Twenty Ways Your Characters Can Bring Truth to Fiction
Fact and fiction dance in every story. Some paint life as fatalistic and hopeless while others fill it with dreams come true. Some emphasize our deep connections with other people while others exaggerate loneliness and individualism. In some stories, people enjoy serendipity while in others they suffer bad luck. Stories can show people living authentic lives, being dishonest with themselves and others, choosing a wise path over a foolish one, or getting stuck in a rut.
In a purely plot-driven story, a macho, good-looking character gets involved in fist fights, gun battles, car chases and sexy encounters with another good-looking character while taking down the bad guys. We live in a world with problems that are often beyond our ability to solve. So it can be reassuring to read a story with problems we know will be solved by the hero in the end. But we know, deep down, that the kissing and killing are purely make believe, that the story is just an entertaining way to escape reality and therefore irrelevant to the sticky web of real life.
In a story driven by plot and character, the character's outer journey from one predicament to another is accompanied by an inner journey of thoughts and feelings. If those thoughts and feelings are psychologically valid and emotionally realistic, we know, deep down, that despite the make-believe kissing and killing, what is happening to the character is happening to us. The story becomes truer than if it had really happened because it’s loaded with clues for shaping and navigating the sticky web of real life. The story reveals a way to change reality because the storyteller has used fiction to tell the truth, and that empowers us to find something true about ourselves. We become the young hero, the wise old woman, the transformed fool, the boy who becomes a man.
We tend to polarize the traits and personalities of real and fictional people as being at one extreme or the other – optimistic or pessimistic, energetic or lazy, intelligent or stupid, cooperative or rebellious, loving or mean, kind or cruel, stubborn or malleable, serious or hilarious. The truth is that most people are capable of either extreme, or somewhere in between, depending on the circumstances. Sam Keene calls attention to this when he wrote…
“Few of us know the fantastic characters, emotions, perceptions and demons that inhabit the theaters that are our minds. We are content to tell a single story, to construct a consistent character, to fix our identity. We are thus defined more by neglected possibilities than by realized ones. We rehearse and repeat a monotonous monologue while heroes and villains, saints and madmen, ascetics and libertines wait in the wings for a chance to seize the stage and run wild. Be all those characters who wander around in your head. Discover your many selves. You become authentically public only by going to the depths of your private.”
As people, Sam is urging you and me to look inside ourselves to improve our personal relationships. As authors, Sam advice can motivate you and me to look inside ourselves to improve our story telling skills. The former doesn’t tell us that we are schizophrenic or unsure of who we are. It tells us we can adjust our relationships with people in ways that make sense with who they are. The latter tells us to look inside ourselves to find characters who make sense with the story we are trying to tell. Your characters are your story, and they are waiting to seize the stage so your real-life passions and prejudices can slam the page like a lightning bolt.
So, the success of your story depends on choosing your characters with as much care as you choose the words to convey your story. The questions below are aimed at waking up the characters sleeping in your imagination. Your answers will bring them to life with meat on their bones, blood in their veins and reality in their words and deeds. And your readers will slip into your character's skin because your story is happening to them.
1Scott Sheldon wrote, "Storytelling is the art of compelling us to admire and respect the characters, cheer for their success and identify with their problems. But every effort to escape the jaws of the enemy puts them in greater peril. We become more and more anxious for their safety and frustrated they are repeatedly unable to outwit and overcome an increasingly vicious and powerful enemy. Just when the conflict takes the darkest turn, the heroes snatch victory from the jaws of defeat."
>Are you a troublemaker, so your characters must deal with problems?
>Does the trouble you create convey internal and external conflict?
>Are the problems they face worthy of your reader's interest?
>Will your readers share your character's success or failure as if it were their own?
>Are the consequences the result of your character's actions?
>Or the result of luck, serendipity or divine intervention?
2James Baldwin wrote, "You think your pain and heartbreak are unprecedented, but then you read something and discover the things that tormented you most were the very things that connected you with all the people who had ever been alive."
>Does your story empower your readers to identify with your main character?
>See the truth that fiction can bring to bear on real life?
>Will your story compel your readers to slip into your character's skin?
3Peggy Lee sang "If that's all there is, my friend, then break out the booze--let's have a party."
>Will your story paint life as meaningless, deterministic, fatalistic and hopeless?
>Or make your readers aware of grace, serendipity and synchronicity?
>Does your character put on a happy face as if positive thinking will change things?
>Does your character have valid or invalid reasons for feeling good or bad about life?
>What kind of future do your characters see for themselves and the world?
4Ray Charles sang "They say that time heals a broken heart, But time has stood still since we've been apart." Tragedy brings pain, fear, doubt and questions: Why me? Why this? Why now? When happier times come, our need for answers fades until something bad happens again. Time doesn't heal anything, but it does provide a playing field for things that do.
>Does your character bring courage, competence and compassion onto the stage?
>Are his questions buried, answered, transformed or forgotten?
>Do bad things happen to good people in your story?
>Or do good things happen to bad people?
>Are your characters punished by their mistakes or for them?
>Does your character solicit sympathy and keep it coming by rejecting solutions?
>Does your character solve problems by treating symptoms instead of causes?
5The same wind that propels you across the lake of life propels my sailboat, too. Our course and bearing are determined by the set of our sails, not the wind.
>Does your character choose the path less traveled by?
>Or get stuck in one rut after another?
>Does your character believe dreams really can come true?
6"Good writing," wrote E. L. Doctorow, "causes your reader to feel something--not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon."
>Does your story help or hinder your reader's presence?
>Does it touch their sensory imagination with sight, sound, taste, touch and smell?
>Does it touch their semantic intellect with ideas and information, facts and feelings?
7For centuries, a culture's focus was revealed by its tallest buildings: cathedrals in the Dark Ages, castles in the 19th century, and corporate skyscrapers in the 20th. Then reading material became a measure of a culture's focus: LIFE magazine in the 40's and 50's, PEOPLE and PLAYBOY in the 70's, US magazine in the 80's and then SELF.
>Who or what is an icon in your story?
>Does your character worship or ignore the icon?
>Does your story merge your character's conflict with the cultural context?
8The Internet is a world-wide web of special-interest, compartmentalized connections.
>Does your character participate in the lives of other characters?
>Or remain outside the lives of others as a spectator?
>Coincidences are meaningful only when you see yourself as part of the web of life.
>Does your character meet just the right person at just the right time?
>Does he interpret the chance encounter as meaningful or meaningless?
>Does the outcome of his interpretation lead to inner and outer conflict?
>Does your character keep running into the same type of person or situation?
>Why does this character attract people and circumstances like that?
9Some people make themselves sick in mind and body to avoid the healthy responsibilities of growing up, whereas some find the gold, silver and precious gems buried in the ashes of their life--things which could not be consumed by the fires of unfortunate circumstance and foolish behavior.
>Does your character lose family, friends and fortune?
>Attach herself to tragedies and regrets?
>Or face life with courage, insight and humor?
>Does she use anger to get attention and dominate others?
>Fear scarcity or being controlled?
>Is your character always finding faults in others?
>And blaming everyone else for her problems?
>Does she take risks and responsibility for the outcome?
>Is she living an authentic life or being dishonest with herself and others?
>Does your character listen to others with a warm heart and open mind?
>Or play mind games to control and deceive others?
>Who buys into these games in your story?
>Who brings openness and honesty into her control dramas?
10Heroes show us what is possible in our own lives by treading paths less traveled by.
>Is your hero's journey revolutionary or evolutionary?
>Does your character abandon her traditional views?
>Does she return to the traditional, every day, interpreted path?
11Time flows uninterrupted into eternity like a river. Things can be tragic or terrific, but only for a season. But some people make themselves a prisoner of fate, preoccupied with what happened in the past as if today and tomorrow will be just like yesterday. Some are prisoners of fear, preoccupied with what might happen, as if tomorrow is a tragic, terrifying place. Others are prisoners of fame or fortune, caught up in keeping up, preoccupied with what is happening now, as if today is all there is.
>Is your character a passive satellite orbiting the past?
>Does your character wait for absolute certainty before making decisions?
>Does your character need transforming or the thing blocking her goal?
>Does your character put on a happy face to ignore reality?
12Life is paved with questions. Some people ask the wrong questions, and some tend to answer questions people aren't asking.
>Which questions are answered or ignored in your story?
>Does your character say things that don't mesh with other people's interests and goals?
>Does he realize his questions must change, not the realities of life?
>Does your character think questions have one answer or more than one answer?
>Does your character see truth as fixed and immutable?
>What is the outcome of her narrow perspective?
>Does your character act as if truth is merely personal opinion?
>That life is about how belief works, not if it's true?
13Some people polarize every issue at one extreme or the other, some take a middle road, and some see both sides. Like the woman who told her fiancé she was slightly pregnant, some people construct shades of gray to weasel out of admitting that something is either black or white.
>Does your character make up complicated lies to hide the simple truth?
>Does your character keep creed and conduct separate in their head?
>Does your character have mutually exclusive beliefs and behaviors?
>Does your character paint life as black or white or in shades of gray?
>Is your character in touch with the male and female aspects of his personality?
>Do the male and female perspectives compete or cooperate?
14Change is a prerequisite for life. We die, literally and figuratively, by losing the willingness or ability to change.
>Does your character strive to change the things she can?
>Or get hung up in the outcome?
>Is he camping out on the same old turf or moving down the trail?
>Does your character treat life like as a port in a storm?
>Does he risk everything for one thing?
15Most people die with their music still inside themselves--the world should grieve your passing, not your unfinished business.
>Does your character find her music and share it with others?
>What is the unfinished business of your main character?
16Some people need assurance and security--every facet of their lives must be fixed and immutable, fastened with a nail.
>Does your character risk failure and seek success by departing from the normal?
>Or fabricate artificial certainty to escape the challenges of faith and paradox?
17Shawn Hubler wrote, "It takes strength to live in civilization for community with its slings and arrows is man's true Darwinian test. The weak and troubled cleave to the shelter of the fringes, skid rows, shuttered apartments and nooks and crannies of the wilderness."
>Does your story emphasize the deep connections between characters?
>Or exaggerate their loneliness and individualism?
>Does it convey the difference between feeling lonely and being alone?
>Does your character find the courage and opportunity to convey her values and feelings?
>Or withdraw from life to solicit attention or avoid criticism?
>Does your character avoid being true to himself by clinging to others?
>Is his life about having someone rather than being himself?
>Who uses membership in an organization to avoid becoming their own person?
18Carlos Castaneda taught his disciples that "There is no completeness without sadness and longing, for without them there is no sobriety, no kindness. Wisdom without kindness and knowledge without sobriety are useless." But Stephen King told us that "All tragedies are stupid. I'll take A Midsummer Night's Dream over Hamlet every time. Any fool with steady hands and a working set of lungs can build up a house of cards and then blow it down. It takes a genius to make people laugh."
>Will your story make people feel good about themselves?
>Without abandoning the fact that life has its ups and downs?
>By acknowledging that suffering brings wisdom?
>That people can integrate sadness and laughter?
>Will your story make people laugh at themselves?
>Teach them ways to live, love and let go?
19John Lennon said, “When I was five, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told them I want to be happy. They said I didn’t understand the assignment. I told them they didn’t understand life.” Stephen Holland said, “Happiness is like moonshine. Make your own and you’ll never run out.”
>Does your character make her own happiness?
>Or depend on someone else to be happy?
>Is a close relationship the root of her happiness?
>Is success and job satisfaction why she’s happy?
>Or because she’s keeping up with the neighbors?
>Is she’s comfortable with who she is?
>Or are regrets, failures and fear preventing happiness?
20Carl Jung wrote, “The sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being.”
>Does your character determine his or her own purpose?
>Or allow a heavenly or earthly being decide for him?
>How does your character express the meaning of life?
>Is that an essential or non-essential aspect of the plot?