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Let's talk about goals

It’s almost NaNoWriMo time again, which means I’ve been hanging out a lot on the NaNoWriMo forums. I find I’ve been spending a lot of time helping other ‘WriMos sort out their plots before November starts, and in particular, helping them figure out the whole question of goals.

Rather than type it out a million times over there, I figured it would be better to simply go over it once, here. After all, goals are a big part of why we believe in and root for a book’s characters, and even the most quirky and interesting character is going to fall flat if the character’s goals don’t feel right.

Short, Medium, Long

Within the context of a novel, I find that characters’ goals usually group into three levels. Short term, medium term, and long term. Every novel will have its own scale—what constitutes a short term goal in a multi-generational family saga might take years, while a short term goal in a “you have 24 hours to stop the terrorist plot” type thriller might only take minutes or even seconds—but within its scale you’ll find all three kinds of goals.

Short term goals are what characters want to achieve right now. Within the immediate scene, usually, or even within a paragraph. Typically, the short term goal is the one which is the most pressing for the character, right at that very minute. It is the thing they can least afford to ignore.

Medium term goals take longer to achieve. They are almost always more difficult to achieve. And this is the important part, they often correspond with the character’s overall story goal. If you look forward to your plot’s climax, a character’s medium-term goal is the thing he or she is either going to succeed or fail at when the big moment comes.

You would think that long term goals are the ones that would drive the story, but they’re not, because characters have (at least, so we imagine) lives outside of and beyond the confines of the plot you’re writing. As far as the character is concerned the plot is probably just one episode, albeit a dramatic one, within the context of a larger life.

Which leads us to the long term goals. Long term goals are most typically life goals, the great, meaningful, important things the character aspires towards. These are goals like “get a promotion,” “buy a house,” or “write my novel.” Anything you can add the word “someday” to, without substantially changing the sentiment of the goal, is a long term goal.

Long term goals may be very important to the character personally, but they are often put on the back burner in favor of pursuing short term and medium term goals. After all, short term and medium term goals almost always feel more pressing and immediate, when you’re making decisions about how to use your time. Yes, you may deeply want to save up money to buy that house, but right now the car’s out of gas and your kid needs new shoes. We all know what this is like in our own lives, and if you’re striving to portray a realistic character (as opposed to a relentlessly logical one), it helps to show this tension between satisfying the needs of the moment and planning for the long term.

Goals and Maslow

Short, medium, and long term goals also fit nicely into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Short term goals often correspond to the lower, more immediate, survival-oriented levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. Food, shelter, and so forth. Long term goals, being more aspirational, tend to fit into the upper levels of the hierarchy. There, you find achievement, professional success, and the like. In the middle, you tend to find your story goals. For example, the entire (and mind-bogglingly prolific) genre of romance novels trades on story goals that fit smack into the middle “Love and Belonging” layer of the hierarchy.

These are not hard and fast rules, by any means. And while many a thriller novel has made hay on story goals that sit on the lower, “Safety” layer of the hierarchy, you’ll find that from scene to scene your characters’ goals may well jump around as circumstances warrant. That’s fine. The point here is that when you get stuck, when you’re not exactly sure what goal makes sense in a given scene, you might look to see if the hierarchy of needs can point you towards something that will work.

Know What Everybody Wants

Try to be aware of all your characters’ goals, on all three levels, all the time. Yes, that’s a tall order. I know it is. But it’s important because goals dictate choices and actions. When characters’ choices fall out of sync with their goals, readers stop believing in them as real people. As well they should.

At a minimum, do this for your protagonists, antagonists, and any other POV characters you may employ. Make sure you know what those people’s goals are. When you’re writing a scene, you can scope your focus down to just the goals of the people in the scene.

Using All Three Levels

Now that you know what everybody wants, what do you do when it comes to writing the book?

Short term goals typically drive your scenes. Why? Because scenes involve characters doing things, and at least by default characters choose to do whatever’s most pressing at the moment. You don’t sit and finish your Sudoku while your house is on fire.

That said, characters often have a lot of choice as to what their short term goals are, because characters are keeping in mind (or rather, you’re doing it for them) their medium term story goals. Therefore, characters pick short term goals that support their medium term goals. In a given scene, characters have a wide (almost unimaginably wide) array of possible choices they can make. Not all of them make sense, but they do exist. Some smaller set of choices will help the character towards achieving the story goal. The smart, believable character will pick a short term scene goal from this smaller set. Short term goals are often a means to an end.

Long term goals, on the other hand, often get left by the wayside and are only pursued when an opportunity happens to present itself. There’s an ironic, almost perverse contradiction short, medium, and long term goals, which almost always works against the direct pursuit of long term goals. There’s a scale of personal importance from short to long term goals, in which the long term goals are indeed the most important ones to a character. Those are the things the character most strongly wants, deep down, to achieve.

But remember, “someday.” Long term goals are “someday” goals, and there is a contradictory scale of immediacy under which short term goals out rank long term ones. And for whatever reason, immediacy seems to trump personal importance every time. This is usually a source of frustration, to the extent characters are aware that their pursuit of short term and medium term goals is pulling them away from their long term goals.

Goals in Opposition

Those contradicting scales of personal importance and immediacy point to a larger, and much more important issue with goal setting in your novels. Opposition. As often as possible, put different goals in opposition to one another.

Some oppositions are obvious: The protagonist’s and antagonist’s story goals should clearly conflict with one another, and I won’t spend any time on it because that’s pretty well-trodden ground on other writing blogs and in writing books. Just about all you need to know is captured in the image illustrating this article: those kids can’t both have what they want in that moment.

What I will talk about are intra-character conflicts. Creating conflicts within a single character’s goals is an excellent way to raise the drama in your novel. Choices, difficult ones that involve sacrifice, are inherently dramatic. When you’re designing a scene, see if there’s a way you can make the scene such that it will force the character to choose between two things he or she wants. You can make it overt and unthinkable, as in Sophie’s Choice, but it takes a lot of setup to make that work as anything other than melodrama.

What I like is to create conflicts across the different levels and scales of goals. Short term goals causing long term goals to be put on the back burner is one example, but a weak one. What about creating a medium term goal for the whole story that, in the climax, will turn out to require that the character sacrifice any hope of achieving an important long term goal?

Alternately, you can create conflict within the same scale by giving a character multiple goals at that scale. For example, you could give a character two goals that rank similarly on Maslow’s hierarchy: a personal achievement goal of completing one’s Ph.D., and a social goal of establishing and maintaining a circle of friends. These goals are normally perfectly compatible, except during finals week when the character has to choose between studying for an important test and going to the movies with his friends. Especially if the girl he’s really into, and that one of his friends is also interested in, is going to be there. You see how that works.

Goals in Alignment

Goal conflicts and oppositions are workhorse tools of portraying complex, realistic people. But don’t neglect the potential for making strategic choices about where to align different goals, too.

This applies more between two characters than it does within a single character. Take an extreme example: you could give your protagonist and antagonist an identical long term goal but give them radically opposed story goals about how they want to achieve it. This can lead to the classic “horribly misguided antagonist” type of plot, in which the antagonist may be driven by the noblest of motives but is led towards doing terrible things in pursuit of them.

For example, your protagonist and antagonist could share the goal of averting global warming. But, while the protagonist may decide that the underlying problem is that people need to learn to consume less, the antagonist may decide that the underlying problem is simply that there are too many people. One will become an advocate for recycling and renewable energy, while the other will become a terrorist hatching plots for how to kill a billion people at a time.

The best antagonists, in my view, aren’t the ones who are the most purely evil. That’s boring. The best antagonists are the ones we can easily empathize, because we share their long term goals. Similarly

Mix it Up

The dynamic between any two characters in a novel is usually a mixture of opposition and alignment across short, medium, and long term goals. Characters who always agree are boring to watch. Characters who always disagree are marginally more interesting to watch, but it quickly becomes difficult to understand why they bother to interact with each other at all. Only by carefully choosing where to create alignment and opposition among the many goals they have, can you create a believable, interesting, compelling dynamic.

October 14, 2010 20:04 UTC

Tags: character, goals, NaNoWriMo, Maslow, POV, conflict

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Do you know an inner character arc from an outer one?

We’ve all heard about how a novel’s plot should relate to the main character’s inner journey. About how our characters should grow and change and become wiser, better people by the end of the story. Heck, I’ve written about that plenty right here on this blog. Those are your garden variety inner character arcs.

Less well known is what I call an outer character arc, which doesn’t resort to changing the character’s inner self.

Sometimes this is just what you need. Maybe there’s something about the character that might cause conflict and drama in the novel, but which doesn’t need to change. It may even be that you shouldn’t change them. So how, with a character trait that you want to leave entirely alone, can you make an arc out of it?

Create conflict between her sense of self and how others see her

For example, let’s say my main character is an introvert. Maybe she’s so introverted that it causes her problems in her life. She can’t get much respect at work, because she’s so quiet in meetings. The guy she thinks is cute isn’t interested in her because he can’t see past her quiet exterior. At dinner parties, she has trouble participating in the conversation, because by the time she has worked out how to phrase her opinions and thoughts, the subject of the conversation has inevitably changed.

The problems her introversion causes are real, but I’m not about to change her. No way. Yeah, she has trouble in social situations, but there is nothing inherently wrong with being an introvert. About half the population is one, including me and a lot of my readers. Writing a book where the heroine reaches a better place in her life by changing something that isn’t wrong to begin with doesn’t strike me as emotionally truthful, and wouldn’t resonate well with readers either.

So what to do? The character arc here doesn’t involve a conflict between what kind of person she is and what kind of person she ought to be. Rather, it stems from those conflicting perceptions. Let’s look deeper.

Outer character arc

An “outer character arc” is different from the typical “inner character arc” in that it does not involve personal growth and change. Not in the same way, anyhow. To continue the example, the issue for this protagonist is that the other people mistake her quiet, reserved, thoughtful nature for something else: shyness, insecurity, stupidity, timidity, et cetera.

The central conflict in this outer character arc is this difference between the character’s true self and how others perceive her.

For an introverted character struggling with being heard and recognized in social situations, the obstacle arising from that conflict is changing people’s perceptions. She must help her boss understand that when she’s quiet in a meeting, it’s because she’s listening intently and processing everything. She needs to find a way to show the cute guy more of who she really is than he can see on the surface.

I’m not sure what she’s ought to do about the dinner party problem; I haven’t figured that one out in real life myself. If you have any ideas, please leave them in the comments, ok?

Regardless, by the end of the novel I can still bring her to a better situation in her life by confronting this difference in perception—by resolving the outer character arc—rather than by changing her introverted nature.

Nobody is ever exactly how they seem

That’s the key to unlocking an outer character arc. No person on earth is ever perceived by others as they truly are, way deep down inside. Other people don’t see you as you see yourself. The clever writer turns this fact into an outer character arc by making the character see this difference. Give the character a moment of epiphany that reveals to her the underlying nature of the central conflict that has been dogging her all along. The epiphany can generate three different outer character arcs, depending on how you want to resolve the conflict and whether you want to add any inner character arc techniques as well.

Don’t change the character, change how she presents herself.

This is the pure outer character arc example I gave above, although obviously you can do it with any trait, not just introversion. This is where the character concludes that she does not need to change, that she is already comfortable with who she is, but that she needs teach the people around her a couple of things. One, that there’s nothing wrong with her, thankyouverymuch, and two, what her actual capabilities, skills, and interests are. Her goal is staying true to herself while changing others’ perceptions, and her life will improve when she achieves it.

Don’t change the character, and that’s ok.

This is where the character may start out thinking she needs to change her inner self, but in the end realizes that she’s ok with who she is and she’s also ok with it if other people don’t really get her. It’s a hybrid model that starts out looking like an inner character arc, but then turns out to be an outer one. To continue the example, maybe she circumvents her problems at work by quitting her job to start her own freelance book editing business where she can work from home and be her own boss. Hypothetically, you understand. Ahem.

Do change the character after all.

This is where a character considers the difference in self-perception versus how other see her, and concludes that in fact they’re right. She does in fact have a flaw that should be addressed. This is a hybrid too, but is the opposite of the previous one. It’s an outer character arc that turns into an inner character arc. If you have the skill to pull it off, this one can work particularly well in first person narratives where the character really is clueless about something. Use the character’s behavior to show the flaw, and use the first person style to show the character’s self-perception contrasting with the flaw.

An outer character arc isn’t always appropriate to add to a novel. But if you’re starting from a character that you like, that you don’t think needs to change at his or her core, consider it. It’s another tool to put in your toolbox, as Stephen King would put it. If you do decide to give it a try, kick things off by putting the character in a situation where she wants to shout at the world, “You don’t know me,” and where the world responds by saying “yeah, but maybe you don’t know yourself all that well, either.” Then see what happens!

October 23, 2009 18:43 UTC

Tags: character, inner character arc, outer character arc, introvert, conflict, POV, self-image

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How to pick the right point of view for your novel

In this article I’m going to give you some practical, hands-on guidelines for choosing the right point of view (POV) for your novel, a task which is not always as straightforward as it sounds. While I can’t tell you what’s right for your novel—only you can decide that—I can explain the ramifications of each, so you can weigh the pros and cons yourself.

Making the right choice is critical: The wrong choice will undermine the presentation of your characters. The wrong choice will sabotage your whole novel, leaving you with an enormous pile of work in fixing it. The POV choice is such a deep, fundamental element of any novel that changing it usually amounts to a full re-write.

This isn’t a grammar lesson, so I’m going to assume you know the technical difference between first-person and a third-person POVs. Instead, we’re going to look at the options each one gives for how you present your plot and characters, what kinds of mysteries you can create and preserve, and how well you can establish a connection between the reader and your characters.

Third-person omniscient. This is the classic “God’s eye” view of the world. You are allowed to show the reader anything at any time: thoughts, actions, dialogue, even events where your characters aren’t present. The story is told with no explicit narrator.

Third-person omniscient is a great choice when you have a very complex plot with several main characters and minor characters who all follow their own story lines until things meet up at the end. It is ideal if your goal is to allow the reader to watch everything unfold even though the characters aren’t aware of all that’s going on.

However, third-person omniscient is also the emotionally coldest point of view. It is the most distant from your characters. Because third-person can (and often does) skip around from here to there, jumping into and out of different characters heads, it is difficult for readers to form any close emotional ties with the characters.

For books where the plot is the central attraction for readers, third-person omniscient is often the best choice. If your novel doesn’t have much in the way of character arc—if your characters don’t particularly grow or change over the course of the story—then this could well be the way to go.

Third-person limited. Grammatically, this is exactly like third-person omniscient. The only difference is that in third-person limited POV, you channel the entire story through one character’s viewpoint. You can show the POV character’s inner thoughts and opinions, you can show what the character sees, hears, and feels. But, you may only show those things. Showing other characters’ thoughts or events the POV character doesn’t directly experience is dis-allowed.

Third-person limited gives the POV character and the reader exactly the same information. It closes the emotional distance between reader and character and is very effective at giving the reader the same experience of the story as the POV character.

Third-person limited is a great choice when you have an essentially linear plot with minimal diversions or side journeys, and a single main character who experiences all the important plot events. Third-person limited offers a nice balance between a plot-driven story and a character-driven story. This is a good choice for stories where the outer events of your plot matter (that is, you couldn’t get the same effect by switching a plane crash into a train crash, for example), yet those events are closely tied to the character’s inner growth.

First-person. This is when you present one character as the narrator of your story. The character literally relays the story to the reader in present tense as it unfolds, or in past tense from after the events have transpired. Because of the reliance on a single main character, first-person stories require the same type of linear plots as third-person limited POV.

First-person POV presents the smallest emotional distance between the reader and the main character. Thus, first-person is a great choice when the story is more about the inner character arc than it is about the outer plot. But, it is also the hardest POV to write well because it demands a very strong, compelling voice.

Note, harder does not mean better. There are distinct differences between first-person and third-person limited, and each has its place. Because first-person writing involves the main character narrating the story for the reader, it’s not the same presentation of information as in third-person limited.

In either POV, the writer is always in control, but that’s not what a reader perceives. In a first-person story, the reader’s perception is that the narrator—a character—is telling them the story. Implicitly, that narrator chooses what to tell the reader, what to omit, and what spin to put on events. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one: in first-person writing the narrator can lie to the reader, either by commission or omission. In third-person limited, the reader perceives the writer conveying the information, and the writer isn’t supposed to lie to the reader. That’s cheating.

A so-called “unreliable narrator” can create very powerful mysteries, especially if in lying to the reader the narrator is really attempting to lie to him or herself. If your story demands a large, surprising reversal somewhere along the line, an unreliable first-person narrator is an effective way to do it.

Finally, there are a few unusual POV choices and variations on the above choices that bear mentioning:

First-person plural This is when the book’s narrator is a group, rather than a character, and the story is told from a “we” point of view. A good example is the classic Cheaper by the Dozen, by Frank Gilbreth, which is about a family’s father but is told from the collective point of view of the children. Not many books do this, and it’s easy to see why: very few have a premise which permits it. But when done well, it can give the reader a sense of inclusion in the group, as though the reader were part of the collective “we” that’s relating the story.

Second-person. This is when an author puts the reader directly into the story by using “you” as the main character: “You walk into the cafeteria, wrinkling your nose at the smell of mystery meat and canned peas.”

Second-person stories are very rare, and I think for good reason. It is far too easy for this to feel like a gimmick than a good writing choice. In fact, the only examples of this style that I can think of offhand are those entirely gimmicky Choose Your Own Adventure books from the 1980s. (However, if you know of a literary novel that does this and does it well, please share it down in the comments. I’d like to see it.) In theory, I suppose, this POV would eliminate the emotional distance between the reader and the main character entirely.

Multiple POVs. This is simply when you use the techniques of first-person or third-person limited writing, but apply them to multiple characters in the same book. If you try this at all, make sure you know what you’re doing, and think carefully before violating the guideline that you should only switch between POV characters at a scene break or a chapter break.

Multiple third-person limited would not be much different than good third-person omniscient writing. But multiple first-person writing can be incredibly compelling, because it gives a double-dose of the pure character driven experience that only good first-person writing can do. At present, my favorite example of this is The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. This should be a case study for anyone who wants to try multiple first-person POVs.

In a nutshell, here’s how to choose the right POV for your story. First, answer these four questions:

  1. Does the structure of your story force you into a particular choice?

  2. Is the plot more important, are character arcs more important, or are they of roughly equal importance?

  3. How emotionally close do you want the reader to be to your main character(s)?

  4. Do you need a large, surprising reversal that an unreliable narrator could create?

Next, evaluate your answers against the criteria I’ve given above. A complex plot forces most novels into third-person omniscient. Other plot structures have more leeway with POV. Plot-driven stories tend towards third-person, while character driven stories tend towards first-person. Close emotional distance argues for third-person limited or first-person. If you want your characters to be more opaque and enigmatic, third-person omniscient is the way to go. If your novel is more experimental, you might want one of the rare, oddball POVs instead.

Choosing the right POV is important, even critical, to the success of your novel. But with the right guidelines in mind, and by asking yourself the right questions, the right answer is usually easy to find.

September 01, 2009 18:22 UTC

Tags: character, emotional distance, first-person, second-person, third-person omniscient, third-person limited, multiple first-person, point of view, POV, unreliable narrator, Audrey Niffenegger, Frank Gilbreth, voice

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Hypothetical dialogue vs. inner monologue

There’s a style of first-person writing that reads as though you’re riding shotgun in the narrator’s mental car, listening to the narrator explain his life as he goes along. It’s a style that fluidly intermixes narrated actions and events with inner monologue, philosophizing, and reflection:

I was never what you’d call a happy child. I’m not looking for pity or anything, it’s just a fact. Something that was true. It’s not like I felt bad about it when I was a kid. Kids don’t know shit. They assume that whatever happens is normal. I took it that way, anyhow.

Maybe other kids were happy, maybe they were just as miserable as me. I have no idea. Kids are also really self-centered that way, you know? Except, I wasn’t exactly miserable. That’s the wrong word. If you asked me how I really was, I guess I’d say “I just floated along, tried to keep an even keel.” That about sums it up. I survived, anyhow.

Notice, in that brief bit, a quote. It’s not dialogue because the narrator isn’t actually saying anything to anyone. It’s a form of hypothetical dialogue, what-I-would-say-if-asked, intended to convey something about the narrator. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se. There will be times when it is entirely appropriate to use this device. The questions you must ask as you write are: what is the alternative, and what does each option convey about the character?

The alternative is to re-write so the ideas in the quote are conveyed in the same inner-monologue fashion as the rest:

Except, I wasn’t exactly miserable. That’s the wrong word. It’s more like I just floated along all the time. Tried to keep an even keel. That about sums it up. I survived, anyhow.

It’s almost exactly the same words, but notice the shift. If your story is almost entirely made up of inner monologue (as this style tends to be), introducing a piece of hypothetical dialogue as in the first example is a minor POV break. As a narrative issue, you are taking the story out of the narrator’s head to step briefly into the narrator’s mouth.

It may seem like a minor difference, but consider the implications: people lie with their mouths. What people choose to say is not always the whole, unvarnished truth. Speech—and thus, dialogue of any form—is always filtered through a person’s desire to control how others perceive them.

Dialogue places the reader at a greater emotional distance from the narrator. It admits the possibility that the narrator is keeping something back, not telling the whole truth. But if you stay in the realm of inner monologue, stay inside the narrator’s head, that distance is eliminated. You keep the reader as close to the narrator as possible.

If your goal is not, in fact, to keep something back from the reader then in my opinion this is the stronger choice. For first-person monologue stories, showing character is all about giving the reader the sense of what it’s like to be that character. What it’s like to have those thoughts, opinions, and attitudes. In my opinion, staying in the narrator’s head and out of the narrator’s mouth better enables you to do this.

June 30, 2009 18:26 UTC

Tags: dialogue, monologue, POV, first-person, lies

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