What do you want and are you sure about that?

“I got your letter,” he said.

“Oh, that,” I said, and focused on the wall behind him. Ask me to my face if something is wrong, I’ll say no. Give me a pen and paper, I’ll tell you the truth. I’d slipped a letter under his door the day after he told me about the musician. It had included all the things my friends had said about him. It included words like unable, uptight, and humiliated.

We were the only two people in the hall. “I haven’t seen you,” he said.

“Been busy.”

J., me, and L.--before L. had her ponytail, but she was getting closer.
J., me, and L.--before L. had her ponytail, but she was getting closer.

“Getting ready to leave?”

I nodded. I’d gotten my Peace Corps invitation. He had one too.

“Can I come by and see you tomorrow?”

“Sure,” I said, and so my common sense got carried away with my pride. Or more accurately I gagged my common sense and locked it away.

In fiction a character must want something. To destroy a ring, find a husband, get back home. Characters need motivation. That’s easy enough. Well, not easy, but not as hard as giving them what they want. In the end they either get the goal or they don’t. Then what happens? In some stories, we don’t know. We get happily ever after, all is well that ends well, and sweet dreams.

In other stories, getting what you want comes at a price or turns out not to be what you wanted at all. Yes, I really must have that chocolate. …Oh, I don’t feel so good… Sometimes failing to reach the goal turns out for the best or crushes the heart. The writer must decide. Will they grab that dangling brass ring and will it be worth the journey?

I won. Finally. And I woke up at 7 in the morning to find him vacuuming. Lying on my stomach with my hands clasped under my chin, I watched him vacuum. He was handsome in his loose fitting jeans and no shirt, the morning light through the windows. He saw me and smiled. “Good morning!” he said, and kept vacuuming.

Really, I thought, being good at vacuuming is not enough.

So, in the end, if your character gets what she wants, what happens next?

12 thoughts on “What do you want and are you sure about that?

  1. One rule of thumb worth considering as, indeed, you do: Never take the reader where the reader wants to go.

    If your character gets what she wants, the story is over–unless in the next chapter she discovers that she no longer wants it and now feels stuck, or–

  2. You’ve taken me to the front row of a Harold Pinter-like drama in which there is what is being said and what is not being said, the lovely ambiguity of people in situations. Of course the set-up here is not Pinter, it is you, and we treasure that for its originality. Okay, so you took me to the point just before combustion into laughter, a place where I was relieved to see that the collisdng forces were not about me but rather someone else.

  3. [Whew… a long day of submitting and trying to get something halfway decent up on my own blog… Anyhoo…]

    I don’t know how to answer your “what-next” question. I’ve seen claims from a number of writers that they like to think of their characters (assuming the darlings have not been killed off by their creator) going on and proceeding with their lives. Kind of like JK Rowling did, explicitly, at the end of the last HP book.

    But I think most readers don’t expect or even want to know what next. That’s part of the fun of reading fiction: filling in the gaps which occur before or after the characters show up onstage, or when they’re just waiting in the wings for their turn. If you could answer, on paper, all questions about what happens, you’d steal that pleasure from your readers.

    Which I think may be one (ONE) thing that is keeping your regular readers here coming back: these vignettes sometimes but not always lead to others, or are built upon others, but not always. If this were an actual novel I’m reading, you could end the narrative with “…and kept vacuuming” and I’d be delighted. If you then moved the story to your Peace Corps experience and similarly left it hanging, I’d be delighted. It’s up to you. Only when the characters are spinning their wheels at the same damn thing, over and over, do readers think Jeez, can you just END the thing already?

  4. JES,
    I don’t suppose I meant what happens after the novel ends, but more what happens in those resolution moments. Traditionally you’ve got the climax where the character wins or loses, and then that character reacts to that. That’s what I was trying to get at anyway.

    And I agree that I don’t want to answer all the questions. Don’t think I could if I wanted to. I can’t decide if I answered enough or too many questions in my novel It is hard to have the perspective on my own work.

    Your last point gives me something to think about. When I started this blog I never wanted it to be a memoir. Yet, here I am, writing something like a, well, memoir. But it is a blog. I worried that some of these vignettes would be boring to everyone aside from me or inspire that “just END the thing already” response.

  5. Life or fiction, I think this is the same. Even if you reach your goal, you find out it is not as perfect as you thought, or it wasn’t really the thing you wanted, or it’s a lot harder work, or there’s another carrot on another stick a few yards off.

    Maybe actually in fiction we can get closer to those resolutions because we can pick and choose what exactly we are focusing on. We can decide to make the randomness of it all MEAN something.
    But then, I always hate stories that wrap things up so nice and neat there is no ambiguity. Happily Ever After is boring.

  6. Not. Boring. Seriously. NOT.

    I dunno. Maybe those of us gathered around your campfire are enraptured just because we haven’t seen all the other sites/blogs doing the same thing, only better.

    Unlikely, though. You are really (and again) seriously good at this.

  7. Pingback: A Girl Worth a Billboard « writing in the water

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