Writers and writing teachers often speak of characters’ desires or needs. What do your characters desire most?
But recently I’ve been thinking about want. A want is a need or lack. ‘She was left wanting,’ we say when we mean she has too little of something necessary.
Want is the ache at the center of Maggie Stiefvater’s folkloric fantasy The Scorpio Races. The story’s setting is an island plagued or blessed, depending on your perspective, by savage and beautiful water horses. The tale’s characters don’t seem to have desire, at the novel’s beginning. Desire implies something actively sought. Instead, Puck and Sean miss what they’ve lost or what they think they can never have. They don’t know enough about themselves to fully understand what they desire.
Puck misses her parents and their absence is omnipresent, even when she doesn’t recognize it. At her home, the shelves are bare, because she and her brothers don’t earn enough money to keep themselves fed. However, the family never had enough money; Puck’s mother simply was better than she is at making a meal out of little. Puck and her brothers aren’t capable of being parents. They help each other in the best ways they can, but they don’t provide each other security. Puck’s oldest brother, Gabe, was the one trying to be a parent, and he has essentially failed, so he decides to move off the island. Gabe’s failure leaves Puck in a dire state of want.
Like Puck, Sean’s want is clear from the novel’s outset. The death of his father left him alone in the world, and by nineteen, he’s made his way by training and riding water horses, but without the kind of love and intimacy Puck shares with her brothers. He loves horses, and particularly the water horse he’s ridden for years, Corr. The room Sean lives in is like a tiny monk’s cell, and while many respect him, no one treats him as a friend. He doesn’t have anyone to help him realize he might try to free himself and Corr from the stable to which they’re bound. His most profound want is his lack of plans.
Want leads these two characters to each other. Puck must race in the Scorpio Races to save her household, while Sean must race, initially, because the only freedom he feels is racing Corr. They meet, and as they help each other, they fall in love. Both have been in such profound states of deprivation, they’re confused by the desire they start to feel for each other, and the desires their love incites for futures they’d never before imagined.
In many ways, The Scorpio Races shows how falling in love, as a teen, helps you re-imagine yourself and the world around you. So frequently adults speak of teen love in tones of fear or scorn. They’ve forgotten what an awakening first love can be – an awakening to someone else, to a wider world, and, ultimately, to one’s emerging adult self.
For writers: What are all your characters’ underlying wants? What wants do they recognize? What wants do they fail to see?
For readers: Discuss the similarities and differences between this novel and a classic fairy story like “Beauty and the Beast” or “East of the Sun, West of the Moon“. In addition, you might read “Cupid and Psyche” in The Golden Ass by Apuleius or Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.