05 October 2012

What's the Objective?


by Dixon Hill

Recent events in my life -- unrelated to writing -- caused me to remember the old adage about "putting things behind you."  When something is over and done with, you can't go back and change it; you have to just keep moving ahead.

I don't know when I learned this adage, but my time in the Army brought me face to face with some of the most painful occurrences requiring it's implementation   Thankfully, those days are over.  Now, for me, the path ahead is inevitably made easier by the love of my wife and family.

And, I'm reminded that the easiest way to turn my back on the past -- putting something behind -- is to focus on an objective ahead of me  This is a good trick for writers to remember: both in their personal lives, and in our writing.

When the inevitable rejection slip arrives, for instance, it's always much easier to deal with when I've got a new work in progress.  I take a moment (maybe an hour or two -- to be sure I've got it right) to repackage the rejected material for the next market I've got on the list in my computer.  I try to list as many markets as possible for each work, in advance, because I find it hard to remember where I intended to send the manuscript next, when it's just come back to me.  Once it's repackaged and shipped off, I do my best to drop it and forget it until the manuscript either sells or comes back again.  And, it's much easier to drop it and move on, if I've got a new objective ready and waiting: that new work in progress that's calling me from my Word program.

My recent ruminations about putting things behind, by focusing on an objective farther ahead, has also led me to consider how this concept fits into writing.

The Series

Lee Child, author of the Reacher series
Currently, I've been reading novels from the Jack Reacher series, since a friend of mine decided to get rid of about a dozen books she had read, and these included a lot of Reacher novels.  I've read several other successful series, in the past, and it seems to me that protagonists in nearly all of them were focused on distant -- often unobtainable -- objectives.

These objectives are often not mentioned directly, within the novels of any given series.  However, even if they are not clearly spelled out, or alluded to, these objectives still come through, via a manner of transmission similar to that of an unstated theme:  The words may not mention it, but the characters' actions, words and/or thoughts shout it loudly (or, at the very least, seem to repeatedly murmur it) to the reader.

I haven't quite decided what Jack Reacher's objective is, but I suspect it's something along the lines of: Finding roots that he can pull out and carry with him when he moves on.  Reacher is a wanderer -- he moves from place to place -- from what I've seen of the series. (Some of you know him much better, and I invite comments or corrections.)  This idea of a wandering protagonist, in search of some objective or ideal, is an oft-repeated theme in literature -- but seems even more recurrent when it comes to series protagonists.

Though he occasionally winds up working in New York, Mexico or California, for the most part Travis McGee seldom gets far from where his houseboat, The Busted Flush, is moored at slip 18F (if memory serves me correctly), yet I would argue that he's also a wanderer.  He wanders from job to job (though they're all part of his "salvage" operations), and from woman to woman.

Through the life of the series, he wanders mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually.  And, in all that wandering, he's seeking.  What is he looking for?  Well, perhaps it's True Justice and True Love, coupled with Fiscal Security.  I suspect, however, that he'd trade away Fiscal Security, if he thought he could get the other two as a result.

There may be those who are shaking their heads, wondering why I'm writing about objectives, when what I just wrote about Travis McGee looks more like motivation.  And, that's not a bad question to ask.  To me, objectives and motivation seem to be two ends of the same stick.  The objectives the character wants to achieve -- even if they're beyond the character's grasp -- motivate that character to do what he does.  More importantly, they motivate that character to do these things the way he does them.     

An objective such as True Justice may lie far beyond the story parameters.  It may well be an objective that cannot be achieved just by solving any plot problem -- such as a criminal investigation -- but if the protagonist is seeking True Justice, that may well influence the way s/he deals with people who pop up as obstacles to solving the case.  And it would certainly influence how the protagonist deals with having to kill or injure someone.

This is one reason why I think it's important for the author to have a firm grasp on the protagonist's long-range objectives, even if the other characters, or even the protagonist, are unaware or a little "iffy" on the subject.  Keeping the protagonist's long-range objectives in mind helps keep that protagonist in character -- no matter how many installments finally make up the series.  When the protagonist changes over time, which can happen in a long series, it also helps an author understand what sort of soul-searching that protagonist is going to have to go through as s/he changes.  Maybe the change is internal, but the long-range objective remains unchanged, thus providing a touch-stone for how the character will change.  Or, perhaps the objective itself may change, which could engender much greater soul-searching.    Either way, this is one reason to keep a protagonist's objective in mind while writing.

Another Reason

NUMBER  "B"
How many Westerns feature a gunslinger with a good-guy streak, who goes around righting wrongs?  The movie The Magnificent Seven may have been based on The Seven Samurai, but I suspect its tremendous success was the result of snatching up seven such wandering gunslingers and putting them all together on a mission to right a wrong.  And, each of the seven clearly had his own objective for doing so.

This plot line reverberated with audiences, who felt as if they knew where these guys were coming from. I suspect, however, that the mechanism for making the audience members identify with these guys had more to do with those objectives, than with the gunfights.  Action may sell a film, but I suspect audience identification with the main characters is what makes a film great.  People may wonder: "How would I handle those bandits?"  But, when viewers think, "How would I handle this, if that were my objective, if that was what I was worried about and/or trying to achieve -- how would I act in that man's shoes?" then the guts begin to twist, and celluloid springs to real life.

I think it works the same way in novels, too.  No one would enjoy being in an actual fire-fight, and few readers can say, "Yeah!  I remember what that was like.  I totally identify with this guy being shot at and shooting back."   Give the protagonist some long-range objectives, however, similar to those other folks might have, and suddenly the reader identifies with the character.  S/he has a reason to care about that guy being shot at, because there's a connection there.  After all, we all have unobtainable objectives in our lives -- don't we??

When I was in the Army, I was much younger and quicker as well as single.  I also spent a lot of time flying between far-flung places, where I was not always surrounded by friends.  And, there was a Sci-Fi "Men's Action" series I used to read, about a wandering band of travelers in a post-apocalyptic world.  The group had stumbled across a network of teleportation devices, which made it possible for each novel to begin in a completely new setting.   Essentially, it worked as a Sci-Fi version of a traveling band of Old West gunslingers who went from town to town cleaning up each place they moved through (i.e. killing the bad guys, thereby liberating the oppressed populous).

At the time, I had enough blood and guts in my life, without adding more from my reading.  What kept me buying the books (aside from the fact that I could find them in most airports) was the unstated group objective.  What the group was really traveling around, looking for, was A Safe Place to Nurture Love.

Now that would hardly seem like a successful objective for a "Men's Action" series, but I'm convinced it was indeed the group objective.  Each of them had lost people they loved to sudden, unexpected violence several times in the past.  Each was now in love with another member of the small party, but unwilling to fully commit to that love, for fear it would "Jinx" the relationship, causing them to lose another person they loved to the sudden senseless violence that ran rampant in the post-apocalyptic world they inhabited.

Not that any of the macho male characters would even have been caught  even thinking about nurturing love!  And, none of the female characters -- who were a bit more intelligent than the male characters -- would have deigned to mention it aloud to any of the males.  I got the feeling, however, that everyone understood this was what they were looking for.  Their personal histories, their actions, words, thoughts -- the way they went about doing things -- made this very clear.  And, that objective, A Safe Place to Nurture Love, was absolutely unobtainable, given their circumstances.

At the time, when I was reading these books, I knew that I identified with the main characters.  But, I didn't know why.  Only in retrospect did I realize that my personal objective at the time was quite similar.to theirs.  They were seeking a safe place to nurture love.  I – a single soldier on an A-Team, who was in and out of the country quite a bit ˆ was seeking a way to live, which would give love a chance  to grow in my own life.  That seemed unobtainable to me, back then.

And -- when I tried to re-read one of the books in the series, years later, after my wife and kids had become such a fundamental part of my life -- well, I suspect that's why the book couldn't hold my interest.  I was no longer a part of the target audience for the series, because my own objectives had changed.  I no longer identified with the main characters.

In Conclusion

Certainly, there are other ways of helping readers to identify with characters. But, helping them identify via connection between objectives is useful.

I've always felt the line that gave the Declaration of Independence it's greatest strength, was mention of "the pursuit of happiness."  It probably also gave the framers of the Constitution their biggest headache, too.  I often picture them sitting around saying, "That damn Jefferson!  It's one thing to write about the pursuit of happiness, as if you're a poet!  We all know there's too much random chance in life, creating unexpected sadness, to make True Happiness possible.  Yet, we have to write a document that gives people the latitude to at least try to pursue happiness.  How the hell are we supposed to that?"

And, that's one of the nice things about writing fiction.  We don't actually have to make any of our characters achieve True Happiness.  In fact, doing so would probably destroy the ability of a reader to suspend disbelief (unless you're writing for children).  We just need to remember what our main characters' objectives are, so readers have another way of identifying with them.

For what it's worth, that's my two cents.
--Dix


16 comments:

Fran Rizer said...

Dixon, "putting things behind you" is easier said than done, but I do see reading (and in our case, writing) as pathways to destinations that help us do that. Great post!

Leigh Lundin said...

I didn't make the connection until you mentioned it, but Jack Reacher is a kind of Western gunslinger.

Travis McGee also wanders from woman to woman. He helps out a girl and, after she breaks his heart, he wanders on to another who breaks his heart yet again.

Terrifically insightful column, Dixon.

Eve Fisher said...

We're the only country who uses the phrase "the pursuit of happiness" - in France, it's "Life, liberty, and property." Is it because we're optimists, or hedonists?

Good article. I haven't read any of the Reacher novels, but I remember Travis McGee well. I think one of the problems with series is there are only so many ways of dealing with relationships. It's always been kind of a running joke that, on TV, if the hero/heroine falls for someone, s/he dies. In written series, s/he dies, or s/he betrays, or s/he's written such that s/he's unbearable (I place Susan Silverman in this category, along with Inspector Lynley's wife). The exceptions are those who are married from the get-go - I was very sorry when Joe Leaphorn's wife died, and I always longed for a written sequel to "The Thin Man".

R.T. Lawton said...

Henry David Thoreau said, "Never look back, unless you plan on going that way." But the one I think knew it best was Satchel Paige who said, "Don't look back, something might be gaining on you."
There are parts of life I prefer not to look back on and deliberately don't go there, however, there are also times my mind feels that tap on the shoulder because the past came to visit anyway. Best to keep moving forward, don't ever stand still.

The sci-fi books you referred to are the Deathland series. Good, fast reads at the time, if you went for the action and didn't dwell on the rest.

Dixon Hill said...

R.T., you pegged it. I've got Deathlands books all over my bookshelves. Haven't read one in years. Frankly, I didn't mention the title, because I didn't think anyone would have read them. Thanks for proving me wrong. Nice to know I'm not the Lone Ranger. LOL

Dixon Hill said...

Fran, I think you're very right: A good way to bury the past is to work through it in print, sometimes. Works for me, at least.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Eve, it depends on what kind of hero you're talking about. Lord Peter Wimsey finds Harriet Vane, and after a very unpromising beginning, it keeps getting better. Laurie R. King's version of Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell. In both cases, the love becomes a partnership in search of the objective (justice, righting wrongs etc.).

Dixon Hill said...

Leigh, I agree with your analysis, drawing comparison about Reacher (or McGee, et al) and the "wandering gunslinger." And, I feel particularly remiss for leaving out the Continental Op, who is probably worthy of having his own mention.

I also always enjoyed the way the Continental Op sort of "road into town" and cleaned things up. In his case, however, there was an added technical aspect that I think helped differentiate it from most westerns (IMHO). I think this aspect probably came from Hammett's own experience with Pinkerton.

Frankly, I welcomed this change in the story mechanism -- or perhaps "update" might be a better word, though it would now be a rather arcane update given our current technology. However, it's what I thought made him worth a special mention here.

Dixon Hill said...

Eve, I think you're right about relationships. I have to say that I find writing a convincing love-relationship pretty tough -- even when it comes to shorts or single novels. Let alone series, where it must be a killer to handle.

After all, it changes (or at least should change, if it's going to be realistic) many of the protagonist's goals and outlooks. S/he now has somebody who has to be looked after, in a way, because that person will expect the protagonist to be home at certain times for family reasons.

Kind of messes things up if you're character's used to being a hard-boiled loner, and that's what your audience has come to expect.

And, when it comes to "the pursuit of happiness" I vote: Slightly-Hedonistic-Optimist. And, that Jefferson was brilliant. The implications of people having the right to pursue happiness are enormous! LOL Aren't they?

Dixon Hill said...

Elizabeth, thank you for pointing out that King's Holmes & Russell make it work by sharing similar objectives. I haven't read that series, but now think it might be worth a look -- given your insight.

Leigh Lundin said...

Eve, I don't have the French motto before me, but isn't the 3rd word 'brotherhood'?

Dixon Hill said...

Hmmm... Interesting point. Fraternity does spring to mind when you say that, Leigh.

Is it: Liberté, égalité, fraternité, or something like that?? (Please excuse my spelling; been a long time since I studied French.) Seems to ring a bell from old "French Resistance" stuff I've seen. However, perhaps the phrase I'm quoting is largely used in verbage, while the one Eve mentions actually comes from the French Constitution document itself. Where's our Brit living in France? He can surely straighten us out.

God knows, we Americans (U.S. kind) tend to confuse parts of the Declaration of Independence with our own Constitution all the time. At least, it seems that way to me, when I speak to folks on the street. And, I remember that during the Bicentennial many of the Hollywood stars who presented what I think they called a "Bicentennial Minute" (or something like that) on TV confused the HELL out of the two documents! LOL

Dixon Hill said...

Uh ... not that I'm any great contitutional or historical scholar, or anything.

God knows, when my A-Team was in Ghana, we were asked to sing the Star Spangled Banner. We tried to explain that Americans tend to memorize the Pledge of Alegiance instead, but they insisted, because they all have to learn their national anthem verbatim. So, first they sang their's, then we sang parts of the first and lass stanzas of ours -- which was all anybody could seem to remember. LOL

Eve Fisher said...

Sorry, had to go out for a while. The phrase itself (life, liberty, and property) is from John Locke, and supposedly Jefferson started with that and changed property to pursuit of happiness in the Declaration. (It's also in the 5th Amendment to our Constitution: "no person shall be deprived.... be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law".) Re France, I was wrong; the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen does NOT include life; instead it says "liberty, property, safety, and resistance against oppression." (Article 2: Le but de toute association politique est la conservation des droits naturels et imprescriptibles de l'Homme. Ces droits sont la liberté, la propriété, la sûreté, et la résistance à l'oppression.) Nothing about life, or happiness...

Eve Fisher said...

I still say we're optimists, at the very least. :)

Dixon Hill said...

Thanks for clearing that up, Eve!

As for me -- count me a Cockeyed Optimist. Of course, considering that I spend much of my life writing down things I make up, and expecting somebody to pay me for that ... I suppose I'd better be! lol