It’s an important question for any fiction writer—or any teacher of fiction—to ask.
The Puritans forbad novels. Stories were thought to be immoral, composed of lies. And there was a time, much nearer at hand, when teachers who wanted to read a story to their students had to close their classroom doors lest the principal come by and overhear them “wasting time.” I suppose that may still be true in some schools.
I have thought about this question often over the years, as any fiction writer should. What gives these worlds I fabricate value? What are readers seeking when they immerse themselves in a story of mine, in any story at all?
I’ve come to be convinced that we turn to fiction, at least in part, to be empowered, however vicariously. We all struggle, even if our lives are blessed. And the reality is that most mornings when we get up we shoulder exactly the same load we carried the day before. We do the same the day after that. And the day after that. Change comes hard, if it comes at all, and usually if it does come it does so only incrementally.
So I believe one of the reasons we turn to story is to see someone else do what we aren’t much inclined to do ourselves. To see that person take hold of her life and give it a good shake . . . and come out on the other side having changed herself or her circumstances or both. The truth is, of course, it’s easier to do in fiction than in life.
But every story begins with a core question, “What does my character want?” Because it is the wanting that draws our readers in with echoes of their own desires. And it is the wanting that energizes and propels the story toward the empowering resolution.
Often, when a story is stalled, we can get it moving again by repeating that simple question. What does my main character want? And sometimes it’s surprising to realize how many pages we may have written without yet having understood the answer.
As anyone who has been dipping into this blog from time to time knows, I have been working on a young-adult novel called Blue-Eyed Wolf for a couple of years now. Well, working on it and setting it aside and then working on it again. At the moment it is resting. Other manuscripts—even this blog—keep pulling me away.
There is, however, something besides the pull of other work that is making it easy to step away. I have a profound question about this story I haven’t yet answered. My characters—I now have three perceiving characters—all want something. They want their brother/boyfriend/son to come back from Vietnam whole. Or, actually, what they really want, each one, is for him not to have gone in the first place. And they are all helpless to do anything about that fiercely held desire. They can only get up every morning and shoulder it again.
Just the way we do in real life.
I know where I’m going with this story. I know what will be resolved . . . and what will not. And much won’t be resolved. I know how each of my characters will change by the end of my tale. But sometimes I run out of energy for getting them there. I suspect it’s the amorphous quality of my characters’ wanting that keeps draining the passion—my passion—from my story.
And will it drain my readers’ passion, too? A crucial question.
I have to figure out how to keep my characters moving when there is no place for them to go. How to keep them energized when there is little hope. How to keep my readers caring and connected even if the characters aren’t taking charge of much . . . and how to keep my readers committed, right to the end, even when no one is being empowered.
What I count on—what I have to count on—is the deep curiosity we all carry for other people’s interior lives. It’s a curiosity about ourselves, really. Am I alone out here? Am I the only one who ever thought that, felt that, wanted that?
What does it mean to be human?
Taking our characters through struggle to a victory that empowers is time-tested way to satisfy our readers. But sometimes the simple journey into a soul’s struggle is all a story has to offer.
Can it be enough?