Further Thoughts on Character Development in Writing & Life

  • by Gitabushi

Recently, I wrote this piece to praise a book that I found to be extremely useful in both writing and life.

I’ve been thinking about it more, and I think the book misses on two points, when it comes to writing.

First, it insists that the misbelief your character is clinging to should be the cause of an imminent problem that the main character can no longer ignore.  Having thought about it a few more days in the context of my own planned story, I think this might not be necessary.

In my own case, the main character wants to gain some local fame for another talent, in hopes that he will then be popular, and being popular, he will get his friends back.  This is a misbelief, but I think he could actually go his whole life without this being a crippling misunderstanding.  Moreover, I want this story to start when he’s 16, for a number of reasons, and I just don’t see how this misbelief could be a crisis at that age.

Instead, the talent that he finds (magic-based martial arts) is going to cause the crisis, as he catches the attention of powers that guard the magic jealously.

Likewise, Luke’s belief that he is stuck in a backwater of the Galaxy and that an exciting adventure is what he wants is what actually kinda keeps him from dying immediately at the hands of the Empire. It is a misbelief, but it drives the story and it is actually his hubris (in combination with a friend realizing that Friendship is Magic) that saves the Rebellion from destruction.

OMG. Star Wars is a My Little Pony movie.

I’m going to forget I ever said that.

The second problem is perhaps not a real problem.

The assertion of the book is that every story should be a character story on some level. On first reading, I found that compelling, and embraced it.  But with another few days’ of thought and trying out this hypothesis on books and movies I’ve enjoyed, I think I’ve thought of at least one exception:

“13 Hours: the Secret Soldiers of Benghazi”

13 hours poster
“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” Promotional Poster

This was a very compelling and moving story, and not just because it was a visual spectacle.  We *knew* the outcome, and it was still worth watching.

But there wasn’t any misbelief on display by the main character.

In fact, I could point out that the movie has some significant problems in its storytelling.  In retrospect, the main character isn’t the main character, and really isn’t much of a protagonist.  He does his job, but he never really makes any choices (the main character should be the person who has the most freedom to choose/act, and has the most impact from his choices/actions).  That story would probably have been even more compelling if told from Rone’s perspective, or even Tonto’s.  Or the CIA Mission Chief.

And maybe it is still a good story because it is a true story. Dunno. I need to think on it a little more.

Another exception is “10 Cloverfield Lane”.  I think that is a good story, but the misbelief that drives the story is not the main character’s.  But the main character *is* the one whose choices and actions drive the story.  It’s a very good story.

Interestingly, “Orcs!” (2011) *is* a story where a main character has to confront a misbelief that has been holding him back his entire life to that point.  This thought is going to inspire another post.  Just sayin’

Anyway, if the point of the writing book was not that everyone story must be a character story, but rather that it is just one excellent and time-tested way to develop a compelling and memorable story, well, I can’t argue with that.

So to the extent that I said that every story *is* a character story, I’m wrong. There are plenty of good stories that don’t focus on character development.

However, if your story idea is just “meh”, or if, like me, you find your stories bogging down and lacking in drive, you should still consider using the character development elements of “misbelief” and “resistance to change until forced by life to do it” to supercharge your writing.  Making your story a character story can’t be wrong, it just might not be 100% necessary.

But in life, I think the point is character development: yours. The point of the writing book is that people usually don’t change until circumstances in life force them into a costly re-evaluation of their paradigms, and that we tell stories to give people a chance to make changes in their lives *before* their misbeliefs force a crisis.  So as you read the book to help your writing, consider your own beliefs, and your own troubles in life, and try to identify which are the misbeliefs causing your troubles.  You might be able to make a change and have a better life before the troubles become disasters.

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