Thursday, August 27, 2009

Goals, Obstacles, and Epiphanies

Goals, Obstacles, and Epiphanies

A couple weeks ago, I submitted some chapters from Dawn’s Rise to an online critique group. One person provided some sage advice:

I feel that the POV characters are lacking in well-defined
goals that drive them.  This … made the story feel to me
like a sequence of events rather than a coherent story.

I’ve really been pondering this statement, and the more I think about it, the more I realized that it’s true.

I had one concept/premise when I created Dawn’s Rise: throw in every conceivable disaster into one novel. “The Disaster Novel to End All Disaster Novels.” Every bad thing I could think of. So, my characters are thrown about like clothes in a washing machine, unable to affect the outcomes of their lives to any meaningful degree. Things just happen to them, and they react. Usually with fear and profound amounts of sweat.

crap for sale Then came my first epiphany: Crap happens to everyone. Most people don’t just sit there and go, “oh darn. More crap.” Well some do, but there’s no story unless the events affect the characters in some way. More than that, we need to know what the disasters mean to the characters. Everyone will agree that 9/11 and Katrina were disasters. No one was affected the same way. Some saw those events as failure of governments, some saw them as murderous incidents that stole their loved ones. My epiphany was that I need to focus on the inner state of my characters more than the outward events. My characters need to be the masters of their own destiny, and interpret events in their own unique way. Crap doesn’t happen to my characters. My characters are trying to do something and crap gets in the way.

I’m starting to look at each chapter differently. I now think about what the character wants to accomplish, and what obstacles are in the way. Without obstacles, the chapter is simply an expository narrative of events. Dawn saw a city fall. Dawn saw a tree fall. Dawn fell down and bumped her head. Nothing interesting in those compared to: Dawn figured her rent would not need to be paid since her apartment was rubble, but now where would she live? Dawn barely escaped with her life as the falling tree swung by, blocking her path. The last thing Dawn needed was a concussion, not with the fate of the world in her hands.

Still, something didn’t sit well with me. I mean, when I wrote the first draft, I knew the characters had goals. I knew Dawn wanted—well, I kinda wanted Dawn to be this big hero and save the world. I knew John wanted—well, I kinda wanted John to come up with the solution. Do you see where this is going? My second big epiphany was this: I’ve totally confused my personal goals with my characters’. Dawn doesn’t want to save the world. She just wants to pay rent, and maybe save up enough to co-own her own place outside of the city. She doesn’t want to fall in love with John. She wants a man who will accept her and love her for who she is. John doesn’t want to solve any problems. He doesn’t even want to do a good job at his current position. He just wants his life to mean something, to have a reason to get up in the morning, to get out of the dreary work he’s been performing for the last eight years.

In summary, I’ve imposed all my own goals onto my characters, and haven’t even let them breathe or be human. I wanted a novel with tons of disasters and that’s what I got. I wanted John and Dawn to just like each other right away and that’s what I got. I wanted everything to be resolved in a nice tidy fashion and that’s what I got. The overall problem is not that my characters have no goals in any specific chapter. It’s that they don’t have any goals at all outside I what I want them to do. They may have goals when it’s convenient, when danger is staring them straight in the face, but not all the time.

This is my conclusion: Every single event in the book has to become an obstacle or boon to a specific character’s specific goal. No random trees falling in the forest unless it either thwarts my character’s progress or helps them along. No achieving goals either. I mean, this is a disaster genre novel. Heck, even if Dawn goes to brush her hair, either the comb breaks or her hair is too tangled. Otherwise, no brushing of the hair. (And I know from personal experience that the simple inability to brush one’s own hair can lead to dramatic consequences). No goals may be fully achieved until the very end. And that’s my goal. I hope my characters are onboard.


  1. Motivation is my new friend!

    Read this blog and the comments. I wandered across it a couple of weeks ago, and it makes a good point.

  2. Can I just say, my subconscious mind read "fresh crab" in that photo (of course).


  3. You're right about everything in a disaster novel needing to be a disaster specific to the character. At least that's the way it's supposed to be. I never got the hang of it. Every once in a while I cheated and . . . gasp! . . . didn't have a disaster.

  4. This is called "growing as a writer". Lovely to be watching it happen. Go you!

  5. Knowing your character motivations is essential. I just mapped out all of mine, and found problems all over the place. I thought I knew these things until I sat down to figure it out!

  6. I'm actually a little mean about my character's goals. I let them think they're getting close to achieving their goals but then at the last minute, BAM! It all goes down in flames.

    As far as the blog Aimee mentioned, I do think a character is a character.
    Dawn's first goal in the novel is to pay her rent. After her home is destroyed, it's not such a big issue.
    Why is she so keen to pay her rent? Why is it so important? What does not paying rent represent to her? That was another epiphany I had not mentioned in the post.
    Dawn wants control over her life. Losing her apartment spells a world of hurt for her, because the corporate-state would then be able to dictate her life, where she lives, where she works, what she does. Losing the apartment equates to a loss of freedom, which she dearly values. Her goal isn't "protect my freedom" until that freedom is threatened.
    Even as situations change, her goals remain basically the same, but their relative importance in her mind may vary. Everyone has the goal to be fed. It doesn't reach crisis proportions until you're starving. Or some higher goal like being thin becomes more important.
    What I'm saying is that there are goals and there are goals. Some are immediate, and some are life (or self-worth) sustaining. Whatever they start out with should resonate throughout the book in different ways but with the same core goal. You just need to dig deep and find out what's really going on inside that character's head.

  7. I still think that the majority of any character's goals boil down to survival at the most basic level. You just have to determine which level of survival they are at in any given moment. Some times survival is food and a roof over your head, sometimes survival is getting through Thanksgiving dinner. Sometimes survival is getting a cigarette before you feel the need to protoplasm someone's ass. It's all relative, and it constantly changes. The basic instinct is the most powerful one we have.

  8. Interesting point.
    I hope this doesn't contradict anything I've said, but I do believe that as humans, we set higher goals than just survival. In fact, in true hero form, some heroes sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Everyone wants to survive. Heroes want more. Which brings us to our next question. What are your characters willing to die for?
    Dawn would be willing to die if it meant humanity was rescued to safety. She would rather die than see the disasters "win". Because if the disasters win, then besides from dying anyways, it would confirm her worst fears about herself, that she can't control her destiny and that she doesn't truly care about other people.

  9. This is fun...

    So, if it's not survival of self, it's survival of mankind, or an ideal, right? Her over them?

  10. It's all about choices. From the moment we wake up in the morning, we execute thousands of choices. What to eat. What to wear. Who to kill.

    Humans are the only animal who kills. We're also the only animal that sacrifices ourselves. We actually can choose to die. We can choose when others die. Given all the infinite choices out there that we can comprehend, we weigh each option to the best of our ability, based on our goals for ourselves.

    Writing is what gets me up in the morning. Every choice I make is weighed against the goal of becoming a published author. And against being a father/husband/son/taxpayer/consumer/runner etc etc. Sometimes these goals conflict (more like constantly).

    It's not really the choices your characters make. It's what drives them to make the choice, and also how they even see the choices in the first place. How do they resolve inner conflicts? Especially life-and-death ones?

    Here's a passage from Dawn's Rise where Izzy is explaining this to Dawn:

    "Do you think anything you did up to this point in your life was really your own choice? You need to learn that there are no accidents, no coincidences. Everything has been planned, has been channeled. You appear to make your own choices, which makes you content, yet who decided what those choices were? If I hold up a vanilla and a chocolate ice cream cone, you can’t choose the grape soda. There is no grape soda."

    Okay it could some editing, but I hope you get the point.

    I think I have at least 2 more blog posts I can create right out of these comments. :)

  11. Reading your post brought to mind a rejection I once got. The agent said pretty much the same thing. At first I was crushed. Then after thinking about my ms and comparing it to the books I love, wonder of wonders, that agent was dead-on. I sent him a *Thank You* for helping me see the obvious and improve my writing.


Constructive comments are welcome.
OpenID Required.