Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Philosophy of Stories: Characters (as explained by an orthodox rebel)

A common point of instruction in most modern creative writing classes is "Write people, not ideas." There is a truth here as well as a lie. The truth is that your story needs to be populated with believable people, not cardboard cut-out allegorical mouthpieces. The lie, however, is that there is no way to write "people" without also writing "ideas," because people are ideas; or better yet, people have ideas, and those ideas are what move them forward in any story.

Many people (especially in secular circles) are apt to forget that we are all philosophers. We are all believers. Even if we have no immediate idea what we believe in because we haven't thought about it enough to adequately put it into words, we all have a particular view of our world and our circumstances. That view (whatever it may be) creates desires, which in turn create actions. And action (of any sort) is the kindling for drama.

All this is the meaning behind other (absentmindedly wise) instructions from modern creative writing classes: "Follow the pain" or "Give them a want." A person without even implicit beliefs feels no pain, because they hold nothing dear or precious. A person without even a subconscious philosophy has no wants, because they hold nothing to be desirous or worthy of effort. Treat a person like a blank slate of random activity, and you will create doldrum. Treat a person like a believer, and you will create bedlam. And bedlam is always dramatic.

Do not fool yourself into thinking that a person's philosophy needs to be complicated. It could be as simple as believing that water is good and thus wanting a glass very, very badly. It would still prove the point. Drama springs forth from human activity, and no human activity was ever done for nothing. Even those strange few who claim to base their actions on "nothing" still see that "nothing" as a something upon which (if they've thought about it enough) they could elucidate.

The point is that when your are writing your stories, remember that no human exists in a vacuum. Even if they're alone, they're not alone. They always have their self. The wishing, wanting, hoping, fearing, failing self, our very heart. And out of the heart a man speaketh. Out of the heart are the issues of life.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

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