Do you keep your characters safe or do you throw them into the storm?

The title above was adapted from an excerpt in Slightly Foxed; issue 65, from the wonderful Foxed Quarterly, which I have included here:

… recommending that we put forward honestly the reasons we have for a belief, Thouless admits that such a method is likely to be unpopular with those ‘who want a feeling of certainty rather than a knowledge of truth’ … for who isn’t tempted to linger in the safe harbour of conviction rather than venture out into the unsettlingly choppy waters of inquiry and doubt?

Slightly Foxed Quarterly: issue 65.

The obvious question to come out of that is, do your characters linger in a safe harbour of existence in your writing, one where life goes smoothly and everything works out alright, or do you throw them into the storm and make things happen to them, things that will question their existence, however unsettling that might be?

What are ships for?

A ship might be safe in the calm waters of a harbour, but that’s not what it was built for. It was built to venture into the stormy waters; it makes things more exciting.

Your story is that ship and you are its captain.

Challenge yourself

How often have you read a novel, or a journalistic article, that has shaken something you took for granted? And how many books would you read if none of them questioned a thing about life and humanity? It’s what our stories are built on: putting someone in a difficult situation and letting them work out what needs to change to get out of it. That someone needs to be questioning things, working things out.

Our individual certainties and beliefs are all different to some degree, and to make the characters in your story believable theirs must be too. You can only do that by challenging and exploring your own beliefs and certainties in life. Sometimes that can be an uncomfortable exercise.

Question yourself

If you’re a fairly successful person who has a positive outlook on life, how easy is it for you to imagine someone who is the direct opposite? Someone who has the fundamental belief they are not worthy of success, therefore they will never attain it.

Likewise if you are someone who lacks confidence and often puts obstacles in the way of achieving something. Can you imagine what it is like to break through those barriers and be successful?

What do I mean by belief system?

A belief system is inherent in all of us. It’s what makes us see ourselves and the world in the unique way that we do, and what determines how we react to situations, and how we guide our lives through the maze of possibilities out there. There are certain ‘facts’ about life that remain true and must continue to do so to maintain equilibrium – and they are different in all of us. It’s what makes us tick as human beings.

When those ‘facts’ are challenged we can either stick to our guns and prove ourselves right, by whatever means – often illogically, or choose to question them and change. You’d be surprised how often you do the former.

More here… and here.

Make things happen to your characters

Challenge your protagonist’s view of the world. Sail her out into stormy waters and show your reader what is happening to her thoughts and feelings and reasoning so that we can identify with that character.

It’s called empathy. You are putting the reader into someone else’s shoes. It doesn’t matter that the character is a fictional person, as long as your reader can believe in them. People are only believable if things happen to them.

The result is that your reader will want to know how did s/he deal with what just happened to them? Humans have enquiring minds and we are always keen to find out what happened next. It helps us to deal with our own lives and to empathise with others.

Bring about change

When you are exposed to new ideas and beliefs, your belief system starts rearranging itself. In the process of doing so, it will evolve and change into something significantly different than what it used to be.

How is your character going to change? It may be that his quest all along has been to prove something right and he achieves that at the end, but along the way he might have been exposed to things outside his normal experiencing. Something in him will have changed and the triumph of being right will have its own shades of meaning.

Readers will recognise your experiences

The point is, we are writing from our own experience; drawing on the things that have happened to us, whether good or bad – and don’t forget to write about the good, it’s what lifts our spirits – and it’s what makes our story real. People will recognise your experiences, even if they are not for the same reasons. It’s what makes us human.

Have you read a book that changed the way you saw something or how you felt about it? Has a book ever helped you in understanding how you might change things for yourself? What lifts your spirits in a story?

Foxed Quarterly, from Slightly Foxed: The independent-minded literary magazine that combines good looks, good writing and a personal approach. Slightly Foxed introduces its readers to books that are no longer new and fashionable but have lasting appeal. Good-humoured, unpretentious and a bit eccentric, it’s more like a well-read friend than a literary review.