Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Unmotivated Characters Don't Have to Suck

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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Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

A completely detached and unmotivated character would be difficult to write.

Elizabeth Twist said...

Excellent advice. I'm wondering about how much of the character's internal experience should be the showcase of a story like this. Lack of motivation isn't always simply that - it can be a product of inner turmoil, frustration, resentment, or any other of a host of negative emotions.

A-Z @ Elizabeth Twist

Sara Hill said...

Yes, I have such a character right now. I am a beginner, but I'm not right out of college myself and not like this character at all, so perhaps I can pull it off. I think it's essential that something about my character be likeable at the outset, though.

McKenzie McCann said...

Harold Crick in Stranger Than Fiction comes to mind. He's an uninteresting protagonist.

I think I half did this in one of my books, but it was more like she was an interesting woman who thought she was average. I cheated.

Rachna Chhabria said...

I have been reading a lot about unmotivated characters. Its a fear I have that my readers should not find any of my characters unmotivated.

mooderino said...

@Alex-it tends to be for a section of the story (the start) and provides a contrast. Like Neo at the start of the Matrix. Or the start of Fight Club. A lot easier to do with flashy visuals and fast cuts.

@Elizabeth-it isn't so much the reasons (which can be varied), but how you translate that to the page. Boring character being boring isn't acceptable.

@Sara-the hard part is working out how to make disinterested characters interesting in narrative form. In my experience beginner writers aren't able to figure this out and resort to making a point of making the story reflect the personality. But intentionally writing dull scenes doesn't make them any less dull to read. It's a technical thing requiring an understanding of narrative structure.

@Rachna-I don' think it's necessarily a bad thing, but most of the time it's executed poorly.
@McKenzie-In the short term, particularly at the start fo a story, it doesn't really matter how she thinks, it's more to do with what she does.

Charmaine Clancy said...

I can see a good hero's journey with this character - pushed out of their bleh existence into action, and when all is resolved they can contently return to a life of nothingness :)

Anonymous said...

Great post - this one's a keeper-for-later - thanks!

Jaye Robin Brown said...

Yeah, not my kind of character. But you would have to have some life knowledge to be able to help propel that character forward.

Jen Brubacher said...

This is very good to keep in mind, moody, thank you.

mooderino said...

@Charmaine-showing their bleh existence with action is the part most people find tricky.


@Jaye-certainly helps.

@Jen-my pleasure.

Anonymous said...

This kind of character would work if presented with an opportunity to do something spectacular. Some villains are born this way. Maybe they stumble across a once in a lifetime setting and have to do something spur of the moment like kill a person.

Julie Daines said...

This type of character is highly NOT recommended for YA and middle grade novels. I've seen it done well in some adult novels, as you mentioned and including even C. S. Lewis, but not in YA or middle-grade.

Great post and something to think about.

mooderino said...

@Stepn-it's not the part where things that get going that proves to be the problem, it's the set up where the character is shown in his ordinary life. That's the part that ends up reading very dull, often intentionally.

@Julie-I'm sure there are some exceptions (although I can't think of any).

farawayeyes said...

Good advice there at the end. Lately, I've been that unmotivated directionless character. Trying to get it back together.

mooderino said...

@fawayeyes-I think most of us are at some point.

The Writing Goddess said...

Sadly, I've read this character (I've even written her). Not everybody lives a James Bond kind of life, and that's fine, but it's hard to hook into somebody who doesn't care about anything.

Fiona Faith Maddock said...

Actually I think it's harder to resist even than you describe. Even if you think you've got your characters - and your life - sorted, there's always the temptation to drop in a low key character to fill a slot. I think it requires some hard thinking in the early stages to search your conscience and be sure that you have a clear purpose for each character you introduce. Good post.

mooderino said...

@TWG-but it is possible, it just takes an understanding of narrative structure.

@Fiona-I think people instinctively know this kind of character exists, but can't work out how to make them as fascinating as they need to be.

Catherine Stine said...

This kind of character would probably have to go through some real transitions to be alive on the page.

Chronicles From The Man Cave said...

Interesting post, it presents a type of character that I know I have not tried to write. However now I may have to make an attempt at this.

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