How do you see the world? Is it the Land of Milk and Honey or The Hunger Games? Is the glass half empty or half full? Is our human existence hilarious, serene, tragic or full of hope? Do you sort, filter, organize and understand everything around you primarily through feelings, family, cost versus benefit, politics, law, sin and salvation, astrology or whether things add to, or subtract from, the chances of the San Jose Sharks winning the Stanley Cup?
You and I live in the same world and yet we don’t. It’s different for each of us. The quality of my days begins with whether my kid’s school bus is late and the intensity of my morning coffee. The purpose of my days is determined by competing deadlines at work. My days achieve meaning when what I read transports me or if what I write is clear. My measure of self-satisfaction is whether I strike a balance and get through it all with aplomb.
What about you? What, for you, makes a day good or bad? Is it whether things go well at work? Is it whether you eat right and hit the gym? Are days good when you connect with friends or bad when you accidentally take a call from your doctor instead of letting it go to voicemail? Does a Lenny Kravitz tune lift you up? Does the news from Lebanon drag you down? Do you look forward to a good sleep or fear that you’ll lie awake?
What gives you a sense of purpose? Facebook and Twitter? Your inbox? Your kids? Your kitchen? Your manuscript? Your mind? Your prayers? Your mission, whatever it is, and if you sell a lot of muffins at your bake sale? Winning her over? Getting rid of him for good? Finding out the truth? Surrendering to what is?
How do you judge yourself in a given day? With a morning mirror check? By whether you’re on time, in charge, ready and empowered? According to what you get done? By how well you meet your own standards of behavior? Whether you stick to your guns or stand up for your principles? By how well you stay humble, flow, and show compassion for others? Whether you make someone laugh?
What matters more than the details of our days is the disparity in how we experience them. That’s what’s interesting. That’s what’s engaging. That’s what we talk about. To the degree that we’re in accord about our experiences we feel satisfied and safe. When we assert the differences in our days, though, we waken each other and enthrall.
This is important in writing fiction because it reminds us that capturing the world as it is only accomplishes a little. Creating sympathetic characters with whom we can identify is fine but only takes us so far. What interests readers is not the specific details of a story world but the specific ways in which that world is felt and understood by its characters, especially protagonists.
If you experience the world as someone else does then you are bound to feel about it differently than you do. That excites awe and engages deeply. When your characters feel, weigh, judge and wonder in ways that we don’t we’re more than interested, we feel things both unfamiliar and desired. Our emotional world expands.
To get us to feel strongly as we read your story, get us to feel differently. That’s the key. There are many ways to work on that but let’s try a few. What we’re going to focus on is not feelings about things that happen in your protagonist’s story world, but your protagonist’s experience of his or her own emotional world.
Makes notes as you ponder these questions:
At any given time things are going well or badly for your protagonist. How does he or she know that? How does he or she measure it? According to what calibration? What results are way good? What setbacks are way bad? What is lucky? What sucks? Do things sometimes line up nicely or is snafu the rule? In the story highlight three things that affirm your protagonist’s suppositions, and one thing that is wildly contrary to expectations. Try that within one scene.
What gives your protagonist a sense of purpose? How does he or she know that something has meaning? What indicates that something matters? What signals how much? Create a scale of measurement, a litmus test or a sixth sense that reliably says “pay attention”. Apply it in four places in the story.
In what terms does your protagonist judge himself or herself? According what standards? Pick a scene somewhere in the middle of your manuscript…is your protagonist happy or unhappy with himself or herself? How much? Rate that feeling with your protagonist’s unique units of measurement. What is the ideal way to be or your protagonist’s best self? What is the worst? Give a name to each and then find the spot in the story when your protagonist hits both a personal high and low.
You and I live in the same world and yet we experience it differently. It’s hostile or beneficent, full of purpose or void of meaning, and above all a reason to measure ourselves by whatever criteria we choose. When our characters do that too—especially when their experience is different than ours—we don’t pull away but draw closer. We don’t get less emotionally involved but more. And isn’t that what we want?
What’s the world according to your protagonist, and one way in which it’s different?