Answering This One Weird Question Will Help You Build Better Characters

Two weeks ago, I started a class where the instructor asked the following question:

What if you were The One?

Like many people, I squirmed in my chair. The One? Seriously? 

Sensing our discomfort, he asked us each to list the ways we’re already the ones making a difference in another person’s life.

The one who feeds the cats. 
The one who tucks the kids into bed. 
The one who visits a mother in a nursing home. 
The one who writes stories that make people feel less alone.

After we created our lists, he returned to his original question.

If you were The One, and nothing and no one was against you, how would you live your life?

What would you allow yourself to do?

Maybe these questions sound arrogant or absurd. But he’s not the first person to entertain these ideas.

American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham is famously quoted as saying the following to her students:

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” 

If you were The One, would you feel more alive?

Would you allow yourself to be a channel not just for your stories but for the emotions that enrich them?

In the Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface, Maass says, “how characters experience their story determines how readers experience a novel (or memoir).”  Like it or not, “you reveal your inner self right away.”

He says a writer’s positivity—or lack of it—gets transmitted into their work. Slush piles are filled with misery-laden manuscripts that only go from bad to worse—if they go anywhere at all.

“Cynical writing tries too hard.”

To write well, Maass encourages writers to cultivate a sense of positivity or indomitable resilience that provides a life force for your character’s journey.  This positivity encompasses the best of you—your nerve, your drive, your sense of hope.

This isn’t about writing Pollyanna characters and cheerful plotlines.

Maass uses Ben H. Winter’s novel The Last Policeman to illustrate the kind of positivity he’s referring to. This novel is about an asteroid named Maia that’s six months away from colliding with the earth. Society is collapsing. There are bankruptcies and price controls. Guns have been outlawed. Religious mania and suicides are up. But even as life unravels, one gritty cop, Hank Pike, tries to solve the latest crime. His colleagues think he’s crazy. Who cares if the most recent death is a suicide or a murder? Hank does, and he’s determined to find out what really happened.

That desire to get the job done in the face of worldwide calamity is the positivity Maass is talking about.

And doesn’t this definition fit for the writing life too?

Writing well requires us to muscle through countless drafts, rejections, and near-constant ambiguity and uncertainty.

Yet, we continue to write.

To keep doing this, some small part of us must believe we’re The One with the positivity required to write something important.

If this is true, what would it take to believe that no one and nothing is against you?

What would you need to believe or do to see every hardship as a lesson, every setback as a gift, every loss as the beginning of something new?

Does it sound like I’ve hopped on board the bullshit train and started to blow its horn?

Do you wish you were onboard too?

All I ask is that you figure out what you believe and then ask yourself the following questions:

How are my answers working for me?
Do they give me courage?
Are they helping me create characters that persevere, even when their worlds collapse around them?

And, if these questions feel too big, try this one:

When are you the one who makes a difference in someone’s life? 

Don’t be afraid to recognize your contributions to the world.

Instead, use them to sustain your writing life, and as always, keep writing on.

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