Most Common Writing Mistakes: Does Your Character Lack Purpose?
Raise your hand if you love to be bored. What’s this, you say? You don’t like wandering around the house, puttering aimlessly at half a dozen jobs, flipping through TV channels and finding zero of interest, or poking around the ’Net and smacking your head against the keyboard with the sheer futility of it all?
If it’s boring in real life, it’s about thirteen times more so in fiction. Scenes in which our characters wander about, puttering, flipping, and poking to no great effect will have your readers smacking their heads—and probably wanting to smack yours.
Reasons your character may lack purpose
Boring scenes often occur when the main character has no obvious purpose. This can happen for a number of reasons:
1. The author didn’t know what the scene would be about when he started writing it, so he just followed the character around until he found a purpose (and then forgot to go back and delete all the boring stuff that came previously).
2. The author knew what the character was trying to accomplish, but he either forgot to fill in the reader, or he decided it would all be more cleverly mysterious if the reader was just left in the dark.
3. The author forgot about giving the character a goal altogether, but because he enjoys his character’s company no matter how pointless his activities, he figures the reader will too.
When your character has no goal…
The result of any of these purpose-sapping boredom causers will be treacle-slow scenes that fail to move
the plot forward—and probably don’t do much to advance character either. Consider an example:
Matt slept in until noon on Saturday morning. When he woke, he yawned and stretched. He had the whole day off and nothing planned. Sounded like just what the doctor ordered. He took his time getting dressed in his most comfy clothes, then he made himself a leisurely breakfast of eggs Benedict. When that was done, he left the dishes in the sink and wandered to the yard. He should probably mow the grass, but he’d rather just enjoy his day. He flopped down on the hammock and watched the clouds meander by.
Hear that snorkeling sound? That’s your reader snoring.
Use purpose to bring boring scenes to life
All this stuff we’ve watched Matt do is pointless. He gets out of bed, makes breakfast, enjoys his day off. Good for him; boring for us. But watch what happens when we inject a little purpose into Matt’s life. Suddenly, even the mundane details of his day perk right up.
Matt slept in until noon on Saturday morning. When he woke, he yawned and stretched. He had the
whole day off—and he would need every minute to prepare for Viola’s visit that evening. The future of their relationship hinged on how well their time together went. He threw on some clothes and grabbed a Pop-Tart on his way outside. First thing on his list was mowing his overgrown mess of a lawn.
Okay, so, granted, I’ve cheated a little here. But the very act of giving Matt a purpose is necessarily going to change the whole scene. Forget the relaxing. Forget the hammock. Let’s
get ol’ Matt moving. Let’s raise the stakes, give him a ticking clock, and put a few obstacles in his path (maybe he’s accidentally grabbed the strawberryPop-Tart he’s allergic to).
The point is: the character must have a goal to move toward. If he doesn’t know where he’s going and why, his actions lose importance in the eyes of the reader. If you don’t know where he’s going and why, you need to figure it out, either by outlining the scene ahead of time or by cutting the meandering bits after you’ve written all the way through the scene the first time around.