Is your character just along for the ride? On characters and goals and tide-me-over goals (Part 1)

I try to avoid talking about craft too much on this site for a couple of reasons. One is because I don’t want this site to be boring to nonwriters. Another is because of cred: I don’t want some jackass to happen along and slap me down for daring to express my opinion on what makes good writing with a “Who the hell are you to talk?”

I can’t claim any authority, but I have picked up a few things and maybe just formed a few opinions. Take ’em or leave ’em, but if you’re at an earlier point on your journey than I am, you just might find some value here.

Last week in writers’ group, the topic of character goals came up. I maintain that characters are more compelling–arguably only compelling–when they are trying to attain something. I refer to this as whether or not your protagonist is protagging (not that I claim this is original to me). What it comes down to is this: I want to read about a protagonist who is active, not one who is along for the ride. Maybe in some rarified fiction circles you can write about characters who float from event to event but don’t act upon their world, but I don’t think most readers of popular fiction–into which I’m lumping genre and young adult fiction–want to read books like that.

Photo by Mark Rowland (CC BY-ND 2.0)

When I find myself reading something with a central character who is not protagging, I typically get bored. Sometimes, though, I’m forced to admit that exciting stuff is happening, and that’s when the issue of the central character who is just witnessing great events without participating in them pops out most recognizably.

Imagine a scene like this:

Sue is at the bank opening an account when a half dozen masked men come in–a holdup! The security guard tries to wrestle a gun away from one, only to get shot in the head. Behind an overturned chair, a little girl cries for her mommy, but mommy has to ignore her wails because the robbers have ordered everyone to keep still. Suddenly Sue hears sirens–a teller managed to push a silent alarm! The robbers decide they have to get out–but not without taking a hostage. They choose Sue, who follows them without argument. They pile into their van and peel out into traffic just as blue lights appear behind them. Trying to lose the cops, the robber at the wheel takes a corner too fast, and as the rustbucket careens around the turn, it flips onto its side. Immediately police surround the van and disarm the dazed criminals before they can think to create a standoff. Sue is checked for injuries by EMTs, but she has suffered only a sprained wrist, and is able to drive back home.

This scene has a crapload of action, but I maintain that it would be pretty boring if it were written this way, unless perhaps you played it for laughs. It could be pretty exciting from the POV of one of the robbers–heck, it could be a scene right out of The Town. It’s exciting—but short—from the point of view of the security guard or the teller who set off the alarm. But Sue never does anything! She never even tries to do anything! She never even considers doing anything or looks for an opportunity to do anything!

She’s just there.

There may be tension, and yeah, tension is important. But if Sue isn’t trying to change things–even if she fails!–then I say the scene is boring because Sue is boring.

It can be even worse with YA, where we may be left with a sulky and unhappy teen and nothing else:

Albert is at a party at a popular kid’s house. Of course the parents are nowhere in sight, alcohol is flowing freely, and people are half dressed and making out on every chair, sofa, and bed. In the open spaces, couples dance to loud hillbilly music. Not Albert, though. Albert doesn’t have a girlfriend, and he doesn’t like the same kind of music as everyone else in this hick town anyway. Albert is not popular at all, and he hates the popular kids. Albert is only here because Jim, his ride home from the marching band competition, decided to come to the party and brought Albert with him. Albert wanders around, watching people make out and drink. Stupid Jim. Stupid popular kids. Stupid parents. Stupid small town. Stupid life.

After three hours, Jim takes him home.

“You’re home late,” notes his mom.

Albert shrugs.

“Did you have a good time?”

“Whatever.”

Maybe you’ve been to this party yourself. This could have been a really interesting party to read about–from the POV of Jim, or of damn near anybody else there.

Here’s the thing about the angsty kid who is trying to change nothing about his life: Do you want to spend time with this kid?

Does either Sue or Albert sound like someone you’d like to hang out with for six to eight hours?

Sue’s scene could have been interesting if Sue were looking for a way out. Maybe early in the robbery she notices nobody is watching the side door.

She could just walk right out! But does she dare? What if they see her? What if they shoot her?! Have they really not noticed the unguarded exit? Sue steals a glance. They haven’t! Nobody’s looking her way! She’s gonna try–“Hey, someone get that side door,” says a gruff voice behind her. Too late. She waited too long. When they pick Sue as their hostage, maybe she plans to make a break for it the moment she steps out the door, gun or no gun. She doesn’t trust the bad guys not to kill her if they take her with them, so she’s going to take her chances. When they pass through the door, she yanks her arm away from the bad guy and takes off–only to stumble to the sidewalk as her heel breaks. A bad guy drags her to her feet, saying “Nice try.”

Nothing about the outcome of the scene changed, but now Sue was more involved, because she was trying to affect the outcome. Sue is more interesting, and I’d say the scene would be better now.

Maybe Albert wishes he could be one of the kids dancing and making out, but he’s terrified to ask a girl to dance.

What if she says no? Then he spots that one beautiful girl from his Algebra class–Taylor. He follows her around for a bit–does she recognize him? Does she even know who he is? She’s not with anybody. Maybe she’s just as lonely as he is! Maybe she hates country music too! He should ask her if she wants to hang out sometime. He should! But no–he can’t!

Wait—Screw that. Who cares if some girl in this craphole town rejects him? He will ask her. Here’s his chance. He walks up to her.

“Hey Taylor,” he calls out.

“What??”

The stupid music is too loud.

“I said ‘hi,’” he says.

“Oh,” she says. “Hello.” Then her eyes light up. A second later she waves to someone by the front door. “Vanessa!” she calls out, and just like that she is gone.

Shit, he didn’t strike out–it’s worse than that. He took his best shot and she didn’t even notice! It was like he didn’t even exist to her. Didn’t even rise up to the level of a nuisance to be rejected. Stupid damn town! Stupid beautiful girl!

Again, the outcome of the scene doesn’t change. Albert spends the rest of the night moping until Jim takes him home, and he drops the whatever-bomb on Mom. But for one shining moment there, Albert had a Goal. My argument is that this makes the rest of the scene more interesting. It’s more meaningful now. Albert’s still an unhappy, angsty kid, but now he’s an unhappy, angsty kid who occasionally tries to improve his life. This tells me as a reader that it’s worth spending some time with him, because I can reasonably hope to see him, in fumbling fits and starts, finally make a place for himself in this new town and realize it’s not so bad after all. It’s natural as a writer to want to show character growth by taking a character from loser to winner, but as a reader I’m not going to keep reading about a loser unless there is a sign that the winner is in there somewhere, deep down inside.

Maybe your character is going to have a goal as the novel progresses, but it’s just the beginning of your manuscript. The main conflict hasn’t kicked off yet. Rebecca is totally going to thwart the evil werewolf pack, but for now she doesn’t even know werewolves are real! So eventually, yeah, she’s gonna have a great goal. The reader’s just gonna have to wait, right?

Wrong, I say. The reader won’t wait. If you’re not already an author I’ve heard of, if I don’t already trust you to tell me a good story, if a million people haven’t already talked about how amazing you are, then why will I stick through sixty pages of Rebecca starting her new job at the mall and going wherever she’s told and furnishing her new apartment and pretty much just living a humdrum life?

I’ll wait if I see other evidence that Rebecca is worth hanging out with. Show me that Rebecca is a take-charge woman. Show me that she has other goals in her life before the werewolves come and turn everything upside-down. Let me see her pursue them, and let me get a sense for what is important to her, and for what lengths she will go to to get what she wants.

Maybe Rebecca moved to this town to take a job after college, but now that she’s begun, her new boss tells her that the position isn’t what she thought it was. It turns out she’ll be working part-time, and not for the expected $15 an hour, but for $8 an hour instead. What does Rebecca do? Does she go over her boss’s head? Does she start looking for a new job? Does she tearfully call home and ask her Dad to kick in a few hundred dollars until she gets on her feet? Does she stick it out because the boss also happens to be hot and single? Does she go out during her break and smash her boss’s windshield?

The back cover promised me a book about werewolves, dammit, and I’ll only wait so long before you’d better by God show me some werewolves, but while you’re setting things up—giving me that weird noise in the night and those unexplained clawmarks on the door the next day, and that mysterious disappearance—while you’re getting things in place (let’s say forty pages) you can hold my interest with this other stuff. Hopefully, you get me to sympathize with Rebecca in general. Damn she’s had it tough. Just moved to a new town, the big job falls through, her boss is a creep, and on top of that . . . freaking werewolves? Go Rebecca–go kick some werewolf ass.

But I won’t be on Rebecca’s side if you just give me the moving, the job bait-and-switch, and don’t show me a character who damn well intends to do something about it.

I call this a “tide-me-over goal.” I may not have invented the phrase, but if I didn’t, then I’ve forgotten who I stole it from. My apologies if I’m totally ripping someone off. But what I mean is Rebecca has interim goals, until you get far enough into the story to show me Rebecca’s Big Goal.

I care about characters who want things. I care about characters who do things. I care about characters who are propelling their stories, not being dragged behind them.

Continued in part 2: Goals and Tide-Me-Over-Goals: Examples from the Pros

This entry was posted in storytelling. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Is your character just along for the ride? On characters and goals and tide-me-over goals (Part 1)

  1. Marlana says:

    This is an awesome blog post, very interesting. —And even better, extremely helpful. My first novel is a MG Fantasy, yet the fantasy portion isn’t presented until chapter eight. Your example of Rebecca and werewolves really gave me things to think about.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


*

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.