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The Importance of the Journey - Part Four

By Noah Lukeman

Last issue we examined the 7 surface journeys, and learned how finance, friendships, physical change, education, stature and family can quickly and effectively impact a character's journey. We've by now covered all of the profound and surface journeys--yet the journey does not end there. There are other influences that can impact a character's journey, other issues to keep in mind that can have equal weight on his path and destination. Let us consider a few of them.

Journey and Circumstance

Say your character returns home to find his house burned to the ground, or that he loses his entire family in an earthquake. His life has changed in an instant, but can this be called a journey? One might be tempted to label this a negative surface journey in the areas of material gain or family. But in actuality, in cases such as these it would be more apt to make a distinction between one's journeying and one's being the victim of circumstance.

If as a result of these traumatic events your character is plunged into despair, comes to deep realizations about himself and others--for instance, that he didn't need all those possessions anyway, or that he never got to tell his father he loved him--and changes his life as a result, then, yes, he has journeyed. But what if he does not? What if he walks away, dry-eyed, never gives it a second thought, and goes back to life as usual? Then, even though his life has changed, we must insist that he has not taken a journey.

How might external circumstances influence or spark a journey? In the above example, a character's losing his house or family should certainly spark something, but an example, of course, could be less extreme. Perhaps your character never exhibited a religious impulse but one day visits Israel and is deeply affected, and as a result becomes religious. We must also consider influences by way of people who cross his path. Perhaps Character A, a white supremacist, is forced to room with Character B, a black scholar. By virtue of this circumstance, perhaps A eventually befriends B, learns tolerance, even admiration, and leaves a changed person. In this case, the external circumstance has forced an internal journey that Character A would not have taken otherwise.

On a religious level, the Judeo-Christian schools of thought teach that God is just and that everything happens for a reason, even if we can't always see it at work. The Buddhist law of Karma insists that the universe is just, and says that to truly understand Karma at work, notions of right and wrong must be considered over the course of many lifetimes. Considered in this light, what appears to be a random, senseless act of injustice--such as the losing of one's family in an earthquake--might be considered just: perhaps in another lifetime this character had thrown someone else's family into a volcano. According to these schools of thought, there is no random victim of circumstance: your character becomes responsible for all that happens in his life, whether he originates it or it finds him. Is it circumstance or karma?

Specific goals

Regardless of the journey, it is helpful if your character, before he sets out, has a specific goal or objective. In some cases your character will just stumble into a romance, or will have a new sibling born in his family, in which case he has journeyed without a goal. But in other cases the presence of a goal can be empowering, lending structure and direction. For instance, for a romantic journey he can have a specific girl in mind; for a physical journey, he might have an objective of 150 pounds; for a journey of knowledge, he might seek a college degree; for a journey of stature, he might aim for CEO; for a journey of material gain, he might want one million dollars in the bank, or a particular house, a certain car.

Once you start thinking in terms of goals, it becomes clear that there are many other, less tangible, journeys a character can take. There are journeys of principle. A journey for revenge. A journey for justice.

Destinations

Many writers know how their work will begin, but not as many know how it will end. Some writers write their last scene first and some writers work backwards, but for most, the idea of such an approach is unnerving. Most writers simply have a great idea for an opening, or a great idea for a character, and let the work evolve. Isn't that what they're supposed to do? Isn't a work supposed to evolve out of a character? Wouldn't it be wrong to force a character to follow a preconceived path, to fit into a preconceived ending at any cost?

The answer is both yes and no. It is true that a work should evolve out of a character, but at the same time one can also run into danger if his character wanders aimlessly with no destination, if his work doesn't build to anything and concludes with no resolve. So which path to take? As King Solomon said 4,000 years ago, the answer is moderation. True, you should not force your character into an ending at any cost--but at the same time don't set him off running with no destination. The destination can be vague. It can change. Many writers fear that having an ending will box them in. On the contrary: by virtue of having it, your character will become more creative within its confines. It is like putting your character on a train bound for California. If he decides to get off in Arizona, that's fine. If it turns out he should settle there and never get back on the train, that's fine, too. But he never could have known about Arizona if he hadn't first gotten on that train for California--if he hadn't had some destination in mind.

If you tell an actor to just get on stage and improvise, with no rules and no guidelines, he will likely be at a loss. But if you tell him he has only three minutes and by its end he must steal something, he can set to work without a pause and will likely be much more fluid and creative. Nearly always, the more rules, the more structure, the better the improvisation--the more confines he's given, the less he has to worry about everything else and the more he can focus on the moment. Indeed, most people don't realize that improvisation is extraordinarily structured. Actors are often given very strict rules about who they are, where they are, what they are doing, how to begin and how to end.
The same holds true for your character on the page. When you have a destination in mind, you can stop worrying where he'll end up and exert more energy on his getting there creatively. The journey will become richer. Knowing what to expect, you can even begin to play against the destination, perhaps with an unexpected route.

If having one final destination for the work is too intimidating, you can start by breaking up the work with several, smaller destinations. You might plan a series of mini-journeys. Where might your character be by Chapter 4? By Chapter 10? Also, you needn't necessarily think of destinations solely in terms of circumstance; you might also think of them in terms of internal character growth. What insights will he have reached by the book's end? In fact, it is preferable to have an internal destination as opposed to an external one. An internal destination will create the external circumstances to get him there. An external destination will force him to a place he may or may not reach internally (often not).

Beginnings

Destinations are important. But so are beginnings. In fact, in one sense it is even more important to pay attention to beginnings since, when people think of journeys, they naturally think of destinations. Beginnings are nearly always overlooked or taken for granted.

A strong beginning can define an entire journey. Picture someone who wants to get out of the ghetto. Someone who wants to get out of debt. These people aren't thinking of destinations as much as they are getting away from their beginnings. Indeed, many driven, accomplished people--people who have seemingly "made it"--are still secretly fighting to get away from their lowly beginnings: although the circumstance of their poor upbringing is no longer a reality in their external world, it is burned so deeply into their inner world that it is as if it happened yesterday. They still fight an invisible fight.

A strong enough beginning will necessitates a character's journey away from it. Indeed, a character raised in the ghetto has one advantage from a character raised in middle-class suburbia: the ghetto character knows what he must get away from. His journey, even if single-minded, is laid out for him, and he needn't waste energy on worrying about other destinations. The suburban kid, on the other hand, is often relatively content with his surroundings, and hasn't the burning desire of a destination. Endless options lie before him, none propelled by necessity. This creates a different sort of angst, one which the ghetto kid could never know. Or as Kierkegaard said, there are two types of despair: one of no possibility and the other of infinite possibility.
Some works can be entirely about their beginnings. In Escape from Alcatraz, we don't wonder if the inmates will end up in a mansion--we just wonder whether they'll get away from where they are. Where does your character begin? In a lousy job? In a bad neighborhood? On a desert island?

Exercises

* Consider the speed of each of your journeys. Does the romance happen overnight? Or does it take 30 years to bloom? Is his rise to wealth slow? What would happen if you sped it up? Where do you need quick arcs? Where do you need slow arcs? How does either route impact the character?

* Consider how much space (how many pages) you devote to each journey. A romance can happen overnight, and yet still take 300 pages to be described, or a romance can happen over 30 years yet be described in a single page. If your work is primarily about one journey--say, a character's rise to President of his company--perhaps this journey would be stretched out over the course of the entire work. But if his rise to Presidency is really just a precursor for the real story--which is his long, drawn out fall--then perhaps his rise should be condensed to a single chapter. Do the importance of your journeys correlate to the number of pages devoted to them?

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.