Creative Series III: Breathing Life Into Your Characters and Your Story

How does a writer breathe life into their story?

People are the spice of life. Modern day storyteller/songwriters like Jim Croce and Harry Chapin were instrumental in exposing us for what we are – stories. They were part of a generation when many stories were told in song. It was a time that harkened back to ancient times, when travelling bards (“musical storytellers”) would travel from town to town, making their living by reciting or retelling stories handed down through the ages with one musical instrument and their voice.

It is the predictability and the unpredictability of the human spirit that can make or break a story.

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As human beings, we have the ability to not only think, but cause or react to changes within our environment. Our environment can be any part of us or the world around us. If you think about it, any story has to have its own world and within that world, an environment.

Philosophy is our bread and butter.

Many years ago, I was a college student sitting in a philosophy class. Everyone in the class was involved in a heated exchange, some to the point of screaming at others. Our professor was sitting back in his seat, calmly observing our hotly contested debate. The discussion?  It was over a single word: Determinism.

Determinism, if you did not follow the link argues whether we determine our fate.

If you have never taken a philosophy class, you have been missing a lot about what makes us tick as a species. Simply stated, determinism is cause and effect. Does nature, environment, politics, biology or genetics, behavior, culture, society, psychology, language, economic status or technology affect our fate? In simpler terms, are we the quintessential lemmings, destined to follow each other over the cliffs to our deaths? Our argument took place, after I gave a very short presentation on why God is Evil. My task was to take an argument that I did NOT agree with and convince my fellow classmates that I was right. My mentor for this exercise was philosopher and confirmed atheist Baron d’Holbach, a man that I did not agree with…yet had to support to get a passing grade. I’m not going into particulars, but I am going to argue that you, as a writer, have the choice of determining the fate of your characters.

What makes a character evil?

First, let’s look at what makes a character evil? Hitler for example, was considered evil by many standards. From a philosophical point of view, what “determined” Hitler’s fate? When you study him from a standpoint of leadership, he was a charismatic politician, who was able to bring a country that was destitute and poverty-stricken, “adept at using populist themes, including the use of scapegoats, who were blamed for his listeners’ economic hardships.” – Wikipedia

What makes a character good?

Our second look is a character who is often espoused, or portrayed as “good”, Abraham Lincoln. What factors contributed to your opinion or public opinion as his being a “good” character? Did determinism have a hand in his fate? If any factors had changed, regarding how Lincoln was raised, whether the Civil War had occurred or if he had not become a lawyer, would Lincoln be the “good” character many of us think of, today?

The best stories are an exercise in determinism.

How you determine your character acts and reacts to situations, can have an effect, not on the outcome of your story, but on the success of your story. Characters, like people, can change. Unless you decide that you do not want your character to change. Can a weak leader become a strong leader? How would you, the writer, demonstrate this? Can a character become amusing in a tense situation?

Understanding your story, why you are writing it, even empathizing with your character can help you breathe life into your story.

So, how can you create a character?

You can create a character from real life. People have all kinds of stories. It is those stories that guide your character’s actions, like a kind of roadmap.

Next in the Series: It’s all about the character AND the dialogue.

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