In the wake of the election, I am a different person. I am now afraid of many things, especially what is going to happen given the volatility I see in the world and in my neighborhood. It’s something I’ve never experienced in this country, in what I now realize with mortifying clarity has been a very sheltered life. And listen: I’m old. I remember first-hand the end of the Vietnam years.
I had assumed a very different outcome on November 8th, and what happened upended my worldview overnight. It forced me to look at lots of things in a new light, and look deep into the why behind the actions of others, especially those whose political views are different from mine. This made me think a lot about story, because story is all about how someone’s worldview changes.
And precisely because of that, stories have the power to help bring the country together at this divisive time. Story can help us see each other as we are. Help us empathize, understand and perhaps find common ground.
After all, stories are about how your protagonist’s worldview evolves. They’re about how she overcomes a driving misbelief that has been holding her back, in the face of a problem she can’t avoid.
That’s why your job as a novelist – first and foremost — is to understand why your characters believe they are right, especially when they’re not. They always have a reason – and that reason isn’t because they’re a jerk, or stupid, or simply mean. That reason is something their life taught them, and to them it feels real and good and true. But – and this is the key thing — it doesn’t mean it is true.
The purpose of a story is to help your protagonist see their misbelief for what it is: wrong. As Proust so eloquently said, “The only true voyage of discovery isn’t in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” The goal of any story is to give your protagonist – and by extension your reader – new eyes.
So, how do you open your protagonist eyes to the fact that what they believe, and the conclusions they’ve drawn, might not be serving them?
First, as Seth Godin advises in a short post he just wrote, you must know – and respect — why your protagonist believes it in the first place:
“The other person is always right
Always right about feelings.
About the day he just experienced.
About the fears (appropriate and ill-founded) in his life.
About the narrative going on, unspoken, in his head.
About what he likes and what he dislikes.
You’ll need to travel to this place of ‘right’ before you have any chance at all of actual communication.”
What this means is that you must begin with empathy for every single character you create, even characters who do things you’d never ever do. After all, what people do isn’t what gives us empathy for them. Why they do it is where empathy comes from.
In fact that’s what empathy is. To wit: empathy is the ability to feel what other people feel about a situation for the same reason they feel it. In other words, empathy is giving dignity and weight to their feelings, even if you disagree with the conclusion they’ve drawn.
To that end I want to reiterate what I’ve been saying in this space for the past four years:
We humans are wired for story, but we don’t tend to know it – either as writers or as readers.
That’s why I open every talk I give with this statement: Writers are the most powerful people on the planet, because story is the most powerful communication tool in the world. You can change how your readers sees the world, themselves and what they do in the world by letting them experience life through your protagonist’s eyes.
That isn’t a metaphor. Story is wired into the architecture of the brain – story is how we make sense of the world around us. Not in a passive, objective, “oh that’s interesting” sort of way, but in an active, subjective, “oh, so that’s what I should do” way.
Stories don’t tell us how to act or what to do, they make us want to act – often in ways we wouldn’t even consider otherwise. Stories are a call to action, whether we’re aware of it or not, and usually we are not. Which is one of the reasons story is so potent.
Stories aren’t merely for entertainment – no matter what the writer intends. Stories are entertaining so we’ll pay attention to them – it’s biological. Stories press the pause button, allowing us to slip out of our own lives the better to experience the protagonist’s inner struggle. Stories thus tacitly change our perception of what’s right and wrong. What is sacred and what is profane. What is fair and what is not.
Stories are simulations that put facts (real and imagined) into a human context that gives them meaning and makes them actionable.
And so your novel will change how your readers see the world. It will also – in ways large and small — change what they do in the world.
For instance, do you know what is often cited as a major reason for the success of the civil rights movement in the 1960s?
To Kill a Mockingbird.
In fact, a 1991 survey by the Library of Congress Center for the Book found that To Kill a Mockingbird was rated second, behind only the Bible, in books most often cited as making a difference.
Oprah Winfrey calls it “Our national novel.” Former First Lady Laura Bush said, “It changed how people think.”
How? By changing how they felt.
So if you need a reason to double down on your efforts to tell a good story, and to develop characters who are as human as you and me, this is it. If you need a time when it’s critical to do so, this is it.
Will it make you vulnerable? Absolutely. Because the world your protagonist sees, and what she ends up believing, will tell the world something about you, and what you believe. And that is scary.
But here’s the thing: no matter what you write, you are exposing yourself. You are taking a stand about what it means to be human, what matters and what doesn’t. Because that’s what stories do, they mainline meaning – through your protagonist’s inner struggle they allow us to experience what really counts in your universe.
Here’s to standing up and being counted, even when your knees are knocking.