Currently, I’m rereading The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. Well, in between reading stuff for uni and stuff I’m meant to be reviewing at Miriam Joy Reads. A reread is ideal for this choppy approach — with a new book I’d totally forget what was happening. But I haven’t read The Scorpio Races since … 2011? I guess it must be 2011. I bought it when I went to Maggie Stiefvater’s event and signing at Foyles in London, read it shortly afterwards, and I’m pretty sure I never reread it.
So I’m rereading it now, and remembering why I liked it so much the first time.
I think The Scorpio Races is one of Maggie’s best books. Maybe even the best. Oh, Ballad is funnier, and I’d much rather hang out with James Morgan because I think we’d get on well. The Dream Thieves has some of the most beautiful writing. But structurally, and from the POV of the writing itself, The Scorpio Races is better.
Because the characters want things.
The characters have real wants that drive their decisions throughout the book. Puck wants her brother to stay on the island. This is why she enters the races. He’s leaving because they’re barely scraping by and there’s no living to be made and they’re on the edge of eviction; this is why she wants to win, to earn the money. Sean wants his freedom and Corr. This is why he wants to win. He needs the money to buy his freedom, because his savings aren’t enough.
They want things. The fact that they’re both aiming to win the races put them against each other so that while they’re not antagonistic as such, they’re still interfering with each other’s goals. More than any outside interference and problems, this creates conflict.
We’re aware at all times of what they want and how they can’t both get it, and it’s that which keeps us hooked. We know that it can’t have a happy ending for both of them, so we want to know who comes out on top. Who will get that money, and who will lose this opportunity.
In my own writing, I think I fail most when it comes to giving my characters real, concrete goals. So often they have passive goals (‘stay alive’ or ‘keep things as they are’) rather than having something to actively pursue. It isn’t an active goal merely to ‘protect a friend’; it only becomes a goal when they decide to take action to achieve this, like ‘kill the bad guy’.
I’m bad at goals mostly because I don’t think I know what I want.
Well, I know what I want in some ways. I want to write, I want to make a living writing, but that isn’t the desire that gets me up every morning. It isn’t what drives me to take every action I take in my life, you know? It plays into a lot of them — I take on a lot of experiences and activities because I’m like, “This could be useful for writing later.” But it isn’t everything.
It also isn’t a particularly active goal, because it’s so nebulous. If it was a goal to complete a novel, that’d be an active goal. But I’ve done that several times over, so it isn’t. Finding a publisher, at least via the traditional route, isn’t within my power — it depends on external factors. So that’s not really my goal either, though I guess I could set my goal as sending out queries.
I think characters have active goals in a way that people don’t, because we can’t see our narrative arc. Characters have somewhere to get to, and while they may not be consciously aware what it is, the author can see it. Maybe I’m living according to my active goal right now, but I can’t recognise it, because I don’t know where the story’s going, and I’m not able to clarify my thoughts that easily.
We try so hard to make characters real, but actually the only way we’d manage that would be to make them messy, and therefore to make the books messy. To take away all knowledge of an end point. To give them contradictory and incompatible desires. To introduce random coincidences that take their lives in a different direction. To just occasionally make things meaningless.
That’s something I found particularly heartwrenchingly effective in the show Dance Academy. Without making the plot seem absurd, it acknowledges that real life is about randomness. It doesn’t fit neatly according to a script. We don’t get what we want if we fulfil certain conditions — sometimes, it’s entirely coincidental. Sometimes it doesn’t work out and the fact that it doesn’t is random. It’s just how things are. There’s no meaning to it.
And in some ways this is soul-crushing. You can work as hard as anything for ages and ages, but it might come to nothing, because life doesn’t follow neat narrative rules and lives don’t have clearly defined characters arcs and people don’t always grow and change because they’re real, not fictional.
But does it work in fiction? Does it make it more realistic?
For the most part, no, it just makes it depressing. Characters need to have goals because otherwise there’s no tension and we don’t care whether they achieve it or not. The fact that these goals are so clear, and also the incompatibility of the two different characters’ aims, is what makes The Scorpio Races so effective.
I remember how I felt when I first read the ending, but it’s been nearly four years. Maybe experiencing it again will feel different. I’ll have to wait and see.