It’s easy enough to say a character should be active, driving the story forward, have a goal etc. but what if he isn’t that sort of character?
A lot of young male writers that I read and critique in the various writers’ workshops I belong to, write about young male characters who don’t know what they want, who haven’t decided what their goal is, who don't care about anything. These writers want to write a story of discovery. They want to write about how to figure out which are the important things. They want to rage against the ridiculousness of life, in no particular order.
They want to write about these things because life doesn't conveniently offer up a neat, pre-packaged plot to give existence meaning and direction. That’s what they’re interested in, because that’s what they feel about their own lives. Certainly people have written books about such characters, so why not them? If it reads slow or aimless, then it’s literary fiction. It’s character driven. It’s intentionally mundane to reflect life. But how do you stop it being boring for the reader?
There certainly are great works of literary fiction that are slow, pondering, aimless masterpieces.
The problem is that although that kind of story is very easy to write, it is very hard to write well and it can be end up reading as tedious and trite. He liked the girl but didn’t know what to say, so said nothing and missed his chance. Painful authenticity or boring non-story?
The truth is this kind of story is very much a viable project, but not for someone who is actively experiencing it. It’s like writing a first book about a man who writes his first book, gets it published and has to deal with what it’s like to be a success/failure as an author. That’s an okay topic for a story, but not for someone’s first novel. As a second novel, fine. You have the experience of going through that process and even if the story isn’t based on those specific experiences it will inform the writing. But as a first book you have no idea what you’re talking about. It will feel fake, especially when compared to a similar tome by someone who really has experienced it and come out the other end.
Yes, but what about imagination, the power of making shit up? Nobody knows what future societies or alien worlds are really like yet they still manage to write about them. True, but those kinds of stories still speak to our human, present-time sense of self. 1984 isn’t about predicting the future. Lord of the Rings isn’t about magic spells. You don’t need to understand hyperspace to invent a form of interstellar travel, but that’s not what the story is about, that’s just set dressing. If the captain of the space ship doesn’t behave in a way a leader would behave, even though he’s a Xlartian silicon-based life form, nobody’s going to buy it. A reader knows when something rings true, and when it’s just someone taking shots in the dark.
Writing about not knowing what you want is something you should do only after you have discovered what you want to do and done it. Then you can look back on that period of your life when you were blundering around (or ‘right now’ as I like to call it) and draw on it with the proper perspective.
In the mean time write a story about a guy with a goal. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t got one yourself, you’ve had them in the past, you know how it feels to really want something. Remember that feeling and just use your imagination.