You may have heard before someone describe the basic formula for writing fiction. It goes something like this: “desire plus obstacle equals conflict.” In other words, when you take a character, give them a motivation or goal to work toward, and then put challenges in their way, then you’ve got the makings of a story.
Of course there are many more elements that go into fiction, but this formula gets pretty close to the core essentials. Overall, plots are (or should be) driven by characters and their desires or goals. This is true in most stories, but it’s even truer whenever a character has monomania.
“Monomania” is a fancy literary term that refers to an extreme, overarching obsession that a character has. “Mono” means one and “mania” is a craze or obsession, meaning that any character with monomania is crazed or obsessed about just one thing, just one goal. These characters will go to extreme lengths and do whatever it takes to reach this goal–or die trying. While perceptions can differ from one author to another, monomania is often portrayed as a negative thing. The idea is that having such an all-consuming obsession is unhealthy and can lead to disastrous consequences for that character or others.
In classic literature, the term is often used in reference to Herman Melville‘s Moby-Dick. In fact, the book’s narrator frequently and directly refers to Captain Ahab’s unrelenting pursuit of the whale as monomaniacal. Nathaniel Hawthorne, a contemporary of Melville’s, also uses monomania in several of his stories, from Hollingsworth’s well-intentioned but misguided plan for social reform in The Blithedale Romance, to several short stories (“The Birthmark,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and more) featuring obsessed scientists who place their mad experiments above even human life. One of the last papers I wrote in grad school argued that this same monomania also appeared in the lesser-known novel Wieland, where the main character’s twisted religious fervor leads him to commit horrendous acts. In hindsight, I might also be able to argue that one of my favorite novels, The Great Gatsby, reflects monomania in the protagonist’s quest for the woman he loves and perfect life he has always dreamed of (but I’d better not get started on Gatsby now or I could probably go on and on).
This theme of unhealthy, unrelenting obsession shows up in pop culture, too. Think of the recent television masterpiece Breaking Bad. Walt’s goal to provide financially for his family is initially a noble one, but over time his obsession and determination in his goal lead him to make a number of moral compromises and horrible choices that end disastrously for both him and the ones he loves.
Personally, I’m a huge fan of Marvel comics and superheroes, and I’ve even seen monomania show up in a number of different ways there. With the cyclical, ongoing nature of comics, writers have to shake things up once in a while to keep the characters interesting. Therefore, even among the main heroes or “good guys,” there have been several instances of a driven, obsessed hero taking a good goal too far and becoming (at least temporarily) a morally ambiguous antihero. For example:
- In the Civil War story arc (soon to be a major motion picture), Iron Man seeks peace and order through government registration of superhumans, but he has to turn on his allies and make hard decisions in order to carry out his goal.
- Cyclops has long fought for equal rights for mutants, but in Avengers vs. X-Men and subsequent stories, he becomes an extremist for this goal, much like his former enemy Magneto.
- In World War Hulk, the Hulk threatened the entire world in misguided revenge on allies who had exiled him into space.
- Recently in New Avengers, Mr. Fantastic has been leading a covert team whose mission is to save the Earth–by destroying other alternate Earths that threaten our own existence.
- Daredevil tried to protect his city with force by taking control of a clan of ninja assassins, but he reaped the consequences in the Shadowland story and crossed a line he never had before.
- In Superior Spider-Man, Spider-Man‘s body was possessed by Doctor Octopus‘s brain (yeah, I know comics are weird. You just have to roll with it sometimes). The result was an ambiguous antihero who also tried to protect New York, but with extreme brutal force and by any means necessary.
Hopefully now you get the idea of monomania and obsession in fiction, the kind that makes ordinary characters into fascinating and compelling (if sometimes misguided and evil) ones who will stop at nothing to achieve their goals.
But what does all this mean for us as writers?
It means that you now have an excellent formula for creating an intriguing story! Yes, it’s true that desire plus obstacle equals conflict. But what happens when you increase that desire a hundredfold to make it a driving, all-consuming obsession? You get a monomaniacal character who, despite any deep character flaws they may have, has an unbreakable will that can drive the story forward past any obstacles that you as the writer throw in their way.
So why don’t you try it out? Create a new character and give them a goal. Have them want nothing else in the world more badly than they want that one goal. Now write a story where things get in the way of that goal and see how your character deals with it. What will they do? How will things turn out? What kind of toll will it take on your character? What will be the cost of their obsessive actions? You may be surprised at the developments that come and at the epic conflicts that result.