Last week I wrote about gratitude in honor of the warmth of Thanksgiving. Now, with turkey eaten and football watched, we’re several days into the traditional season of consumerism. Many of us stayed up late Thursday or set the alarm for ungodly hours (not I this year, I’m happy to say), only to wait in line for deals, stocking up on gifts for others and ourselves.
Our stated object is to snag a deal on something specific: clothes, toys, electronics, maybe a TV the size of a small village. But the goal is usually something else. It’s not Tickle Me Furby or the 108-inch Plasma TV that makes us want to stand in line for hours, elbowing aside other shoppers and reverting to our primal roots. There’s some other, deeper goal at work: putting a smile on our kids’ or spouse’s face at the holidays, proving our love and thoughtfulness, enjoying the thrill of the hunt, filling the black void in our souls with material things… hey, no judgment here. Whatever that true internal goal is, that’s what really drives us to do the things we do.
Characters in good stories are the same way. They pursue one goal on the surface: solving the crime, getting the guy/girl, winning the epic battle between vampires and werewolves. That’s where the action is. But what the reader really relates to (whether he/she knows it or not) is the internal struggle for something: redemption, self-acceptance, a change in perspective, hope for the future. These internal goals aren’t always positive, just like our own secret motivations for doing things aren’t always saintly in real life. In fact, the internal struggle is often where the real nitty-gritty of our characters’ humanity appears.
A good writer has to understand both goals in order to develop the character’s struggle fully. We have to know why our character thinks she is standing in line outside Target in the middle of the night, wishing she’d remembered those hand-warmers; and why she is really there. It’s all part of what draws the reader in and makes the story worth reading, all the way through to the bitter (or triumphant) end.