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The Values of Good Fiction

Flickr Creative Commons: John Dyer

Many years ago, the magazine I worked for decided to do a special issue on “Values,” and we chose a handful of key values and interviewed people who exemplified those values. Chris Fields, the firefighter who tenderly carried the baby killed in the Oklahoma City bombing out of the rubble, talked about COMPASSION; Cal Ripken, Jr. (who broke Lou Gehrig’s record for most consecutive baseball games played) talked about PERSEVERANCE; Mary Fisher, an artist (and later activist) who contracted AIDS from her husband, spoke about TOLERANCE. Everyone who worked on that issue, from the assistant photo editor to the sales reps, said something to me about how good it made them feel to be part of that project, what it meant to do something that felt meaningful and true.

And I find that the stories that resonate with me most in fiction—from The Story of Paddington Bear to the Lord of the Rings trilogy to the brilliant BBC series “Shetland”—are those with characters who exemplify strong values, who struggle to live by a code of conduct that rings true whether you’re a dwarf or a recently widowed police inspector. Figuring out the values that you want your work to convey can be as essential as developing plot or character or a climactic scene. A value system is an essential part of the fictional world you create, and it’s worth it to take some time to understand the values that matter in that world.

With each of the novels I’ve written, I’ve tried to explore essential values. In my third novel, one of the major characters has an affair with her best friend’s husband. It’s a terrible betrayal, and one that I tried to use to get at the heart of what it means to have integrity—not just in the sense of being honest, but also in the original sense of the word, what it means to be whole. Exploring THAT helped me get at the universal experience of why we all make mistakes, or do things that violate our own moral codes.

How do you figure out your novel’s value system? Start by making a list of all the values you can think of that matter to people (they don’t have to be your personal values, because your characters may have different values). In addition to the obvious values that come to mind (honesty, patience, resourcefulness, love), push yourself to think of other values that drive human behavior, such as patriotism, religion, the desire for financial gain and/or power. Then look at your list. Pick the top five values that matter most to your characters. How have they developed those values? What jobs, life circumstances, people, setbacks, successes have shaped those values for them? What insights have they gained from the struggle to learn or live those values?

Having a few key values as the underlying force in your fiction helps create stories that resonate on the most visceral level with readers. There’s the clear-cut good vs. evil dichotomy of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, for example. A Game of Thrones portrays an even more complex values system, with some characters driven by the desire to protect family, some by the need for power, some by fanatical religious belief, some by the need for revenge, some by the belief in freedom. But knowing what values are essential to your characters can serve as a guiding star for you as write.

Do you think about a value system when you write? How do you get at your character’s values?

About Kathleen McCleary [1]

Kathleen McCleary is the author of three novels—House and Home, A Simple Thing, and Leaving Haven—and has worked as a bookseller, bartender, and barista (all great jobs for gathering material for fiction). A Simple Thing (HarperCollins 2012) was nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Awards. She was a journalist for many years before turning to fiction, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and USA Weekend, as well as HGTV.com, where she was a regular columnist. She taught writing as an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and teaches creative writing to kids ages 8-18 as an instructor with Writopia Labs, a non-profit. She also offers college essay coaching (http://thenobleapp.com), because she believes that life is stressful enough and telling stories of any kind should be exciting and fun. When she's not writing or coaching writing, she looks for any excuse to get out into the woods or mountains or onto a lake. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two daughters and Jinx the cat.