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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?