Today’s mad skill comes to us via Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the music and lyrics for one of my favorite musicals, Wicked, based on Gregory Maguire’s bestselling novel of the same name. The show tracks the early life of Elphaba, the girl who is destined to become the Wicked Witch of the West. On an episode of American Songbook at NJPAC (full episode here), Schwartz spoke of including, early on in his musicals, what he calls the “I want” song. I think we novelists can learn something from contemplating the intent of this song, which in this case is the protagonist’s first.
On the show, Schwartz demonstrates how his first two attempts at writing Elphaba’s “I want” song fell flat. His son Scott, a talented theater director, pointed out why: the lyrics were generic to the point of cliché.
Make the desire specific
The audience didn’t need Elphaba to explain that she wanted to do good things in order to feel significant; they needed to know what achieving significance would look like for Elphaba. She is not “everywoman.” She is a witch. From Oz. Reviled for her green skin. The twist in Maguire’s telling is that she is also the story’s protagonist, so Schwartz had the challenge of creating a psychological bond between the audience and teenage version of the wicked witch who would one day send flying monkeys after Dorothy.
His son’s advice: “Have her show up at school and do something that earns her the right to sing.”
Schwartz gave it a try. After Elphaba performs an inadvertent act of magic in class, her teacher decides to tutor her in sorcery—with an eye toward introducing her to the great wizard. Everyone in Oz wants to meet the Wizard so he can fix what’s wrong with them. Now Elphaba might get her chance.
She hangs hope for her future on the imagined details of this interaction in the want song, “The Wizard and I,” made all the more stirring because we know from L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that her name will not one day inspire the same kind of “celebration throughout Oz” that she envisions.
That little bit of story packs so much power: someone has seen through Elphaba’s skin color to a “talent” she’d been timid about exposing, but which has now been deemed brilliant. Her dreaming offers more than a peek at her soft underbelly; she exposes her most desired life story, full monty. Even if you haven’t seen this show, I’m sure you are already anticipating—perhaps even wincing at—the ways in which Elphaba’s story will not unfold as expected.
So how can we grab the power of the “I want” song for our characters?
Keep desire at the core of your story
Since your character will arrive at page one of your story with his deep desire already formed, it’s never too soon to start orienting your reader to what she or he wants. Some authors foreshadow the desire in their opening lines, as Julie Christine Johnson did in her debut novel, In Another Life:
Eighteen months after her husband’s death, Lia Carrer returned to Languedoc like a shadow in search of light.
You’ll definitely need to expose that desire in order for us to invest in your character’s story goal. Johnson shows us how in this snip from her second novel, The Crows of Beara, when Annie, a newly recovering alcoholic with a wrecked marriage, grabs at one last chance to preserve her self-respect by vying for a challenging public relations assignment—perhaps too challenging, given the project’s public stakes. Oh, and she must travel to Ireland, her boss adds, where she’ll be an ocean away from her support team. With only a few scant words, Johnson introduces her character’s want song:
Ireland. She’d felt whole there.
Annie recalls some details of previous trips, that had led to “a love affair with the place that she’d tried to sate with repeat visits.” We learn of the peace she found hiking there. A page later, in response to her boss’s concern that Annie might be too fragile this early in her sobriety, we learn that to Annie, “wholeness” will look like a bit of Irish magic sprinkled on top of a successful public relations campaign:
“I won’t let you down. I’ll have a project proposal to you by Monday.” The AA insider’s joke came back to her: How do you know an alcoholic is lying? Their lips are moving. She’s promised herself she wouldn’t fuck up again. Which is precisely what she’d done in her marriage. But if she could just get out of here, away, back to Ireland, she’d be all right.
Johnson continues to show us Annie’s deep desire through her actions and reactions. Through what she says. Through the archetypal figures she draws into her journey, such as her AA mentor and a mystical crone. Through the love interest she aligns with; through which antagonists she stands against.
In fact, your character’s desire will seep onto just about every page in one way or another as it develops and grows and complicates matters.
Clue us in on your character’s desire early on, though, for the same reason Schwartz places the “I want” song early in a musical: it orients your reader to the story to come.
“It is a song where the leading character comes out, basically tells you what he or she wants, and then we spend the rest of the show watching them get it,” Schwartz says. Sounds simple, right? But the fact that a Broadway veteran like Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin, The Baker’s Wife) had to rework Elphaba’s want song through so many revisions shows that it’s no small task. Once specifically invoked, your character’s desire not only has the power to bind your reader to your character, but burn at the core of the story and inform everything to come.
What is it that the main character in your WIP wants? In what ways do you show this? If your character is successful in achieving his/her desire, what would that look like, specifically? If you are a lover of musicals, what are some of your favorite “I want” songs?
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