representation of desire on stage and in film. Thus far, most of the progress we have made in diversifying casts has been what I’m calling “the diversification of bodies.” That is, the character may be a woman, a person of color, an individual with a disability, LGBTQ, or some other type of physical difference, but our expectation is that his/her desire will function like the Hero’s in the script. That is, the protagonist will go after what he/she wants no matter what.

(L-R): Kimberly Scott, Charles S. Dutton, Billy Eugene Jones, and Ato Essandoh
in Death of a Salesman at Yale Repertory Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus.

There are several examples of this “diversification of bodies” in current dramatic writing for stage and screen. Take the recent Star Wars films. I find it tremendous progress that the protagonists in these two most recent films are women who work alongside men of color. In Rogue One, there is even a flying scene where not a single white man is aboard. This is great news, and surely a sign of progress in the twenty-first century. Still, the female protagonist is on a Hero’s Journey to recover the blueprints for the Death Star, and in doing so, she is honoring her father. The same can be said for the female lead in Ant Man, who finally gets her chance at the end to be Ant Woman with an identical suit and purpose. In pursuing this goal, she also honors her father, who engineered the suit’s technology. Finally, the same argument can be made against any production of a play written for white characters using an all African-American cast (e.g. Yale Repertory Theatre’s all African-American cast for Death of a Salesman in 2009); the claim here is that black and white lived experiences would be (anywhere near) identical. They are not, and to cast different bodies into those roles is disrespectful. More than that—casting female or African-American actors into roles that could be just as easily be played by white men obfuscates the diverse lived experiences of individuals.  In this way, the mere “diversification of bodies” without diversifying desire is an alarming practice. 

Yet this is what we do. We write the same script, with the same words, and merely sub in a female lead, a person of color, or a different type of body to live out the same Hero’s Journey story. However, different characters experience desire differently and respond differently to their own desires. Moreover, direct attempts to pursue one’s desires are met with various levels of support from society for people who inhabit different kinds of bodies. Even in the earlier Liberal Arts example, when a white, able-bodied, straight man makes a decision to renounce, the writing is seen as flawed, because that is not the ultimate choice a Hero would make. What we are seeing here is a gross oversimplification in our storytelling: the insistence that desire is or can be experienced/pursued by everyone just like the Hero. This is patently false.

In conclusion, we must begin to expand our discourse among theatremakers and filmmakers to include multiple forms of desire in our storytelling. Gone are the days of one single story. While Joseph Campbell may have found evidence of the Hero’s Journey all over the world, we see examples of the Caregiver, Receiving Lover, Defender, Trickster, Child, and Sage in human stories all over the world, too—if we look for them and recognize them as different expressions. Yet, in most cases, we have not attempted to put more of these alternative archetypes at the center of our stories; rather, we have seen them as supporting characters to the Hero, or as slightly altered versions of the Hero. The time has come to give these alternative archetypes their rightful place at the center of our stories, and in doing so, to honor the great variety of stories in our world through the lens of multiple forms of desire.