Friday, February 04, 2011

Running on Autopilot: Working With Unconscious Goals

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Goals are what drives a character (and a plot), but it's a bit more challenging when the character isn't aware of what they really want. With no concrete need, there's nothing external for them to focus on and a story can easily stall. So how do you keep the plot moving forward? By looking at what lies beneath.

Clues for the Clueless

Try approaching unconscious goals from a different angle, since it's impossible for a character to act on something they don't realize they want. The goal itself becomes more of a motivator, nudging the character toward choices that will satisfy that need, even when they aren't fully aware of it. They'll act in ways that could fill that unconscious desire, but the end goal isn't to get that desire.

If your characters have unconscious goals, consider:

1. What emotion is behind the goal and how is it affecting their actions?

It's been well documented that teens sometimes act out and get into trouble trying to "get attention," but what they really want is to know that their parents actually care. They don't stay out past curfew or slug back that beer because they want to party on. They're desperate to know if Mom or Dad cares enough to yell. Getting yelled at proves they do care, which satisfies the need to be loved.

How might your character do the same thing with their goal?

What outward action would bring about the result they're unconsciously after?

2. What might the protagonist mistake that unconscious goal for?

It's easy to mistake a desire as something else, and act to try and fill that need. So your protagonist might act in ways that only makes things worse. Such as craving a food you can't quite figure out, but nothing you snack on really satisfies. But you know that sweet treat really isn't what you want, and the more saltier things you eat, the closer you get to what you do want.

What acts are similar to, but not quite what they unconsciously want?

3. What might the protagonist do that is the exact opposite of what they want?

Sometimes we don't know what we want until we're presented with what we don't want. Like the person who seeks out intimacy but instead goes from physical relationship to relationship. They want to "be close" to another person, but try to get that in a way that makes them feel even more alone. It isn't until they realize their actions are making things worse that they start to focus in one what they really need.

What can they do that pushes them in the direction they really need to go?

Unconscious goals can be great motivators for your protagonist's actions, but the goals themselves won't be driving the plot. Think of them like story goals, where resolving that issue is important, but it's the steps leading to it that actually create the plot. At some point the unconscious will become conscious, and then you can have your protagonist actively pursue that need. And maybe even have to undo the mistakes they made getting there.

Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Janice, Sorry I'm asking this in your comments, but do you have a subscribe by email option? I can't find it.

  2. There was, but I think it's down at the moment. I tried to turn it back on and I got an error. I'm about to launch a massive blog redesign, and some things are being turned off and rearranged to prepare for that. I'll check with my tech-guru and see if I can get the subscription link back on.

  3. Unconscious goals are fun, but hard to realize, I think (as a writer.) Usually I don't figure out what my characters want until after a first draft is done. If I try to plan it out ahead of time, I'm usually wrong!

  4. I love this blog! I've never seen anyone approach this topic before and it's something I struggle with often. My main characters tend not to know themselves well enough to know what they want until the end. Great tips! Thank you!

  5. Chicory: They really are tough, especially if yo want that to be the core conflict of the novel. I may not always know the internal want at the start of the story, but I HAVE to know the external or I can't plot it.

    Mallory: Thanks!