Years ago, a creative writing teacher asked me a question I’ll never forget: What do you want?
She wasn’t pressing me about my five-year plan or dismissing me as I asked for help with my short story. Instead, she was giving me advice, sharing a well-known secret among writers: If you want to develop, grow, and understand a character, look them in their metaphorical eye and ask, “What do you want?”
This is a great question to use when trying to understand any person — real or imagined, including ourselves — because our desires are what ultimately motivate our words, actions, and decisions.
But our true desires often remain hidden from us — they get overshadowed by the day-to-day things we want. We get distracted and are easily influenced by what we see in others. It takes a consistent practice of self-reflection to know ourselves well enough to be honest with ourselves.
Reading literary fiction increases our ability to empathize with others in real life, so one good source of self-reflection is digging into a good novel. The fictional characters we meet and walk with in a story help us recognize our own tendencies to misidentify desires, or even hide them out of fear, pride, or a lack of self-knowledge.
Jay Gatsby, the unforgettable hero of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel, is an excellent example of someone who is best understood through his desires. At first, it looks like Gatsby just wants to have a good time: his extravagant prohibition-era parties are legendary. But as Nick Carraway, the narrator, gets to know Gatsby, he realizes that these parties serve a purpose. Gatsby wants to see his old flame Daisy, who lives on the other side of the bay, and he’s hoping she walks in the door.
Thanks to Nick, Gatsby and Daisy do reunite — awkwardly at first, then happily — but still, Gatsby is not satisfied. In a famous line, he reveals another layer of his desires to Nick: he doesn’t just want Daisy as she is now, he wants to relive the past they shared.
Gatsby’s parties may make him exciting and mysterious, but this desire makes him relatable: I think many people cherish a memory of a happier time in their lives that they would love to live again. But, as Nick wisely reminds both Gatsby and the reader, “You can’t repeat the past.”
In addition to the problem of time travel, Daisy’s husband Tom also stands in the way of Gatsby achieving his dream. At the end of one of Gatsby’s parties, Nick can see that Gatsby “wanted nothing less of Daisy than that she should go to Tom and say: ‘I never loved you.’” With this line, Nick pulls back the final layer on Gatsby’s carefully crafted persona and reveals that Gatsby’s desires have actually set him on a path to ruin, not happiness.
Although Gatsby has seemingly done everything possible to be successful and happy in life — attending classes at Oxford, serving his country in the war, making a lot of money — his deepest desire has set him up for failure because its foundation depends upon another person’s feelings and actions. When Tom finally confronts Daisy and Gatsby about their affair, Daisy can’t give Gatsby what he ultimately wants. In this moment, it is painfully obvious that the “great” Gatsby is actually just an ordinary man who has made a common mistake: He has invested his hope in a fantasy that depends on another human being to come true.
My heart goes out to Gatsby each time I read the novel. How many times have I based my definition of success or happiness on what another person thinks of me, or what another person could give me? How many times have I centered my life around something that can change, like my salary, relationship status, or weight?
Gatsby may be generous, hopeful, and charming, but he has set himself up for failure because what he wants in life is simply unattainable. If someone so “great” could also be so human, I’m left wondering, Could those of us who feel ordinary achieve or experience something beyond our wildest dreams?
To learn from Gastby and avoid his mistakes, it is worthwhile to evaluate our own desires from time to time. Personally, I have found that silence and journaling have helped me to hone in on what I really want in life — and perhaps more importantly, why I want it. If I ask myself not only, “What do I want?” but also, “Why do I want that?” then I am able to see myself more clearly and reorient my words, actions, and decisions when necessary.
Sometimes a person’s desires are buried beneath layers of other things they think they want or need. Pulling back those layers can give us a better understanding of who they are and why they do the things they do. This takes hard and careful work, but understanding another person’s desires — and perhaps more importantly, examining and evaluating our own — can strengthen our relationships and lead us to happier, more fulfilling lives.
ur in her dms, i bought a mansion across the bay from her home where i stare at a green light emanating from her dock every night and throw lavish parties hoping someday she’ll show up— old tom (@YuckyTom) September 21, 2021