One of the secrets of writing successful stories is the ability to write from the inside out. That is, to write action and plot from the emotional, moral, and spiritual perspective of characters who are deeply invested in the story.
It took me a while to figure this out. I thought, for a long time, that stories were primarily about exciting and colourful external events, spun around the mechanism of surprise. Writing from the inside out sounded like the sort of thing you’d do when attempting to write literature.
The truth is that if you don’t care about your character’s fears, obsessions, and motivation, you won’t care about her physical actions.
A character responds to the challenges facing her in the way she does precisely because she has a backstory, a personality, a set of foibles, mores, and obsessions. It is these that give the character’s actions verisimilitude.
In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos is a physicist obsessed with solving a set of equations that will eventually allow for time travel into the past. He feels responsible for his wife’s death and has dedicated his life to rewriting the past. His obsession prevents him from realising that he is a man trapped by guilt and regret, unable to live the meaningful life his wife would have wished for him.
In Nobel prize winner William Golding’s outstanding novel, The Spire, Jocelin, the Dean of the cathedral is a man consumed by the desire to extend his cathedral’s glory through the building of a spire at the top of the structure. He ignores the advice of the master builder that the cathedral’s foundation won’t support the extension. He brushes aside all objections, puts up with the inconvenience to the congregation of turning the cathedral into a building site, claiming that God will provide solutions.
The novel is an intense study of how will and obsession can lead to inevitable catastrophe. The external events concerning the building of the structure are related through Jocelin’s emotional and psychological state, forcing the reader to experience the story through his sensibility while simultaneously foregrounding his folly.
We could do worse than emulate this kind of intensity in our own characters regardless of setting, genre, or era.
Imbue your characters with a strong will, beliefs and obsessions to enliven and motivate their behavior.
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