No one opens up a novel to read about the boring bits of life: brushing teeth, doing the dishes, office drudgery. We read to escape those things, to be entertained, and to see the world in a new way.
One of the difficulties of capturing some of life’s challenges in a novel is that they don’t always easily lend themselves to narrative form. At times, we’re all struck by a sense of aimlessness triggered by grief, depression, or a missing sense of purpose. And yet it’s really tricky to make aimlessness engaging in a novel.
In real life, someone who’s deeply depressed or grief-stricken may be stuck doing very little, struggling to do much more in a day than get out of bed to eat. A real life person who lacks purpose may wander around idling their time or working in jobs they hate. We’ve all experienced things like this in real life, but it’s extremely difficult to make it feel interesting in a novel.
Readers take their cues for what to invest in from the protagonist. We care about what the protagonist cares about and invest in what’s at stake. If the protagonist doesn’t care about anything and isn’t trying to change their destiny, we’ll struggle to care about what’s happening no matter how much someone in real life might really act the way the character is acting.
So what do you do when you want to capture a character’s period of aimlessness? How do you capture grief, depression, or a lack of purpose in a novel?
Novels are not real life
Novels are a strange alchemy. They evoke real life, but they’re not at all real life. We may well read a scene with a sorcerer riding on a rapping dragon and be able to suspend our disbelief and stay immersed in the story, and yet we won’t believe a slightly clunky line of dialogue and quickly find ourselves annoyed at the hand of the author.
Because of this, as Anne R. Allen recently pointed out, it’s more important to write believable fiction than it is to write realistic fiction. Believable fiction feels more realistic than a verbatim transcript of a real life scene. (I don’t know why, I don’t make the rules).
The first step toward writing compelling adrift characters is to remember that your task is not to precisely capture real life. You are trying to evoke real life in service of telling a good story. They’re two different things.
You can’t simply dispense with narrative imperatives just because of what happens in real life. You need to find a way to capture a character’s aimlessness within the structure of a good narrative.
Characters need to try
Above all, good fiction (at least in the Western storytelling tradition I’m fully steeped in–ample grains of salt here) is about characters who want something and are trying very hard to get it. This can mean a literal physical quest, or it can mean something more interior like trying to make a decision or come to a new understanding about something important to them.
But the character has to try. We have to see them trying to influence their destiny and bumping up against obstacles in the course of trying to get what they want.
If a character is depressed but we don’t see them trying to do anything and they’re just aimlessly puttering around their apartment for pages and pages, it might be “realistic” but it’s probably not going to be a good story. We have to see them try, even (or especially) if they fail.
Meaning in failure
If characters try very hard but they fail at first, we’ll grasp the contours of their obstacles and we’ll become more invested in their struggle because we’ve seen them put skin in the game. If they eventually succeed, it will feel more hard-won because we saw the previous efforts.
If a character is in the midst of some adolescent angst and can’t figure out what they want, the way to show that in a narrative isn’t by having them wander around aimlessly until they eventually find a purpose, they should cycle through different vivid hopes and dreams, and work very hard to get things they want, even if their plan is a bit harebrained and adolescent at first.
For instance, in the pilot of The O.C., Seth Cohen expresses a pretty insane but vivid motivation to his new friend Ryan from Chino while they’re sailing in Seth’s small sailboat off the coast of California:
Seth: I have, uh, this plan. I don’t know what you’ll think. But um next July the trade winds shift west and I want to sail to Tahiti. I could do it in 44 days, maybe 42… You just hit the high seas and catch fish right off the wide of the boat, grill them right there. Just total quiet. Solitude.
Ryan: You won’t get lonely?
Seth: Well, I’ll have Summer [NB: his crush] with me.
At this stage of the show, it’s hard to know which feels more unlikely: that Seth Cohen would survive a trip to Tahiti in his sailboat or that Summer would be with him–they’ve never even talked. His desires here are pretty ludicrous at best. But that’s what makes it great writing! It’s capturing a very specific and vivid adolescent desire, and we see Seth trying to make it happen, however haphazardly he goes about it.
The key here is always that the character is trying for something, even if they are failing to get it or if what they want is unrealistic.
Keep idle protagonists active
As long as a character is trying, you can make almost anything interesting in a novel.
For instance, in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, there is a significant chunk of the novel where the protagonist, Toru, is simply sitting in the bottom of a well. Sitting at the bottom of a well!! That’s it! For dozens of pages! And yet, it’s all pretty riveting. Why?
Because Toru’s mind is active, even though he’s largely just sitting there. He’s searching his memories for answers about his missing wife Kumiko. His memories aren’t just exposition, even though they serve that function. He’s explicitly down in the well to search “reality” for answers. There’s enough setup earlier in the novel that the reader is attuned to what Toru might be searching for. We’re looking for clues, just like Toru.
And yet, Toru feels grief-stricken and aimless. He is, after all, compelled to sit at the bottom of a deep well. But it’s not boring, because he’s there to try to get the things he wants.
In a good novel, aimlessness is never aimless. It’s the illusion of aimlessness. The character is trying to get something, but depression, adolescent confusion, or grief is making getting what they want more difficult. They’re obstacles that the character must overcome.
Characters in fiction can’t stop wanting and trying. If they don’t try and they just feel like they’re wandering around aimlessly, you will write a novel that will make a reader want to go back to doing their chores, which will seem riveting in comparison.
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Art: Antonio Jacobsen – Lumber schooner in New York’s Lower Bay