Characters Without Goals and Novels With Bad-Guy Gods

Can your novel have a main character without a goal? What if he has one, but it changes? What if he’s just floating along? And what if you want to make God the bad guy in your novel?

Katy posted this set of questions on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I’m just having a few problems deciding which way to proceed with my plot development and hoping you can give me some tips.

I know you say that characters need to have a story goal, but are there exceptions? For instance, my protagonist is really just floating through life a bit at the very beginning, he doesn’t have a goal and that’s sort of the point, he needs to be called to action. So I could define a goal at this point, but then it changes further into the plot and then again closer to the end. This is because the character is changing as the story progresses and therefore what he wants is changing. Is it normal to have multiple goals? I really can’t think of a single goal he’s striving towards throughout the entire novel.

Also, one of my main conflicts is to do with the religion of my story world and the religious leaders, and although my main character is religious, ultimately God becomes sort of a “bad guy”. My novel is YA, and I’m a little bit worried I may be alienating some of my audience by taking this route. At the same time, I feel there won’t be enough conflict without it.

What do you think? I’d love to be able to just set all this uncertainty aside and write!

Randy sez: Don’t confuse the Storygoal of your story with the goal of your main character. Your character, being either a malleable male or a fickle female, will be changing throughout the story. Early on, he may not have a goal, or it may be a fairly prosaic goal such as to make it to the gas station before the tank is completely empty.

But your story doesn’t really get going until your character settles on a Storygoal. What’s a Storygoal? It’s the goal that will drive your character through the main part of the current story. The purpose of the Storygoal is to raise a Story Question in your reader’s mind.

The Story Question is very concrete: Will Scarlett O’Hara get Ashley Wilkes or won’t she? Will Indiana Jones find the lost Ark of the Covenant, or won’t he? Will Katniss Everdeen survive the Hunger Games or won’t she?

The Story Question almost always is a yes-or-no kind of thing. Can he or can’t he? Will she or won’t she?

So your Storygoal is important to you, the novelist. But it’s not necessarily what drives your main character at the beginning of the story, and it may not be what drives her at the ending. The Storygoal is what drives your character through MOST of the story.

Can you change it halfway through? Yes, of course you can — at your own risk. You can do anything you want. You have all power in your story. You are omniscient. You are, in fact, the God of your Storyworld. You pull all the strings. You decide everything that happens. If you want your character to have a different goal every five minutes, you can do that. But if you do that, you probably won’t have a lot of readers, because readers typically want your Storyworld to have meaning, and that means having a consistent, plausible, reasonable Storygoal that drives your main character through most of the story.

Now let’s tackle your second question, Katy. You’re worried about alienating some readers by making God the “bad guy.” It’s not a bad thing to alienate readers. In fact, it can be a good thing, because alienating some readers will generate word of mouth, and word of mouth sells copies. Part of being a novelist is deciding whom you’re willing to offend, and then getting on with the job of offending them effectively.

As an example, one of the hottest selling novels of this decade has been THE SHACK, by William Paul Young. In this novel, the lead character wrestles with the tough question of why God allowed his young daughter to be kidnapped and murdered by a serial killer. Young brings God into the novel to answer those questions himself. Or maybe I should say, Young brings God into the novel to answer those questions herself. In the novel, “God the Father” is a woman. An African-American woman. Jesus enters in too, and so does the Holy Spirit (also in a female form).

Plenty of people didn’t like that. There was plenty of muttering that Young’s theology was way off the mark. Plenty of ministers complained that Young was flirting with Universalism. Young got a huge amount of negative publicity. Guess what? All that negative publicity sold a lot of copies, because there were plenty of people who liked what Young said and who liked the way he said it.

So if you’re going to offend people, just make sure you’ve also identified a target audience whom you’re going to please.

I should say, however, that bringing God into a novel is a metaphysical impossibility. As I noted earlier, YOU are the God of your novel. You are the “ground of being” for your novel. You create the Storyworld. You speak it into existence. You control every single thing that happens in your novel. You are the God of your novel, but you exist on a different metaphysical plane than your novel, and you can’t actually enter your own Storyworld, even though you control it completely.

It’s true that you can introduce a character in your novel that you call “God.” You have at least two choices here:

  1. This character may be an “incarnation” of you.
  2. This character may be some other incarnation that is intentionally not you.

Door #1 is the approach that William Paul Young took in THE SHACK. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of THE SHACK are not the real Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of our own world. They’re incarnations of the author of the book. They speak with his voice and they do what he makes them do.

Door #2 is the approach that you want to take, Katy. You intend to have a demigod who functions as the Supreme Being of the religion of your characters. This is perfectly OK and you’re free to do that. But bear in mind that this demigod is, in fact, NOT the God of your Storyworld. You are. Your demigod is created by you for whatever purpose you choose. He or she can do nothing without you. Bearing that in mind, you’re free to make that demigod as bad as you like. I think you’ll find it much more of a challenge to make the real God of the book (you) into a “bad guy.” I suppose it’s possible, but I’m not sure how.

What do my Loyal Blog Readers think? Is it possible for you, the author, to be the “bad guy” God of your own novel? What would you have to do in order to achieve that? Leave a comment and tell us how it’s done.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Blog of the Day: My friend Chip MacGregor is a high-powered literary agent with a blog that I think should be required reading for all authors. Today, he had a great blog about how he changed from being a wannabe writer to being a professional writer. He did it by changing his thinking in two essential ways. Want to know those two ways? Read Chip’s blog entry, “How I Got Started as a Writer.”

10 Comments

  1. Patrick August 10, 2010 at 6:06 pm #

    I found this post fascinating, and like the specific breaking down of the Storyworld God and demigods.

    Also, the information on Story goals is something I need to think on to improve my one sentence summaries!

  2. Carrie Neuman August 11, 2010 at 3:38 am #

    Thanks for the reminder of the Storygoal as a seperate thing, Randy. In my current outline, I know my protag is looking for respect and he thinks he’ll get it by getting rich. But at its simplest, he’s trying to stop the evil mamluk from setting him up as a patsy in order to gain control of Aswan.

    Working on my one-sentence summary was making me crazy! That was just what I needed.

  3. Elizabeth Rudolph August 11, 2010 at 5:58 am #

    Katy don’t worry about offend a group of people like Randy said. I’ve read many books just because they are different and someone said they are offending. If your books gets to publication after you write it I would definitely buy it. Just because its different.

  4. Gayle Messick August 11, 2010 at 6:52 am #

    I think trying to get an emotional reaction out of readers is what we want. I think it is better to write something that causes some people to get angry and quit reading then have a tepid response or none at all. Posting chapters at a forum has proven this to me. When I posted less tension chapters (which is stupid I know now) the response was almost nonexistent. I posted a chapter that caused so much anxiety on the readers, the comment thread not only grew but people started defending their own interpretations and not in simple sentences but by paragraphs and capitalized letters and pleadings. lol I loved it. I also implored the scene/sequel method for the first time and made sure I used motivation-reaction units. I introduce the actual story question (Will she or won’t she allow herself to be seduced by her husband rival?) The readers are up in arms. Yea! We will see if the next post has caused my readership to fallen or enlarged (due to word of mouth).

    Thank you.

  5. Lois Hudson August 11, 2010 at 2:31 pm #

    Gee, Randy, you’d better watch out. You’ll be having some preacher-types banning your blog for advocating the creation of your own god, demi- tho she might be!

  6. Katy August 12, 2010 at 12:17 am #

    Thanks so much for answering my questions Randy! You’ve definitely given me a lot to thing about and helped me make a few decisions. (And thanks so everyone who commented too!)

    I know quite a few writers have trouble with their story questions or story goals from other blogs, etc. that I read. And I’m starting to think it has a lot to do with the complexity of the story. I don’t think that a complex book is any better or worse then a non-complex one (though I’d be interested to know what you thought Randy), but there certainly is that difference between a linear sort of story, for example the character swears in the first chapter to track down their fathers killer and proceeds throughout to do just that, and a more convaluted one, in which a character has to grow and learn and pass through many different scenes and even places just to work out where they want to go (think Lord Of The Rings). In this case there are so many separate personal character goals, that the story goal, or story question can be hard to define.

    In the past when I’ve written I haven’t had this story question problem, I’ve always just instinctively known it, but perhaps they were more linear stories. After reading your reply to my question I took a long, hard, very distant look at my novel and I’ve finally been able to place the question that everything is mounting too, “Can they stop the war?” I’m excited that now I can shape my novel to more effectively answer this question.

    I’ve also decided to take your advice and seriously amp up the whole God, or demi-God I suppose, conflict. I think this’ll that the plot a lot deeper. As for a storyworld God being the bad guy it certainly is an interesting idea! I’m not sure how you’d do it, but I’d love to try! I guess I’ll have to credit you for that one though 🙂

    Thanks again Randy, you’ve really been a big help!

  7. Charlotte Babb August 12, 2010 at 2:55 am #

    Thanks for expressing the will she/won’t she phrase of the story goal. I’ve had problems with that too. I’m not sure that my first novel had a strong enough story goal, but I can certainly work on the next one.

  8. KC August 12, 2010 at 11:12 am #

    In my first novel, my female protag didn’t want anything UNTIL something happened to her that made her angry, bitter, etc. She finds God in the process of working through these roadblocks in her life. Not sure if that’s strong enough as far as goal–I’m not sure what my yes/no question would be. Perhaps that’s why I think the novel is weak.

  9. Koos August 13, 2010 at 7:14 am #

    Perhaps it is safer to either keep God out of the writing, or keep to the Biblical view (though that will upset a lot of religions who wish Him to fit their view). I type this from a Christian perspective, keeping in mind that mankind has a way of wishing to apply any fiction to reality as they deem fit.

    And it might be dangerous for the writer if another was to say they were led astray by someone’s writing. After all, since the Beginning, people loved blaming another.

  10. Jake August 13, 2010 at 11:08 am #

    From what I’ve read here, I’m not sure if you planning on portraying a god (small-g) or God (big-G). It’s one thing to portray a god as evil. It’s quite another to portray God as evil.

    The first isn’t necessarily a problem because a “god” is not “God”. The second will sell more books at the cost of committing blasphemy.

    Now, Randy is right, “God” in your story world isn’t “God” in the real world. But all your readers are in the real world, and their view of “God” in the real world will be shaped by “God” in your story world (some more than others).

    Consider the Chronicles of Narnia. I would say that many readers have a greater sense of God’s awesome presence and amazing love because of Aslan. But what if C.S. Lewis made Aslan evil? How would reader’s perspectives of the real-world God have changed?

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