The Importance of the Journey - Part Five
By Noah Lukeman
Last issue we looked at some of the outside influences that might impact a character's traditional journey, such as his beginning, his destination and circumstance. In this installment we'll continue to examine outside influences which might affect the course of a traditional journey, and give it further meaning and substance.
Obstacles are among the most powerful of tools at a writer's disposal: they prolong a journey, create problems with resolve, cause conflict, and aid in suspense. Indiana Jones, one of the highest grossing films of all time, is sustained entirely by obstacles. The protagonist has a mission, and as we watch a new impediment consistently gets in his way. Even the simplest task can be infinitely complicated by obstacles.
Say your character's goal is simply to talk to his teacher on the other side of the classroom. He approaches, but his friend stops him and asks him a question. He answers, then continues his approach, but then three other students surround the teacher with their own questions and he must wait. When it's finally his turn, the bell rings, and the teacher runs from the room. Your character chases him down the hall, but then before he can catch him, he slips on a wet floor and is knocked unconscious. Through the use of obstacles, we have taken the simplest, dullest objective and made it exciting, even suspenseful.
For each of the types of journeys, consider what might stand in the way of your character achieving his goal. What obstacles lie in the path? What could impede his romance? His having no car with which to take her out? A disapproving father? What obstacles might impede a climb in stature? A rival politician? An enemy who slanders him? What obstacles can impede a journey to material gain? Do new, unexpected bills come in, just when our protagonist is about to break into the black? What lies in the way of his dropping down to 150 pounds? Does he suddenly get injured at 152 pounds, and gain back 10 pounds while holed up in bed? What lies in the way of his gaining knowledge? Can he not afford university?
On a more profound level, we might also ask how fate or destiny plays into a character's journey. Destiny is not quite the same as destination. Take the King Arthur legend, where Arthur, as a boy, is told it is his destiny to be king. This impacts the entire work. We don't how or where or when he'll be king, and we don't know what his being king will eventually lead to--so there is not necessarily a clear destination--but there is a destiny.
Destiny also adds a sense of mystery and suspense, as it makes us constantly wonder exactly how and when it will be fulfilled, if this is the moment that will lead him there, if this is the person that will mentor him. It implants something in our minds which colors our entire experience of the text. It also adds a sense of direction, and most important, a sense of the inevitable.
This touches on a much more profound issue: there are schools of thought that state that in real life, everything is destined, meant to be, that your fate is mapped out before you are born. This is why a psychic can tell you your future, why an astrologer can make accurate predictions. This notion is widely held; witness the millions of people who check their horoscope daily. If this is the case, are we all just puppets on a string? Is there free will? Or are we operating under the illusion of free will? And how does this affect your character and his journey?
You needn't have something as overt as the three witches in Macbeth prophesying your character's future from the offset; but you might imply a destiny. Say a character is born into a wealthy family, an only child; his father runs an empire, and all indications are that the son will one day run it. This, on a more mundane level, is his destiny. Destiny needn't always be on such a grand scale. Say another character is an only child in his 40s, single, and lives with his mother, in her 80s, with whom he is very close. She is beginning to lose her capacities. Neither of them can afford private nursing. The mother is opposed to moving into a nursing home, as is the son. They are close. You might say it is this character's destiny to live with and watch over his mother until her death. His destiny, for the next 10 or 20 years, is mapped out for him.
As you can see, destiny is powerful in that it can instill a strong sense of direction and purpose. The more layers of destiny, the more you'll feel your characters heading towards something. You might also play against this. Does he fight his destiny? Does the magnate's son spend 30 years rebelling against his father and against the business world? Of course, every moment the son is rebelling, he is thinking of his father's empire; he is ruling his life by acting against something. Even if he never gives in, it is always there in the background, and his life is shaped by his not giving in to his destiny. Does he have the strength to map out his own destiny? Build his own empire, bigger than his father's?
In Rocky, Rocky has many journeys, including the journey of getting in physical shape (becoming a better boxer), the journey of getting in mental shape (overcoming his self-doubts and taking seriously that he can be heavyweight champion of the world), and his budding romance. There is a point in the movie when, depressed, he stops training. What is actually happening here is that his second journey (mental shape) is impacting his first journey (physical shape). We realize that the two depend on each other. Without the proper psychology, he won't train at all.
Finally, it is his girlfriend that turns him around. The third journey (romance) impacts the first two journeys. These journeys all run parallel to each other, and are well timed. If Rocky had reached the mental standstill earlier in the work, before he had met the girl, or when he didn't know her that well, then she couldn't have been there to propel the other journeys at the right time. The other journeys run their course as far as they can, and when they run out, she picks up from there. They are like sprinters handing batons to each other. The journey that ultimately propels us to the finish is the girlfriend; without that, there would be no more training and no heavyweight bout. Thus, it is perfectly fitting that when the bout is over, Rocky ignores the reporters and the first thing he does is call for her, that the final shot of the film is on the two of them. Rocky shows us that the psychological journey is stronger than the physical journey, and that the romantic journey is stronger than the psychological one. Rocky, ultimately, is a romance.
In the above case, the journeys assisted each other. But can journeys conflict with each other? Can one journey be an obstacle to another? It is not uncommon for someone on the journey to be a rock star to also be on a journey into drug and alcohol addiction, or for someone on a journey to stardom let the fame go to his head and also begin journeying toward being an arrogant and self-centered person. Conflicting journeys can be powerful in that the conflict can force one of the profound journeys of realization. The character ultimately must realize that a positive journey is taking him down the road of a negative one. He reaches a point where the two cannot co-exist. He either gives up the drugs, humbles himself, or heads into self-destruction.
A powerful variation of interdependent journeys are parallel journeys. In Shakespeare in Love, there are two journeys occurring simultaneously, each feeding off the other and leading to the same place. In one journey, Shakespeare writes furiously to complete his play; in another, he courts the girl. The two converge when her love gives him the inspiration to write the play, and his writing gives her the inspiration to love him. One could not be without the other. They each combine to give us one greater, stronger sense of journey. In Back to the Future, the protagonist has separate journeys in the present and in the past, and each, as we find out in the end, affects the other, which is what lends this work its peculiar sense of satisfaction. In The Matrix, if the characters are killed outside the Matrix, they will be killed in the Matrix; then again, if the characters don't achieve what they need to in the Matrix, they will be killed outside the Matrix. Each is rushing headlong for closure; each is dependent on the other.
* For each character, make a list of all of his journeys. For each of his journeys, how many obstacles lie in the way? Do certain journeys have more obstacles than others? Why or why not? Can you add obstacles in any of these areas?
* Look at the obstacles that already exist. Where in the work do they fall? Towards the beginning, middle or end? Is the work disproportionately weighted in any direction? If so, can you even it out?
* Look at each of your characters and their journeys. If you had to say that each character had a destiny, what would his destiny be? Does his journey complement or go against his destiny? Why or why not?
* Look at your journeys as a whole. Do they complement each other? Or do they work independently? If the latter, can you weave them together, make one help (or get in the way of) another? How does this impact the work?
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.