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 strawberry Pop-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.

***

This is the seventeenth post in the Most Common Writing Mistakes Series, inspired by the prevalent slip-ups I ran across in editing other people’s work. Don’t worry: I don’t use any names or specific examples from my clients’ stories. I hope the series will prove helpful to you in nabbing these mistakes in your own work—before an agent or editor nabs them for you.

Tell me your opinion: Do you like to identify your character’s goal before you start writing scene—or do you identify the goal as you’re writing?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. When I first started writing (10 years ago?) I definitely meandered….and it was wretched and cliche and definitely sounded like every writer but me (in the bad way: I practically cut and pasted lines from their books).

    Then, I may perhaps have swung too far to the utilitarian side: I had theme in my head at all times, and created scenes specifically for the purpose of developing those themes.

    I think now I’ve found a happy medium, developing plot that flows naturally from scene to scene but also works in the themes I set up as goals for the book. Now I just have to write the book ^_^

  2. As a pantser, most of my scenes start off with no goal, or if there is a goal it is a basic guide line. My first drafts are rough and boring. With the re-write the goal is set, I know what my characters are doing and the boring gets cut. I’m still in the early stages of learning. Thanks for the post. Great food for thought!

  3. @Daniel: Possibly the most difficult thing about writing is that it has to balance our right and left brain strengths. Focus solely on the right brain and we get creative mush; focus solely on the left and we get structured boredom.

    @E.M.: This is actually one of the reasons I love outlining. I hate going into a scene and meandering around. It frustrates me probably more than it would the reader! For me, my outline is my first draft in this regard. But it all works out no matter which method you use.

  4. Good things to consider. When I wrote Stand in the Sun, I definitely wandered around. I wrote whatever scene came to mind with no real purpose. My first reader, a retired teacher, kindly told me it was boring. Hopefully, I’m getting the boring stuff out of the way with this novel, and a clear goal is in mind when I write each scene. If not, I’m sure my critter won’t hesitate to point it out to me, maybe with the end of a machete. 😉

  5. If we know what our character wants in a scene – however big or small – we’ll have a much easier time figuring out how best to oppose it, and thus how to create inherent conflict.

  6. oh yes, I’ve done some meandering in my time. Thankfully I now have a cp who points out when I’m doing it and tells me to stop! One of her favorite things to say is, ‘um, I actually don’t really care what they’re eating…’

  7. What, you mean she makes you cut out those two-page long meal descriptions? *shock* :p

  8. Love it. It’s such a gorgeous day here I just wanted to be like Matt and get in that hammock and snooze away while the grass grows, lol!

  9. Sounds pretty good to me too! Alas (or maybe not), there are words to be written.

  10. if my character is meandering, it’s probably because i as an author an meandering –

    and if i become aware of that, i infuse that awareness, if i can, into the character, and trying to find out why i / character is meandering, what it would take to un-meander, and why that, then the everyday process of living takes on meaning for both myself and my character –

    i think this happened with me much more some time back, but it’s always there, as a part of living, for me anyways 😉

    luckily i’ve piled enough junk up in six decades to now more often have some of that in mind as i begin either writing or outlining –

    did i mention i use either, outlining or writing, as a starting point, sometimes working them back & forth?

    best wishes, nice article, made me think more than i wanted to this lazy labor day (not, i’m off to teach senior fitness) 😉

  11. I like the idea of infusing an awareness of the meandering into the character. Sort of like the freehand character interview, only more focused.

  12. Jim Porter says:

    One of my fiction writing professors at the University of Oklahoma was the late Foster-Harris. He had a unique philosophy of writing–that is, writing is a highly-stylized form of drawing. So, he said, and I still believe his principles, the same elements of drawing hold true for writing.

    In drawing or painting, the principles of light, form, shadow, movement, and color create a momentary story or event. However, a difference between the two art forms is, that in writing, you can show all these qualities virtually at the same instant. “Yoshi snatched the hakimachi red Rising Sun headband tied around his head and wiped the now-freely flowing blood from his eyes. He squinted against the overwhelming sunlight, trying to pick out the diving blue American Corsair fighters he had seen, before he died. A fleeting something–straight ahead. No thought. He pulled the trigger. His wing-mounted machine guns shook the Zero, spitting death. He would never know if he hit anything. The Zero collided with something. It blew apart. His horror, the same of all Japanese pilots–gasoline-fed flame and explosion–stopped his thinking, his terror.

    If I concentrate on those elements, my natural tendency to meander is arrested. And believe me, I can wander.

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