It was the best of spring breaks, it was the worst of spring breaks. Two weeks. Yep, my kid’s private school takes off not one but two weeks. Did I mention it was two weeks? In March? When public schools aren’t out? When there’s only one week of sports camp offered? When babysitters–such as but not limited to my wife–are themselves in school or otherwise unavailable?
So, last week I spent five mornings with my kid. He’s six, an only child and easily bored. It was a challenge but I decided to make it fun. We had adventures. One of them took us to the Liberty Science Center, a museum for kids in Jersey City. He loves science. Perfect, I thought.
It was the best of spring breaks, it was the worst of spring breaks. The LSC was mobbed with school groups, loud, raucous and restless. My kid, who is adopted, suffers from PTSD. The noise and milling children at the museum took him instantly back to his orphanage. The effect was familiar: He mentally and emotionally detached from me. He ran from exhibit to exhibit, frantic and unfocused. He could not hear my voice. If I glanced away I lost sight of him.
I asked myself, why am I here? What was I thinking? Trapped in Jersey City. Only a few map miles from home in Brooklyn, true, but in traffic miles an epic journey away. I felt lost, helpless and responsible for a kid who was himself lost and helpless. How could I reach him? He was only a few feet away but might as well have been on the Moon.
Then I remembered why I was there. I love my kid. I love him more powerfully than I’ve ever loved anyone or anything. Why is it that? He’s my kid, sure, but it’s more than that. This particular kid owns my heart because he’s so much like me. That’s odd to say since we’re different races and he’s good at math, but it’s true.
He’s a kid who is dislocated. So was I as a kid. It was in ways milder than he’s experienced but the effect was similar. I never felt like I belonged where I was.
I took my kid away from the noisy exhibits and to the cafeteria. We got food. We sat in a quiet corner far away from the school groups. We goofed around. I suggested we go to a movie in the Imax theatre. We saw a movie about the Ice Age, wooly mammoths and their extinction. He was rapt. Afterwards he asked a hundred questions. He’s seen death, this kid, and the movie stirred him in deep ways. He feels like a saber toothed tiger, sometimes, ferociously alive yet like he’s being sucked into a tar pit. I get it. We talked.
My kid and I are the same.
So are you and your protagonist.
Why is your main character here, in this story that you’re writing? Your character is here for the same reason that you are. Answer the question for yourself and you’ll answer it for your character. You will also discover your character’s deepest inner need, which in turn points to what must happen in order to know, thwart and finally fulfill that need.
Why are you writing this story? How does it connect to you? What in your protagonist’s experience parallels your own? What need is most like yours? What fear is closest to your own darkest dread? What decision has an impossible cost, a cost you’ve paid yourself? When in the story could you be sitting in your protagonist’s place? Why there and then?
Write all of that down. (No, I mean write it down right now.) Look not for generalized empathy but for specific ways in which your own life and your protagonist’s life are in parallel. Find the moments of strongest connection. Now make them stronger. Remove the distance between you and your character. When you feel the most for what your character is going through, let your feelings flow from inside you onto the page. How do you get it? What can you say? What do you want your character, and us, to know? How can you convey that you understand? What can you show your character to do?
What you’re writing down is the key to your main character’s most fundamental conflict—and its solution. From here you can build backwards and pour that conflict into the very foundation of your character’s life at the story’s start. You can construct the story events to draw your protagonist both toward and away from what he or she needs to resolve that conflict. The inner yearning and outward journey will feel real because they are: They are yours.
What, ultimately, is the purpose of your story? It might be a story of extinction but probably it is a story of survival, if not growth. It is a grappling with life and death, actual or spiritual or both. It’s that big. It is. You know that because you’ve lived it. Now write it.