When you look at the photo above, how do you feel?
Happy? Justified? Angry? Bemused? Bored? Exasperated?
This photo, and many like it, have been circulating on social media for the last nine days. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that there are many people amongst us who are sick of seeing it by now — nine days is a long time in the world of the internet. But, for others, feelings of rage or exuberance will continue every time they see an image like this.
Why? Because the image, and all it represents, hits them right where they live: in their Values and Beliefs.
Characters have beliefs, too
I’m not just talking about beliefs about same-sex marriage, but about a character’s core beliefs about themselves, the world, and their place in it. Those beliefs may be religious, spiritual, or moral. And, often, they’re all of the above.
Understanding our characters’ values and beliefs is key to understanding how they feel, how they react to the outside world, and what they will do when placed in a situation that either enforces or threatens those beliefs.
I’ve often read manuscripts where I’ve reached the end of the story and still found myself wondering what the protagonist really believes. And, much more often than that, I’ve found myself wondering what the antagonist really believes. As Keith Cronin  wrote in his article  back in May:
Most bad guys do not think of themselves as bad guys. They just have differing desires and motivations than the protagonist.
[pullquote]Understanding our characters’ values and beliefs is key to understanding how they feel, how they react to the outside world, and what they will do when placed in a situation that either enforces or threatens those beliefs.[/pullquote]
Understanding the antagonist’s beliefs and values is an integral part of writing a story that readers connect with.
Nobody believes anything in general
To paraphrase the ever-amazing Lisa Cron : “Nobody does anything in general.” When talking about values and beliefs, it’s important to look at the specifics of that belief.
For example, the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage resulted in an out-pouring of social media posts about people’s beliefs, but very few (probably none) of them said anything like: “I just generally believe this is a good/bad idea.”
No, people with the same general belief system reacted in specific ways — and sometimes those specific ways were very different indeed.
I saw people who started their post in exactly the same general way, end up in very different places. For example:
- Because I’m a Christian, I believe same-sex marriage is an affront to God, and this decision is proof that America is a modern-day incarnation of Sodom and Gomorrah.
- Because I’m a Christian, I believe that love is the greatest commandment, and this decision is proof that America is living by the precepts taught by Jesus.
The belief systems are the same, but the specifics of those beliefs couldn’t be further apart.
(Note: I’m not interested in a debate about same-sex marriage or religion in the comments. This is simply a timely example of general vs specific beliefs.)
It’s not enough to know that your protagonist is Christian, or Muslim, or Buddhist, or Atheist, or Pagan, or follows any other belief system. How does that belief system specifically affect their values, and their every day lives?
Belief does not (always) equal action
If there’s one thing we’re absolutely sure of by the end (actually, by the middle) of Harry Potter, it’s that Voldemort has an unshakeable belief that magic should be practiced only by pure-bloods. We know his specific belief, and we know exactly what he’s willing to do because of that belief. (Read: whatever it takes.)
But for every Lord Voldemort, I would lay money on there being plenty of other pure-blood wizards raging at the number of mud-bloods at Hogwarts, and then… posting inflammatory memes on WizardBook.
But we don’t want our books to be peopled with characters who sit back and post memes, we want active characters who do things based on their beliefs. So, ask yourself which of your characters’ beliefs inspire him or her to take action beyond complaining to their friends?
Which of your characters’ beliefs would inspire them to be like Voldemort, and do whatever it takes to achieve their ends?
If you find your protagonist passively flailing around, and you’re unsure what to do with him, just ask yourself: What Would Voldemort Do?
[pullquote]If you find your protagonist passively flailing around, and you’re unsure what to do with him, just ask yourself: What Would Voldemort Do?[/pullquote]
Finding the key
Often, we instinctively imbue our protagonists with values and beliefs. (And those values and beliefs often mirror our own.) But the same is not always true of our antagonist and secondary characters.
Take some time to sit down and get to know them — to work out what they really believe. It’s worth it. Once you know what they believe, their actions will not only make perfect sense, they’ll be the only possible action that character can take in those specific circumstances.
What are the specific beliefs that drive your protagonist and antagonist’s actions? Did understanding those beliefs come easily to you, or did you struggle to figure them out? What methods do you use to determine a character’s beliefs and values?
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