By Vicki Hinze
Life is about people. What makes them work, breaks them, encourages or sparks the need to do the things they do in the ways they do them. Yes, good or bad, life is about people, which means that storytelling is about people. What happens to them, how they react to it, why they react as they do, and the consequences of their actions—on themselves and on others.
Real life people work that way, too. We have the saintly, the manipulative, the users and abusers and the giver and nurturers. We have hundreds of ways of classifying people that go beyond good and evil, and typically those classifications include the why people are as they are. That’s to be expected, for none of us escape childhood without in some form being bruised or battered.
For writers that is particularly true. We experience much so that we can share the reality of much—actions and reactions—in our fictional worlds from a place of knowing. Some writers consider this type of writing cathartic. Some consider it a duty or a mission to inform. Others consider writing about issues and experiences offering proof that there is good life on the other side of hardship and/or tragedy for those who might be doubting it. Fresh starts, change, new beginnings are all possible. Constructive ones. And when stuck in a long, dark hallway and one can’t see light at the end of the tunnel, it is reassuring, comforting and empowering to discover that there is light there, and doors in the hallway, and there are ways to find those doors. The constructive doors that open to answers that work and the destructive doors that open to answers and solutions that fail.
Some say people never change. But they do. People change all the time. Sometimes for better or worse but usually for a bit of both. How much and in what way depends not on externals (wealth and power) but on internals (character, fiber, what one does with wealth and/or power). Typically, by the time we’ve walked through a few of our own trials by fire, we become more empathetic versus sympathetic. More considerate or, if we lack character and fiber as a strong foundation, more bitter. If that character and fiber has been instilled or acquired by choice, we reach a stage where we’re more interested in others than in ourselves. Why?
As we grow and mature, we also settle into the lives we’ve made for ourselves. Once we feel settled—whether we’re content or resigned—we pay more attention to those outside ourselves. We look beyond “me” and at “us.”
This evolution has long since been considered a sign of maturity. (We’ve experienced more and therefore have more compassion and a deeper understanding of the plight of others. We want to help because we can. Either we’ve made choices that resulted in worsening our position/condition or in choices that successfully overcame the same or a similar challenge.) We’ve tapped into a little wisdom. Wisdom itself is good, but applying judgment in incorporating it into life, we’ll that’s where further issues can arise, isn’t it?
Some embrace this “growing” and some reject it.
Many call the refusal to grow the “Peter Pan” syndrome. The truth lies in why the individual doesn’t want to grow. Was childhood that sweet? Or is the individual so ill-prepared for life that the fear of finding his or her feet in the world is that strong? Either is valid, and the only way to answer the question of why there’s no growth is to call the question.
For the writer, calling the question, or forcing the issue by putting a character in the position where that character has no choice but to confront and reveal his or her true motives, provides the answers for that character—and, by extension, for readers in similar situations.
Used in this way, it’s the character’s internal conflict. And it is in that conflict that we find compelling storytelling. A character can captivate us with a glance. But to hold our glance, and our attention, we want more. We need to know why the character does or doesn’t take action. What most matters to him or her? Why is it important? And if it isn’t important to the character, how then can it be important to us?
It’s an old analogy but a timeless one. A character, like a real person, is akin to an onion. Both have many layers. And on each layer is embedded the reason for that layer and the impact of that layer on other layers—on the onion as a whole.
In Christmas Countdown, which is the second book in my Lost, Inc. series, the protagonist is Maggie Mason. Here’s the photo that inspired me to write about Maggie:
Maggie is a former FBI profiler who has become the target of a notorious serial killer. Before the story opens, the serial killer took offense to Maggie getting too close to catching him and nearly killed Maggie and her only brother. It’s taken her a long time to recover from injuries sustained, and she used those injuries to formally resign from the FBI.
Now that’s a logical reaction to a real challenge that endangered not only Maggie but her family. But then Maggie also distanced herself from her family. Now why would she do that? To protect them, of course, but is that the only reason? Or is there something in Maggie’s character that demands more?
If there is nothing more, then the story is over before it’s begun, isn’t it? The conflict ended when Maggie quit and stayed away. But the story’s only begun, so what then did Maggie do? (A deeper layer of the onion is revealed.) She pushes and pushes—I won’t disclose specifics because it would ruin the story for those who haven’t yet read it—but I’ll say that Maggie and the serial killer become embroiled in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse. Sometimes she pursues and sometimes she is pursued. Now why would she do this? That’s another layer of the onion that is Maggie—and of the serial killer. Something far deeper drives Maggie, and layer by layer we discover what it is, and who she is.
Yet during the course of her trials, Maggie (like all of us) suffers defeats and triumphs and each one of them changes her. Her attitude, her beliefs, her actions.
Change is essential in people and in stories. For if there is no change, and the person is the same at the end as at the beginning, then what has been the purpose of the story (or of the life)? Why have we taken this journey with them?
We journey to grow. In the best of stories (and life) that growth offers an imprint of opportunity that can forever alter the character, the reader, and the writer, for it exposes the very heartbeat of people and why they change.♦
© 2012, Vicki Hinze
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Vicki Hinze is the award-winning bestselling author of nearly thirty novels in a variety of genres including, suspense, mystery, thriller, and romantic or faith-affirming thrillers. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and a Ph.D. in Philosophy, Theocentric Business and Ethics. Hinze’s website: www.vickihinze.com. Facebook. Books. Twitter. Contact.