I believe storytellers need to be amateur psychologists.
We tell stories to depict how people act, how they respond to the circumstances of life we throw at them. Dull stories paint faded personalities who do exactly as expected and are perfect. They do not falter or make mistakes. Their very predictability assures the reader that all is well in that character’s fictional world. That means NOTHING interesting or challenging happens.
The enthralling character is the one who is willing to take chances, a person who will learn and change as the story forces that person to accomplish new skills and problem solve. The reader learns to respect and care for the well-being of this courageous character.
Oddly, the reader learns and grows right along with the character. The jargon or lingo of a strange new world or occupation, the pros and cons of new life skills, the prioritizing of new challenges and even the consideration of a variety of strange new people are learned by the reader as they are mentally processed by the character. New experiences, new places, new people take on significance in the mind of the reader right along with the character. Think about that adage “Make children readers and they will live a thousand lives, not just one.” And they learn to compare and contrast the fictional lessons to real life situations. That is the primary reason for writers to be careful in the life lessons their characters experience. Those lessons are considered by the reader’s mind when real life presents similar situations.
What We Know
From elementary school on, we are told “Write what you know.” Despite that admonition most children will persist in writing stories about adults. Why? Because adults represent options and possibilities not yet available to a growing child. It doesn’t matter that the child’s immature and skewed perceptions result in stilted, awkward, unrealistic stereotypes. Children do not know how to research, let alone depict and motivate complex personalities. Their frame of reference is limited. The same can be said of any adult attempting to write about roles, work arenas or places they have not experienced. The story events and character actions are beyond make-believe to the point that they are not credible.
All fiction is lies. Both writers and readers know that up front. However, contemporary readers expect fiction writers to depict their make-believe so accurately that their imaginations and their thought processes are enthralled, wanting to believe all of it could be real. The writer must be a good liar. Details must be authentic, emotions and choices logical. Both protagonists and antagonists have to be well-rounded with motives, desires, and life histories. To be interesting to the reader these characters have to reasonably yet intensely dramatic. Despite some universal traits, the characters must also be vividly unique enough for the reader to want to fall into their fantasy world and vicariously live their experiences. Their stories must provide escapist entertainment that will be exciting and memorable.
Enjoying the Make-Believe
The writer has to be caught up in the characters’ lives. Yes, you have to do your research to present authentic details and have a purpose and direction for your story. Seat-of-the-pants writing without KNOWING the details will ultimately result in vague, awkward depiction that can lose your interest thus the reader’s. Knowing your characters and their world up front puts You-the-Writer in control from the get go. Control equates to your belief that this story “could” happen. When YOU get sucked into the vicarious lives of your characters, guess what happens? Your writing will flow with an easy energy the reader can sense.
It’s not just a matter of “writing the kind of story you want to read.” It is about depicting the experiences you can believe. The reader will know when you admire, hate or distrust the fantasy people. The words you choose, the events you orchestrate will reflect your attitude and involvement in the story. That kind of writing can be exhilarating AND exhausting, but so much more meaningful than skating on the obviously thin ice of a simple surface story.
Dig deep into the minds and lives of your characters. Make them fallible and flawed, as well as highly motivated and courageous. Give them a remarkable quest and the challenge of opposition that will demand they work to achieve their goals and be worthy of the respect of those accompanying them on the journey.
Don’t write what you know. Write what you are passionate about and want to learn about. Write with the same intensity your characters live their make-believe lives!
My course “Giving Depth to Fictional Characterization” can give you a variety of personality tools that can move your storytelling to a new level of human insight. It’s coming up starting November 2 for Savvy Authors.
Sally Walker’s published credits include literary, romance and western novels, a nonfiction essay collection, several creative writing textbooks, stage plays, poetry, and many magazine articles on the craft of writing, including staff contributions to two international film magazines for 10 years. With 30 screenplays written, several under negotiation at three different studios and her novel-to-screenplay adaptation on her plate, Sally has a well-respected manager representing her in Hollywood. In addition to long time active memberships in such national writing organizations as RWA, WWA and SCBWI, she was president of a state-wide writers organization 2007-2011. She keeps to a strenuous writing schedule and still has time to work as Editorial Director for The Fiction Works, supervising acquisitions and sub-contracted editors, as well as Script Supervisor for material sent to TFW’s affiliated Misty Mountain Productions. Sally has taught writing seminars, both on-site and on-line, for over 29 years and is the facilitator for the weekly meetings of the Nebraska Writers Workshop in Ralston, NE. For more information on her works and classes go to her website at http://www.sallyjwalker.com.