On May 28, Sharon Bially posted a wonderful piece here on Writer Unboxed on linking motive to purpose. She defined purpose as:
[T]he unique gift we each bring to the world and always have. Our purpose has been leading us through our whole lives, in every aspect of our lives, and never changes. It is the solid, internal ground that each of us can stand on while the world is spinning out of control.
I liked this post so much I read its opening out loud to my students at the recent Wake Up And Write retreat in Boise, Idaho (where I was joined on faculty by fellow Unboxer Grace Wynter). I explained to the class that Sharon’s concept of Purpose dovetailed with what I refer to as the Yearning.
At the risk of being annoyingly repetitive, let me once again lay out briefly what I mean by the Yearning: It is the deep need shaping the character’s “dream of life”—the kind of person she wants to be, the way of life she hopes to live.
And yet most people (and characters) stumble through life barely aware of their Yearning—or, worse, they expend a great deal of effort trying to deny or escape it. (This is what Christopher Vogler in The Hero’s Journey refers to as the Resistance to the Call.)
The Yearning can be a harsh mistress. It demands of us a level of honesty, integrity, courage, and commitment that can feel overwhelming, and the shame of not living up to its dictates can be crippling.
Failing to live up to the Yearning’s demands, once they’re clearly recognized, can feel like a living death. Better to let the fog of distraction or denial obscure the Yearning a little longer. And so we head for the beach, hang out with friends, focus on our families, bury our faces in work, attend to the never-ending list of chores, get loaded, etc.
What good will it do to fulfill my Yearning? Chances are I’ll fail, and what would I honestly accomplish in this big, bad, dangerous world if I happened to succeed? Why would it matter? What difference could my fulfillment possibly make in the grand scheme of things?
This may explain why many writers, in order to raise the stakes, short-arm the Yearning and instead invest in an exterior goal that clearly registers as life-and death: rescue the miners, catch the killer, discover the cure. Here the character’s motivation is clear-cut, and the consequences of failure are obvious and dire. No need to delve into the sticky, gooey, vague, mysterious muck of the character’s Yearning or Purpose.
And yet, as Sharon rightly noted, this often leaves readers wanting. Motivations driven solely by exterior causes and consequences seldom provide a deeply meaningful experience for the reader. It’s not enough for the protagonist merely to get the job done—even when the job is saving the world. We will admire such a character’s capabilities but the emotional range of our engagement with the story won’t extend much beyond what we’d feel on a roller-coaster. To feel something deeper, engage more meaningfully, we need some inkling of why success at achieving the goal matters—not just in general, but specifically to the character herself.
This is where (again, as Sharon pointed out) linking motive to Yearning—or Purpose—proves most fruitful. When the character understands how accomplishing some exterior task or pursuing a goal speaks not just to external success but inner integrity, authenticity, validity, or worth, when it resonates with an internal sense of identity and morality that defines who the character is in fundamental terms, we recognize why and how the stakes are truly a matter of life and death. Failure won’t just have external consequences. It will mean the character has in some way betrayed herself by failing to live up to her own promise, her dream of life, her understanding of who she is and how she should live.
By now, some of you have already felt a slight scratching at the back of your mind. You’re wondering: All well and good, but where does this Yearning or Purpose come from? How does one recognize it when it appears—and at what stage of life (or the story) does that take place?