The master, Mr. Dobbins, had reached middle age with an unsatisfied ambition. The darling of his desires was to be a doctor, but poverty had decreed that he should be nothing higher than a village schoolmaster. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
I remember a comment my pastor made while sitting in a men’s group. If he was to write a book about men, he would write about the quiet anger of frustrated hearts. At the time, I had only a small notion of what he meant; years later, I understand.
It is a fact of life that every child will encounter the same age-old question: What do you want to be when you grow up? There is no getting around it, as they say. While sitting in church years ago, I listened as the pastor’s wife asked a group of children about their plans. Aside from those who had no higher ambition than to be a Power Ranger, you could tell by the answers the jobs their parents held--airplane pilot, lawyer, doctor. Just this last year, my seven-year-old, looking for admiration, said that he wants to be both a nurse and a CPA. Those are noble professions, I told him, though wishing to share that accounting is not an altogether glamorous calling.
As children, we tend to want recognition, to be the hero. We want to be the Sheriff while playing Cowboys and Indians; we want to be Robin Hood; we want to be Babe Ruth, pointing to the bleachers with a determined finger. These days, I’m sure that some boys want to be Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. But what happens when, as poor Mr. Dobbins found in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, our social class or environment pigeonholes us into something less than our goals. Not in America, you say? Not in a country where the sky is the limit and anything is possible? Au contraire, mon frère. Take a walk through the poverty stricken neighborhoods, see the generations of people who have been sucked into a vortex of malaise, where parents are so depressed that they can see nothing better for their children. Venture into the middle class, and take a look at capable men and women who, for lack of political skills, have already petered-out, passed over for the darlings who can drink beer and talk a good game. The truth is, it happens all the time.
So, the question for writers is: how does a person respond to quashed desires? Frustration and resentment are two such possibilities. A lineman at a General Motors plant may spend his day planning for ways to foul up the system--just one more way of sticking it to the man, as the commercial says. Another lonely soul may turn to violence, an act of justification and retribution. Or a bottle of whiskey may be the answer for a man who wants to feel better and seeks Jack Daniel’s version of anesthetic to numb the pain in his soul.
Whatever the reaction, the motive behind the action (as mentioned in my last post) is the target that writers need to focus upon. Understanding even the smallest detail of an “unsatisfied ambition” can make for a deeper, well-rounded character.