Monday, March 5, 2012

Finding True North--Or the Importance of Character's Goals

Many, many, many moons ago, I was inspired to write an article called: “The Writer’s Compass: Writing for the Directionally Challenged.” It was pithy—and by that, I mean, brief—for me, touching on the four things a writer should evaluate in a scene (or book) that she is writing: characters, conflict, tension, and ending. It was a Quick Fix for Writer’s Block.

It assumed a few things: 1.) You were already in the middle of writing a story; 2.) You already started at a beginning and you likely had a clear or at least blurry vision of the ending; and 3.) You had characters, plot, and tension—but you were having a bit of trouble figuring out where to go next.

That’s where the article came in. It was like a little mantra to do a quick evaluation of your location and get you back to writing. Usually if you’re suffering from writer’s block, you either don’t know where to go next or you don’t feel you can move on because the scene you’ve just written doesn’t feel finished, yet you’ve written about a hundred pages on it so clearly it must be over.

So this is where you stop writing and pause to think, to recalibrate your writer’s compass, and the first thing you always recalibrate first is where True North is. In writing, for me, characters are always the True North of any story. If your writing has gone doldrums and adrift, your characters are probably pretty lifeless on the page. You need to fix them quick.

Characters seem to be rather easy…but hard. Most characters for me seem to arrive without warning, as if you’ve known them all your life. Of course, everyday you’ll likely learn something new about your characters—“I didn’t know you knew how to shoot a gun!”—and yet we all seem to feel pretty confident to just start writing, so we must have known quite a bit, right? At least that is how I feel. I’m typing along, confident I have some idea of the hopes, dreams, and ideals of my character and I know how the story is supposed to unfold.

Then one day I find that the story is not unfolding. Granted, I tend to unfold in the same manner every time. I write like I’m a scriptwriter for the old show 24, unraveling the story in real time, which can be a problem if say I was retelling the story The Illiad.

So the first thing I do is look at my characters. What are they doing in this scene? Are they avoiding their goal? (Characters do love to put off adventure and give it to someone else to accomplish. It’s why writers need to make sure they take away all the crutches a character might embrace to get out of doing what needs to happen.) Do they even know what their goal is? Have they forgotten about their goal?

Finding your True North again usually stems from the fact that the initial goals of your characters are not in attendance and you’re just flailing about on the page, trying to find a plot or some suspense…but the goals belong to the characters, not the plot. So you need to stop and figure out what goals belong to these characters. What makes these goals important to them? Why are they so important? Is there anything that can distract them from these goals? Is there anything else they want more?

The reasons don’t have to be life or death, or even reasons that would make you or your reader want to pursue these goals, but they have to be real to the character. If the character believes in them, you and the reader will too.

While it’s true that many characters’ goals aren’t the same at the end of a story as they are in the beginning, the goals do need to be strong enough that the character still wants to stick with them—wrong though they may be—for a long, long time. It’s not a real goal if they’re willing to give them up at the first opportunity. We want our character to grow, not be wishy-washy.

Goals work best if they are built out of universal themes: justice, righting of wrongs, survival, finding someone we love or saving someone we love, etc. Or even the darker attributes of us: revenge, finding the killer who killed our kinsman, etc. These are things that are passionate, and when we are passionate about something, we’re not likely to give them up at the first opportunity. We will cling to them like a child’s baby blanket, until it’s in rags and worthless only in memory.

I think we tend to create goals for our characters out of the core themes we like to tell in our story. I do think all aspects of a story work together and if you don’t have a firm foundation, your house will fall at the first breeze. So if you’re writing about redemption or forgiveness, then your character’s goals need to reflect something of it in its outcome. Sometimes we write without knowing—I get that—and it’s only after the story is all done and we think about our characters do we realize what the theme and such was. But I do believe, we tend to write the same kinds of stories that are dear to us. We’re all working out some deep Gordian knot within us. It’s our way of being the hero who fixes his life and gets the happily ever after—we don’t necessarily have it for our own.

So today I want to talk about goals and how to find True North? How do you recenter yourself when you finally realize you’re flailing about (either in writing or life in general)? What types of goals do you prefer characters to pursue? (I have a fondness for the goals that center around revenge. I love some revenge.) What type of goals do you usually give your characters (mine spend a lot of time trying to lead a conflict-free life—I swear to you that’s their goal, and it never works out)? Do you think core themes reflect in goals?


Maureen said...

I've been harrassed for not having specific, physical goals for my heroines. You know, like she wants a cabin by the lake, blah, blah, blah. I tend to start with more emotional goals. She wants to quit running from the villain, for example.

The book I'm thinking off, Ivy's goal's were never all that concrete. She had to survive, she wanted revenge, she wanted...basically, not to care.

That was a fun realization. She was too damned scared to care about anything, it hurt too much.

But I flailed around a lot with finding a way to get that across. Not just to a potential reader, but to Ivy herself! Her hero figured it out, but...

I'm looking forward to hearing how others figure this out. And oh yeah, this is something my heroines often struggle with. The fear of being hurt that is inherent in caring about anything or anyone.

quantum said...

I use ear-buds for listening to my mp3 player. Whenever I put the gadget down, the leads invariably become a knotted mess. I think this may have similarities with writing a complex novel and life complications.

If there is more than one thread, then without careful plotting the strands will likely become entangled. It can indeed feel like a Gordian knot (Caroline Linden is fond of those!), requiring careful handling ..... can't just slice through without ruining the book.

The solution is to grasp the end of the central thread and follow it through the knot, untangling it until it is straight. Then repeat with the other threads if they don't fall free. The threads will then form a map and True North should be visible .... unless the map is upside down! LOL

Donna Cummings said...

Great post, Hellion. Sometimes I change the word "goal" to "passion" or "drive" to remind myself how important this issue is for my characters. A goal can feel more like a New Year's Resolution, something that can be discarded when the going gets tough. But passion, or drive, has an important emotional component to it, pushing the character forward when it would make sense to stop entirely.

Thanks for getting me thinking this morning. :) I've got lots of writing to do and this is a great spur.

TerriOsburn said...

In reading this blog and the comments, I just got an AHA! moment. My heroine is determined to create herself a family. Something she hasn't had in a long time and even when she had it, she didn't have the traditional form of it.

*smacks forehead*

I guess halfway through revisions is a good time to figure this out. Huh. At least now I have my North! LOL!

The characters really are everything. Much of my plotting is done by asking, "What do I need to happen here?" Which really means "To get my characters from here to there, what do I need to put them through?"

MsHellion said...

Mo, I think you and I write similar heroines. *LOL* I think it's because my heroines tend to be more comfortable with their environment. Happy with their lot, or at least not dissatisfied. They may have a secret yearning for something bigger, but they're not willing to give up something concrete that they have and are happy with for a POSSIBILITY that might not work out.

We can easily identify the FEAR that is holding them back, because we easily identify it within ourselves, I think. But chiseling out a goal...not as easy when our characters are probably as content as we are.

We have low expectations. *LOL* How do we identify with a character that is supposed to have high expectations?

MsHellion said...

Q, my map is frequently upside down. Though sometimes I can read upside down, if I concentrate thoroughly. :)

And my iPod headphones are frequently in knots. Actually I bet it's not charged. I never remember to charge things. Egads.

But good advice just the same--work yourself back to where the knot begins and unravel it from there, very carefully!

MsHellion said...

Donna! Great to see you! I think that's a great idea--using a different word to really emphasize how important it is to the character! I think that's my problem with the word "goal" too--it's boring to me, like a capitalist adventure (make $10,000 this month!) or lose this much weight before a trip. That's the goal, but I don't care about those things--so the motivation behind them would have to be significant. But using the word PASSION. That's good. Because it really isn't something a character would set aside easily.

I think some people would laugh because they're both meaning the 'same thing'--but it's subtle. I don't like dating and if you ask me on a date and use the word date, I won't go with you. If you use any word besides date, I will go out with you. Date has such a bad connotation for me, I can't get past it to make it work for me.

MsHellion said...

Terri, any time before you send it off to an editor or agent is a great time to figure it out. *LOL*

As I said, sometimes it's not until you've got the whole draft down that you look over the whole picture you have and try to sense the theme and story you were painting with your words.

Writing is like painting 4 inches from the canvas and your canvas is a floor to ceiling wall. You paint a few inches at a time, hoping it looks good, but it's not until you've painted the whole wall and can step back and see what you've done can you tell if you've got potential or you need to slap primer back on it and start again. Usually you have potential, of course. I guess this is why painters who do murals pre-sketch what they want to do first, eh? Even painters have a plan.

TerriOsburn said...

I just wish I'd known before so I could work this idea in more. But then maybe I have. I've hinted at this, just not in so many words. And if it's only toward the end she realizes this is what she wanted, and it would explain why she agreed to marry a guy she wasn't really head over heels in love with, then I'm good. Because that's something I can bring out in the 2nd half.

Huh. This is darn good day! Thanks for the epiphany. LOL!

Scapegoat said...

You really have me thinking this morning Hellie - and this comes at a really good time for me as I think I have gotten a little off base in not concentrating enough on my heroine's goal of Revenge.

That's an issue I'm finding with the Fast Draft process - right now I'm all about words on the page and it overlooks needing to keep the story and your characters focused.

MsHellion said...

Your epiphany is better than mine: which was, "I should have stayed in bed today." *LOL* Glad I could help!

MsHellion said...

Scapey, thinking is one of my favorite things to do. :) I hope you're enjoying it too. *LOL*

I'm all about keeping the words flowing--so I don't want to tinker with a winning streak. My thoughts are for when you're paused and you're like, "What am I doing?" and you wonder if it's right. You take a breather, look at the map, find yourself, and take off again in the direction you need.

Part of this is stemming from craft books I've been writing that are huge into PREWRITING. I had gone away from prewriting, dying to get to get to the step where I could write about my WONDERFUL STORY IDEA AND CHARACTERS, and now I'm realizing, maybe we should have gone on a few dates first before I decided to marry it. *LOL*

P. Kirby said...

"....I guess this is why painters who do murals pre-sketch what they want to do first, eh? Even painters have a plan."


I was talking to my husband this weekend about the creative process, in writing, but in other venues as well, including my own art and ... home remodeling. I noted that when I draw, I start with a lot of haphazard lines on the page with the very vaguest sense of form. I'm actually looking for the figure in the mess. Point is, I can't just draw something, start to finish with a few neat lines. In general, most art instructors, btw, will tell you to frequently back off from your work. Most advise that you don't ever focus on any one area for too long, but keep moving around the canvas to keep the work dynamic and cohesive.

Anyway, I realized that the reason I can't pre-write or outline (beforehand) is that I simply can't work on a "blank canvas." Even if the initial "scribble" is a mess, it's still something, that necessary seed to grow a story. So basically, I write like I paint or draw.

This post was great food for thought, because, as usual, my heroine's goals are still kind of amorphous. Typical me, I'm all about the hero.

Maureen said...

Yeah, Hels...fear is a big focus point for me. Even when terribly discontent with the present, there is the fear of trying something else...because it might be WORSE!

This is the family philosophy.

Don't step out, you might get stepped on. Don't speak up, you might get shushed. Don't open your mouth, a fly might fly in...

*pounding head on table

I'm breaking out, but it isn't easy and yeah, my heroines revisit this a lot.

Q? Tangles? I tangle all the time! I sorta like to leave some plot knots in place, figuring it makes it more interesting for the readers... Hee, hee!

MsHellion said...

P--I think the lesson to learn from art is that to make great things we have to be willing to dirty up the paper. I used to hate--I still sorta hate--making the first stroke of a pencil on the gleaming whiteness of the sketch paper. Because nothing I draw will ever be as beautiful or full of possibilities as that blank canvas was.

It's the universal dread that what we imagine in our minds is always so much greater than what we are able to sculpt with our own two hands.

(Maybe creating is our way of getting closer to God. He must feel great frustration for thinking up humankind and imagining great things, but what was created wasn't quite as ideal as he imagined. *LOL* Or maybe we were better. Sometimes that realization happens when we step away from what we've done and look again later.)

MsHellion said...

Mo, out of the frying pan into the fire. Better the hell you know than the one you don't!

When your growth evolves slowly, it's hard to make heroines' growth come more quickly. We're still all figuring it out. :)

Janga said...

For me, identifying the character's goal usually seems easier than determining the character's motivation. In the current WIP, for example, the heroine wants to be seen as a good person because she feels guilty about some bad choices she made a dozen years earlier. But digging into the whys of her guilt and of what she defines as "good" has led me to write back story that's almost novel length and to question whether I need to make changes in the character as she appears in a secondary role in another story.

MsHellion said...

Is it a significant overhaul? I've read stories where the characters' personalities have had major overhauls from story to story and seem a completely different person. *LOL* But they weren't changed in the other story; just the one they featured prominently in.

I'm guessing you have trouble defining the backstory for her, not necessarily motivation because you had that with "because she feels guilty about some bad choices she's made"--shame is a great motivator. Not a positive but one that will carry out the change, definitely. It also usually carries out to be a story that includes self-acceptance and the realization that not everyone judges her nearly as harshly as she's judged herself.