Sense of purpose is important in fiction writing. As a writer you need a strong sense of purpose to keep you going through the challenges and down patches. Your characters also need a sense of purpose to give them drive, agency and that most critical of story elements, conflict.
Fortunately, and surprisingly, a management book has helped me with this one.
Sinek’s ‘Start With Why’
As I’ve mentioned here before, my freelance work often involves dabbling in the pool of management thinking. I’ve read quite a few books on this, and particularly on marketing in recent months. One of them was Simon Sinek’s Start With Why.
The central message of Sinek’s book is simple. Organisations that understand why they do what they do, what value they bring to the world, become more focused and more effective. It helps create consistency and effective decision making, as when in doubt employees can turn to that ‘why’ and find solutions that fit the organisation’s purpose. It also motivates people. Lets face it, it’s easier to get passionate about ‘keeping patients safe’ than ‘answering phones’, to take the example of a medical call centre.
As many businesses are discovering in their efforts to tackle poor morale, people don’t just want to be cogs in a machine. They want purpose. They want to know why they do what they do.
Asking why as a writer
As a writer, I think this applies in two obvious ways to my work choices.
One is that I need to understand why I’m a writer. What do I think I bring to the world and to my own life through this choice, that makes it a better choice than some other job? Because nine times out of ten, if I’m getting demotivated then it’s because I’ve lost track of that purpose and am trying to do something that misses the point of being a writer. Maybe I’m accepting jobs I’m not interested in, or writing stories that don’t interest me. If they don’t fit with my ‘why’ then it’s probably time to stop.
Same with stories. I need to know why I’m writing a particular story, and why I think it will be worth people’s time to read. Does it do something new with the genre? Does it represent different perspectives? Does it ask a question no-one else has? If there isn’t a good purpose behind the story, something making it worthwhile for me and for readers then it’s unlikely to ever see the light of day, and I should put my effort into something else instead.
Life’s too short to be writing this year’s seventeenth Tolkien knock-off.
Asking why of characters
And of course asking why is great for finding purpose in characters too. Why does Johnny rob banks? Why does Helena care what happens to the kingdom? Why is Iqbal on the side of the righteous rebels?
Knowing why gives your characters purpose and helps keep them on track. It’s something you can turn to for sources of conflict and for guidance on how to push a scene forwards. And signs of the why will make the character more compelling to readers.
Starting with purpose
So go forth, find your purpose, find the mission behind your characters! And then tell me about it – why do you write? why are you writing the story you’re writing now? what is the driving purpose behind your favourite character?
Show us all that you know your ‘why’.
Photo by Bilal Kamoon via Flickr creative commons