You may at some point want to write about a character who doesn’t know what they want. Who has no focus or great passion for life.
Often this will be the starting point of the story and events will conspire to shake them out of their stupor. Or it could be a character study, possibly an existential tale.
It’s a valid character to write about because there are many people who feel that way, and they deserve to be written about as much as anyone. There are many famous precedents by writers like Salinger, Camus, Beckett.
The problem is that this kind of character is very hard to make interesting.
You may well say that’s the point. They aren’t supposed to be sparkling conversationalists or action junkies. But that’s not what I mean. Even if a character is a complete bore it’s still possible to write them in an engaging way. But it takes a great deal of skill and technique to pull it off. Something most beginning writers do not possess. The irony is this kind of character is most popular with novice writers.
The character searching for meaning or unable to integrate with society is very popular with college students, or those recently graduated, and these writers very often are in the very state of mind they’re writing about.
And therein lies the problem. The worst time to write about a character like this is when you yourself are going through what they’re going through. There’s no way to create the objective distance to know when you’re being intriguingly insightful and when you’re being tediously self-absorbed.
When you have a character who is resistant to enthusiasm and motivation, the instinctive route to take to demonstrate this is to show the character doing as little as possible. But there are many different ways to show these traits. It’s just hard to know what they are if you haven’t moved beyond that phase in your real life.
For example, if my character hates his job he could just be depressed and staring out of a window when he should be working. Or he could be doing something instead of his assigned work. Or he could be doing his work and hating it. Or he could be working twice as hard to come up with excuses to get him out of working. Or he could try to get himself fired.
The point is all these variations still demonstrate that he hates his job, they just don’t show it in the one way you actually really do hate your job in real life. But you won’t be able to see those other ways while you’re in it.
What will give it away is this. You don’t have to choose another way of writing the detached-from-life character if you don’t wish to, that is your right. But can you come up with other options? You don’t have to use them, but are you able to invent six different ways of writing the scene? Because the way you do it should be by choice, not just because that was the only thing that came to mind.
So do feel free to write about characters trapped in meaningless, directionless lives, just don’t do it when you are that person, tempting as it might be.
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