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.
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.