Last night I took out a half-written story I hadn’t looked at in a year or so, hoping it would inspire me to start writing again. Scenes from it have stuck in my head, so I was hoping to get caught up in it again. But what I found was that overall it was… boring. Well, maybe not boring, but certainly lacking something to make it come alive to me, something to make me really want to spend time with the characters. So then I asked the question – what’s wrong with it? I like the characters, the scenario is interesting, the setting is good, the theme is fundamentally sound, but it doesn’t gel.
The problem, I realized, is that I like the characters. I don’t love them. I don’t feel like my life is poorer for not knowing them. They’re interesting enough, but what they’re basically doing is living their lives. They fall in love, deeply and passionately in love, but they don’t have passion for life. They have jobs – the heroine likes her work as a freelance computer repair person, and the hero doesn’t like his office job working for his father, but he knows more about what he doesn’t want to do with his life than what he does want.
I started thinking about the characters I’ve written that do work for me. In Pemberley by the Sea, Cassie loves the salt marsh and marine biology. Calder is quietly passionate about his writing. In Morning Light, Annie has the art gallery she’s always dreamed of and her artwork, plus a passion for rescuing dogs. Joe Westing has a driving passion for political and personal power. Ryan has dreams that are blocked and a passionate fear of the past. If you took those things away from them, they wouldn’t be themselves. I can’t picture Cassie as someone who thinks marine biology is a nice career and goes into the lab every day for the purpose of making a salary. Annie couldn’t be an office worker, unless she was chafing at the bit to get out of it, as she was when she tried to earn money to support Paul. For all of them, their goals went beyond making enough money to live on and having a nice social life and family.
In Castles in the Sand, the tentative name of the story that isn’t working, Sarah starts out with a passion for astronomy, but she gives it up when it starts reminding her of a failed relationship. Patrick’s primary goals in life are to get Sarah back and not to return to abusing alcohol. Not drinking is a very laudable goal and often a huge challenge, and I know people whose great passion is avoiding falling back into that trap, and I admire them. But for a work of fiction, a negative passion – a passion to avoid doing something – just isn’t as interesting as an positive passion to do something. I can do a little with Patrick by reframing it into a passion to live a sober life, but still, from a writing standpoint, he needs something more.
I’ve always known that I like fiction with strong female protagonists with a sense of direction. Now I’m realizing a little bit more about what that sense of direction needs to be.