Motivated Characters

I got an email from an old writing friend recently with the subject heading, “Was cleaning out my closet.” The email contained a JPEG of a novel I had shared with him while we were in a writing group together. “That’s some pretty good prose,” he wrote. “You ever going to finish this story?” It had been many years since I’d abandoned that project, enough years that, as I read the page, it was almost like reading someone else’s novel. He was right about the prose – by which I mean, while reading it, I found myself thinking, “Hey, that’s good stuff.” But a story is not just an assemblage of good prose, and I thought about his question. Why had I abandoned it?

As is often the case with memory, the first thing that came back to me was how it felt to write that story in the months leading up to the decision to abandon it. I felt lost, as if every choice was right and every choice was wrong. It’s awful feeling, a feeling no amount of craft can soothe. Then I remembered the two other novels I had abandoned after that one. The third of that trio was a great epic journey of a novel. Round about page 600 the characters started turning to one another frequently and asking, “Why are we on this journey again?”

Which, from a very practical standpoint, is why the novels were abandoned: I didn’t know what my protagonists wanted. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “Every character in every scene has to want something, even if it’s a glass of water.” Good advice that, yet even better advice for every writer – novelist, poet, memoirist, and screenwriter alike – is, “Pay attention to how you feel.”

I knew I wanted to write, but what I most wanted to write about did not lend itself so easily to fiction. Yet for years my identity had been that of a fiction writer. That’s who I was. If I abandoned fiction writing, who was I? It sounds silly now, but it wasn’t silly at the time. At the time, it was profoundly disorienting.

Fortunately, the same guidance system that helps me find the right word and the right story and the right life keeps speaking to me in whatever language I’m willing to hear: In my case, that lost feeling of writing stories with protagonists as unmotivated in their lives as I was in my writing. By and by, I decided that no identity was worth the suffering of telling stories I didn’t actually want to tell, and so I chose a different kind of story, and I found the motivation that never abandons me.


Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion.

"A book to keep nearby whenever your writer's spirit needs feeding." Deb Caletti.

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