The Importance of the Journey - Part Two
By Noah Lukeman
Last week we looked at the three profound journeys. This week we'll turn to the seven "surface" journeys, journeys which are less profound, but equally important when crafting fiction. The profound journeys are internal and substantial; the surface journeys are external and might not be substantial. Nonetheless, they are highly visible, can have a great impact on a story, and must be used to fully complement a work.
Before we turn to them, though, let's pick up where we left off last week. Last week we talked about a character's taking a profound journey and coming to a realization about himself; we said that the most powerful realizations resulted in the character's taking action as a direct result. But this raises some powerful questions, ones which cannot be overlooked: Is it fair to discount a character's realization if he doesn't take action based on it? Can there be mitigating factors? Shouldn't we also take into account whether this person has the disposition, willpower, confidence or ability to take action on his realization? If he doesn't, do they make his inner realization any less of one?
Discrepancy Between Realization and Action
Taking action is not always easy or possible. For one, other people--especially people close to the character, like family members--might not like it. Other characters will often try to sabotage a character who takes action, with comments like "this isn't you," or "this won't last," or "you've tried this before," or "you're going through a phase." This is because watching someone transform is scary; they could be left with a new person and have no idea where they'll stand with him. They also might begin to worry if everyone else in their life might change, too. Suddenly, life becomes much less secure.
Ultimately, we can't invalidate a character's inner realization just because he is unable to take action. A girl who is raised in a religious family and realizes one day that she doesn't believe in her religion might continue to stay where she is, still go through the rituals, or she might leave her environment completely. Given that the approval of her entire family and neighborhood is at stake, to leave would show great strength of conviction and character; but to stay would be understandable, even if she is living a lie. But that doesn't make her realization any less of a realization.
It is possible for there to be a discrepancy between realization and action--in fact, there often is. Instead of hurrying to resolve this discrepancy--by having your character instantly take action--you might use this to your advantage and prolong the discrepancy, thus creating one of the most profound forms of tension. The character knows what the proper action is, but is unsure whether he can take it. He battles himself. The tension, if prolonged, can become unbearable.
This internal conflict can be the source of endless psychological neuroses, like projection and paranoia. One can actually make himself ill in such a case, can physically manifest symptoms. In extreme cases of religious guilt (where one sees oneself as perpetually in the wrong by not fulfilling the rituals and commandments) one can manifest such bizarre occurrences as bleeding palms or even demonic possession. It all goes back to the discrepancy between realizing the wrongfulness of one's actions and being able (or willing) to take the action to amend it. (In some cases, as with religious guilt, we must wonder whether such a realization of "wrongfulness" is a "realization" one would even want to have.) This is why hitmen, Nazis, and other types cannot allow themselves to see the wrongfulness of their actions. Once the realization kicks in, they would quickly become crushed under the burden of their actions.
This discrepancy can also be the source for a moral dilemma. What if someone comes to a realization of wrongfulness, but is forced, due to external circumstances, to continue his evil actions? Take the Jew who, at gunpoint, is forced to help the Nazis if he wants to spare his own family's death. Which comes first: murder or family? What if one realizes the crookedness of his company, but needs to keep working there to pay for his sister's operation? Where should the greater loyalty be? To family or to strangers? When are wrong actions acceptable? How are they justified? What price will he pay for the sacrifice?
It is possible, too, that one can never resolve the discrepancy between realization and action. In fact, your work could be a study of the difficulty (if not impossibility) for most people to take action; one can realize his company is crooked and never taken any action. You could leave it at that, leaving us with the partial satisfaction of his having had the realization. There are other ways you might make up for it and create satisfaction, even with his never taking action. We will, for instance, get a partial satisfaction over watching him torture himself under the burden of his wrongfulness. This self-burden can, as mentioned above, be used to segue into various psychological neuroses, even insanity--even suicide--and the work can become less about his taking action and more about the burden of inaction.
Inaction due to weighing consequences (as mentioned above) can offer a moral dilemma, which can bring a sort of philosophical satisfaction, as readers can argue over which is the proper course to take, and wonder what course they would take themselves. Most satisfying of all, you can have the character come to a realization and resolve to take action--even begin the action--but have it be too late. The employee resolves to turn in his crooked co-workers, but on his way to the FBI he is arrested himself. After a particularly bad argument, the willful, contrary son finally realizes what a hard time he's been giving his mother and how good she's always been to him; he goes to her house to apologize, but finds her dead (Flannery O'Connor's "Everything That Rises Must Converge"). He has had the realization; he has resolved to take action; he has set out to take it--but it is too late. The action can never be taken. And yet, as readers, we still feel a sort of resolve, as if he had taken the action. This ploy is used for greatest effect in the genre of tragedy, going back to Romeo and Juliet and beyond.
The Surface Journey
A "surface" journey is a journey that is recognizable to all, a traditional, societally accepted marker of growth and progress, like losing 50 pounds, or climbing within one's company, or a new, blossoming romance. These journeys serve great purpose--they are journeys the reader can understand, relate to, point to if asked about a character. Is he Associate Editor? Editor? Senior Editor? Does he make $35,000 a year? $45,000?
These journeys can easily be mistaken for profound journeys. They are not. These surface journeys are much easier--and more comfortable--to get a handle on than the profound journeys of realization, internal identity, belief and resolution. The profound, internal journeys are, ironically, often viewed as less substantial, less permanent, always shifting, subject to change; whereas most surface journeys, like the gaining of a house, are considered more permanent, more stable. The tragedy is that we allow ourselves to be distracted by these surface journeys, and believe these to be the profound journeys. Possessions and ranks come and go, and ultimately it is the internal journey which remains. If handled properly, though, the surface journey can be a pivotal tool in leading a character towards a profound journey.
Novels and screenplays are ultimately short mediums. We have only 300 pages or two hours to create a character, show him journey, change, and come out a new character. This is hard enough. How is one to achieve all that in such a quick period of time and also not make it seem hurried? The surface journey can be instrumental in this regard: the romance that happens overnight, the man who wins the lotto. As we look at seven of the more common surface journeys (listed in order of how quickly they can change a character's life), we'll see how rapidly they can help effect a character change.
Surface Journey #1: Romance
Given that it is the task of the writer to create quick--and believable--character arcs, romance can be one of the most powerful tools. Romance can change a character's life instantaneously and, equally important, do so in a totally believable way. A character who just meets someone and starts dating will suddenly spend a lot less time with family and single friends. Indeed, it will impact his life in ways he cannot even conceive. How does the romance change family dynamics? Friends' dynamics? Does he now spend most of his time at his place or hers? At new places? Among new types? Of course, a journey needn't always be positive either. A negative journey can have just as much--if not more--impact. Is he going through a separation? A divorce?
Most important, how can this surface journey lead to one of the profound journeys of inner realization? Often, couples become like each other. Might he become like her? What traits will he take on? Are his horizons broadening? They say that we would never allow someone to change us if there wasn't something inside of us that craved this change. Does he gain confidence with the new girlfriend and suddenly realize all of the things he is capable of? Does he act on these realizations? Reject all of the people who had been a negative influence in his life? Or does he lose confidence with this new relationship? Is she constantly undermining him? Is he now meek and unsure of himself? Is he aware of her negative influence? Who is she like in his life? A mother or father? Is he repeating a pattern? Is there any chance of his breaking free? It is often, unfortunately, the negative surface journey that prods people to reflect and more likely leads to a profound journey. When the relationship ends, perhaps he is left with a big hole in his life, and can reflect on who he is without her; on how she made him change; on who he is at his core; on how he might not change next time; on what is truly important to him. For some, a negative journey can become a positive one; for others, the resulting epiphany becomes too unbearable and so the character is doomed to repeat the pattern.
Romance is also one of the more significant of the surface journeys in that it, potentially, leads to another important surface journey: family.
* Do your characters arrive at any inner realizations throughout the course of the work? If so, do they take actions based on these? If they don't take action, how would it affect your work if you allowed them to take action? What action would that be?
* If your characters currently do take action based on their arrival at a realization, how would it affect your work if you made them unable to take the action they want or need to? Would it create a new layer of tension? Can you prolong this tension? Should your characters' finally being able to take action not occur until the end of the work? Could this, in fact, give you a new destination for the work, a new arc?
* Which characters in your work take the greatest journey? Which take the smallest? The answer might surprise you. Does your protagonist truly take the greatest journey? Does a minor character journey more than you realize? Is it possible that he is really the protagonist?
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.