The Importance of the Journey - Part Three
By Noah Lukeman
Last time we introduced the idea of the "surface" journey, a journey which lacks the depth of a "profound" journey but which is nonetheless highly visible and a powerful aid in complementing a work. One of the seven surface journeys (such as romance) may not have the timeless impact of one of the three profound journeys (such as self-realization), yet romance, or any of the other surface journeys, adds an immediate arc to a work, and most importantly, to a character's journey. In our struggle to create a strong character and a strong journey for him, these highly visible markers can help point the way and give the reader the grounding he needs.
Last time we began by looking at Romance. This week we'll turn to the remaining six surface journeys: Material Gain, Friendship, Physical, Knowledge, Stature and Family.
Surface Journey #2: Material Gain
This surface journey is powerful in that it can happen overnight and change a character instantaneously. Indeed, the journey of material gain alone has sustained entire works. Someone who comes into a huge inheritance or wins the lottery will watch his life change (at least on the surface) overnight. He can now buy the house, the car, travel the world--he no longer has to work. His day-to-day schedule will change. His time will be free to spend as he chooses. The illusion is that the person's inner life will change, too, but sadly, this is rarely the case. Whether material success truly changes one's life will depend on whether he uses it as an opportunity for inner growth and realization.
How might this surface journey lead to a profound journey? Certainly, coming into a lot of money can make the character realize a lot about others around him, as they all clamor for a piece. It is more likely that realization will, unfortunately, come with material loss. The man who has his house burned down, or who loses a fortune in the stock market, or gambling, or in a law suit, will likely be more reflective. After time, he might come to see what is truly important in his life. Will his priorities shift? Will he spend more time with his family, less time chasing money? Will he give more to charity? Or will his journey be negative? Will he become forever hardened and bitter?
Surface Journey #3: Friendship
Friendships can change a person's life, and can do so quickly, especially in the case of people who meet and become friends right away. Indeed, some friendships can be stronger than family relationships. In middle school, high school and, to a lesser degree, college, friendships feel, at the time, all important. In the business and political worlds, friendships (dubbed "contacts" or "relationships") can translate into millions of dollars. Friendships are a powerful surface journey, in that they can, believably, happen anytime, anywhere, and change a character's life from the start. Is the friend a positive influence? Does he encourage the character to broaden his horizons, read new books or listen to new music? Or does he have a negative influence? Does he rope him into fights, bring him out drinking every night and get him to curse with as much frequency as he does?
Enemies can also have a great impact on a character, and can also form quickly. If it is your character's first day in prison and he has slighted the wrong person by mistake, then he has suddenly made a powerful enemy who can haunt him throughout the entire work. Some works (My Bodyguard) are constructed entirely around the notion of fending off enemies. What does your character learn about himself by combating these enemies? What tactics does he use to fend them off? Does he even fend them off? Does he learn a new strength he never had before? What sort of enemies has he attracted? Does he attract them with frequency? Is it time to wonder if it is him? Or is he a victim of circumstance?
Similarly, his joining a group--a gang, a company, the army--can change a character overnight. Does he now talk their lingo, take on their ethos? Watching him change can yield great satisfaction for us. How does he change? What does he learn about himself as he does? Does the Army teach him inner strength? The company teach him that he's a born salesman? The gang teach him that he can fight? Is he excommunicated from the group? Why? How, if at all, does he differ from the other members? How can this lead to a profound journey? If the group falls away, what has he learned about himself? About others? How might he change his life as a result?
Surface Journey #4: Physical
The changing of the body is a powerful surface journey since it can happen relatively quickly, is something everyone can relate to (and struggles with personally) and because it has the added benefit of changing the physical appearance, which many people, unfortunately, equate with identity. Indeed, the getting in shape or training of a character has alone been the crux of many works (Rocky). Does your character gain 20 pounds of muscle? Lose 50 pounds of fat? Become a champion swimmer? Shave his head? Get a tattoo? With such tactics, a character can quickly become (at least outwardly) unrecognizable. This alone can give a reader (and especially a viewer) satisfaction.
Illness, too, can provide a fast and believable arc. Your character can start out healthy, get diagnosed with cancer, and die within a short period of time. Or he could be diagnosed from the beginning and can fight the cancer and get better. He could be in an accident and lose his memory (Regarding Henry); he can lose a limb (Born on the 4th of July). Physical changes have a special impact on the reader. In lesser works, this will suffice to carry the work; in better works, this is a means for one of the more profound journeys. What does he learn about himself? Does he learn that he can transcend bodily handicaps? Does he start to question who he is without his fully-functioning body?
Surface Journey #5: Knowledge
The gaining of knowledge is a noble endeavor and can provide, at least on the surface, the basis for a character's journey. In works like Lean on Me, the fight to gain knowledge sustains the work; in works like The Chosen, the Hasidic boy's gaining secular knowledge is dangerous and disapproved of, and is used as a catalyst for his doubts about his own community--ultimately, it is what makes him leave. A character might gain a formal education, he might learn a new language, or a special skill (plumbing, electricity, computing). The knowledge journey is unique in that it complements most of the other surface journeys--for instance, the man who works toward and gains the law degree will also be working towards a journey of material gain, since he will ultimately get a higher paying job.
Unfortunately, though, knowledge or education is often confused with enlightenment, wisdom or realization. One can fill one's head with every fact in the world and yet still not necessarily come to any realizations about oneself or others. The Harvard professor, while extraordinarily knowledgeable, is not necessarily a sage, and not necessarily in touch with himself or others. Conversely, the Zen master with only an elementary school education might teach the character more about himself than anyone he has ever met. Indeed, the ardent pursuit of external knowledge can often become a distraction from the much harder, inner pursuit of realization.
Surface Journey #6: Stature
Rising in a company often means an increase in salary (material gain), but it also means an elevation of position or stature. If an important executive rises and a newspaper runs the story, rarely will the newspaper extol the man for his rise in salary--it will mention his elevation in rank or stature. Material gain can come from nearly any source, but stature is a collective recognition that can come from much fewer places, and is usually harder to come by. It is often an acknowledgment of power over other people, one of the highest forms of power there is.
This holds true whether one rises in a company, in the army, in politics, in a social association, or in a host of other fields. Generally, such a journey is prized, since it is long, slow and not easily won. Indeed, if someone somehow reaches the top without such a journey, the reaction will often be skepticism and resentment. Think of the owner's son who is suddenly Vice President after having only worked a year. This journey is something people take great pride in; many will gladly labor on lowly ends of the ladder for years so they can boast how long and hard they worked to get where they are.
Can a gain in stature lead to one of the profound journeys of realization? Doubtful. Rarely will a middle manager sit back and reflect on the days he was a stock clerk; rarely will the CEO want to reflect on his days as Vice President. For most, stature often feels too tenuous to have the security to sit back and reflect on how things were; they had rather forget those days and see themselves as they are now.
Loss of position or stature, however, will likely lead to realization. The danger of being elevated is that people create an image of the elevated person; people inherently want role models, they want to imagine that the people they are answering to are greater than they are, if for no other reason than to justify why they are subordinating themselves. They can fantasize and project grandiose images onto the person, and treat him as if he is greater than he is. If enough people do this long enough, the elevated person might start to believe it. When he comes crashing down, he will be in for a tough realization. He will be forced to realize his true identity is not one and the same with that temporary, elevated position. He might realize the danger of getting caught up in the glory of stature, and get back in touch with who he really is. What changes will he make as a result? How will he start his life over again?
Surface Journey #7: Family
A character who starts out with no children and has three by the end of the work will (at least on the surface) be a different person; so will the character who gains a brother (by birth or marriage), a sister, an uncle, a cousin. While family feels like the most permanent thing in the world, it is, in fact, always changing. There might be constant births, deaths, marriages, divorces. Or a character might have a huge family and spend all his time with them in the beginning, but not spend any time with them in the end. Perhaps he is excommunicated. Perhaps his wife has pulled him away.
Family is one of the crucial surface journeys in that it is most conducive to eliciting one of the profound journeys of realization. For the most part, family is not something one can easily escape, and one learns that if he is to live with certain family members, he must look inside and come to realizations about himself and others. Still, family in and of itself is often mistaken for one of the profound journeys. Indeed, it can be a distraction from them--an easy, convenient distraction, since it is a giant, lifelong undertaking and is often a noble, satisfying endeavor which will feel like a profound journey. But ultimately it is not. This becomes most evident with "empty nesters," parents who've spent their entire lives raising their children and suddenly feel empty when their kids are all gone to college. They must realize, for the first time, that they still have their own profound journeys to take, that while the children seemed like the profound journey, ultimately, they were not. The children could even be a distraction from their own inner lives. When the kids move out, their lives must go on, and they must turn to finding out who they really are without them.
Family is not a profound journey. It is a surface journey. Realization is the profound journey. Empty nesters will now either find a new distraction, or they will look inside. For many, this time of life also coincides with retirement, another surface journey ended, another compulsory time to look inside--especially since there is little likelihood of starting a new family or a new job. For some, looking inside--the thing they have been avoiding their entire lives--is so unbearable that they choose instead to die. Indeed, it is not coincidental that many illnesses and deaths coincide with these life events.
* Reflect on the seven surface journeys: Romance, Material Gain, Physical, Friendship, Knowledge, Stature, Family. Make a list of the major characters in your work, and for each, ask yourself if the character journeys in all of these seven areas. If not, why not? Can you add any journeys for this character? Could it help round him out, add direction?
* Conversely, does your character have too many surface journeys taking place? If a character is going through a dramatic weight loss, a divorce and a financial windfall, it might be too much. If so, can you remove any journeys from this character's life? Would it help provide focus?
* Do a character's journeys complement each other? Or detract from each other? When does one stop and another begin? Do they overlap? At what point in the work? Why there? Journeys are entirely about context, and just as they must be examined individually, so must they be considered collectively.
* Look closely at the surface journeys in your work. Do any of them lead to a profound journey? Why or why not? Keep in mind that surface journeys are ultimately a means to an end; if your surface journeys are self-encapsulated and don't lead to a profound inner journey, your work might not leave readers feeling a lasting significance.
Meet the Author: Noah Lukeman
Noah Lukeman is the author of several bestselling books on the craft of writing, among them A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation. Noah lives in New York City, where he runs a literary agency.