On Writing: Ruling Passions

I once read the whole of Danielle Steele’s oeuvre as a research project. I wanted to see what in her books made her so popular. It was the most excruciatingly painful reading experience of my life. Her writing style is surprisingly amateurish, her characters are not well drawn, she tells and explains instead of showing, and she repeats herself as if she can’t remember from page to page what she’s already said.

But I did learn her secret. Her characters are passionate. They never like or dislike anything. They love and hate, but mostly love. “She ate a piece of cherry pie, and she loved it.” “They had sex, and they loved it.”

She also picks issues people are passionate about, and wraps her story around that, so not only do her characters have a ruling passion, so do her readers. When passions are all consuming, as they often are in her books, they create collateral damage. Maybe that is what makes her characters compelling — readers keep waiting for the train wreck.

And yet  .  .  .  all-consuming passions are not the only way to tell a story. Most of my characters aren’t particularly passionate about their ruling passions, but they do have strong motivations, such as a need to discover the truth, whether their particular truth or a more universal truth.
In A Spark of Heavenly Fire, all Kate wants is a good night’s sleep, but first she has to deal with the death of her husband, and then she has to contend with a state-wide epidemic. Although the forces that drive her are fairly tame, many of the characters in that book have stronger passions. Jeremy is consumed with getting out of quarantined Colorado. Pippi is first passionate about Jeremy, then passionate about escaping with him, and finally passionate about returning home. Dee is passionate about helping the homeless. Greg is consumed with the need for truth. The villain is passionate about his deadly little organism. Turns out the only non-passionate person is my heroine! Yet the story revolves around her.
In How to Write a Damn Good Mystery, James N. Frey tells us that our main characters, both the hero and the villain, should have a ruling passion. Alexander Pope, perhaps the first person to use the term “ruling passion,” wrote: “The ruling passion conquers reason still.”

Seems like an interesting conundrum here — a character must have a ruling passion, and a character should be smart  (or at least working to the best of his or her abilities) yet the ruling passion overrides that. Should make for a good inner conflict.

(This article was compiled from comments I made during a live chat. If you’d like to see the entire discussion, you can find it here: Ruling Passions — No Whine, Just Champagne Discussion #146)