Friday, March 25, 2011

Robert Kernen's "Building Better Plots", part 10

According to Kernen, I need to know my main character’s psychological goal as well as his physical goal.  He uses the example of Moby Dick.  Ahab’s physical goal is to kill the white whale, and his psychological goal is to have revenge on the creature who took his leg.  Without a clear understanding of why my character wants to reach his goal, I will wind up with either a thin plot or my character will reach his goal well before I wanted the  climax to happen.

That makes sense.  I have two main characters so I need to look at both of them.

Neal’s physical goal is to get out of the gang and stay out.  His psychological goal is to escape the feeling of fate, the feeling that he has no say in his future.  Sandy’s physical goal . . . is less obvious to me.  I know that he wants two things in the beginning of the story: to lessen his guilt over two deaths, and to help somebody who—nah, any way I look at it, it comes back to Neal reminding Sandy of both things:

- how his friend Greg’s life was cut short because of crazy behavior exacerbated by drug use,
- and his cousin Renee’s death from alcoholism.  Sandy feels especially guilty over this because Renee blamed him for her life turning out bad.

Fixing Neal’s problems would be like fixing Renee’s and Greg’s, though Sandy soon realizes Neal is worth helping for his own sake.  Not sure if my difficulty pinning down Sandy’s goals is a failing of that part of the plot, or of my ability to describe it.

Kernen does say I need to make the physical or the psychological goal clear to readers, so maybe I don’t need to spell out both of those for Sandy just yet.  Nah, if I don’t have it straight in my own head, how is his part in the whole story going to make sense?

So far, Kernen doesn’t address the possibility of goals changing during the novel.  Sandy starts out wanting something selfish (to stop feeling guilty) but because he chooses a non-selfish way to do it, he sees the value of helping somebody for that person’s own sake.

I could say that Sandy’s physical goal is to set Neal up with tutors and a job, then go back to life as usual.  Or is that more of an expectation than a goal?  So far, no matter how I look at it, what Sandy wants is simply to stop feeling guilty and to set Neal up to improve his life.  In early chapters, readers won’t know yet that Sandy’s plans don’t work out the way he hopes.  Are those two goals enough to keep readers interested?
Well, if I’m that doubtful, probably not!  Ugh.  I’ll continue reading; maybe I’ll find something that will help me sort this.

Here’s something: “the contrast between where your protagonist begins and where he ends up is one of the key elements of good drama.” 

Well, Sandy starts out assuming he can purge his demons by helping Neal, without upsetting his own routines.  He winds up drawn into Neal’s life to the point of his own life being threatened.  It goes beyond Sandy’s penchant for exerting control over people to protect them.  I forgot about that.  Sandy discovers he can’t just direct Neal from the sidelines, the way he’s done with other people.  Okay, I guess this works then.

Next post: obstacles.  Character obstacles, not just writer obstacles ;)


  1. I haven't read this book, but it sounds like a good one. I'll look for it. :)

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  2. Hi Angela. Yeah, I like it a lot. Kernen gets right to the point and doesn't pretend that writing well is easy. There are places where he seems to repeat himself unnecessarily, but I find his flaws easy to read around.