Writing Lessons will be the first on-going column on my blog/site/journal-thingamabob. It’s not intended as some sort of arrogant, high-minded section presuming to teach people how to write; it’ll just be a column on some of the observations I have personally made on writing and story. Some of this stuff may be obvious, especially to those that are already more experienced writers and plotters, others may have suspected all this but might find it useful to see it black-on-white, while it may be brand new to everyone else. Every week, I’ll dive into a specific topic on writing, plotting, story, narrative, characters, story arcs and much more. Again, these are just my random or not-so-random thoughts. I’d love to hear other people’s opinions in the comments section. I hope these columns will be helpful to you, especially to those with an interest in writing for themselves.
So what will I be discussing for Lesson #1? My belief in the importance of the Fundamental Goodness of characters.
The Foundation of Good Characters
So what do I mean with ‘Fundamental Goodness’? What I certainly do NOT mean by it is that every character has to be some sort of paragon of morality, justice, righteousness, goodness and all that stuff. Instead, what I mean by it is that I believe every human being has some sort of core of fundamental goodness inside of them, even if they’re doing the most god-awful things. Nobody ever gets out of bed and thinks, “Hmmm, how shall I ruin everybody’s lives today?” What they’re trying to do is the same thing that everyone else does: the best they can. This is true of humanity and hence, it is true of fiction – because despite all of the fantastically weird, crazy, unusual, adventurous, dramatic, action-packed or horrible things that may happen in any piece of fiction (whether they be books, films, TV shows, anime or videogames), fiction still concerns itself with human characters. Hell, even with works of fiction that follow completely different beings (aliens, androids, angels, elves, orcs and who knows what), there still usually have to be human aspects that we can identify with in order to care about these characters.
So what I mean by Fundamental Goodness is that, ideally, every single character in fiction must be driven by a legitimate, human desire to do what they think is right, even if it’s the most terrible, selfish thing. This Fundamental Goodness grounds your characters in reality. Without it, they will devolve into empty vessels: things in your story that are there merely to fulfill their obligatory function and that’s it, rather than a person we can feel something for, maybe even understand, no matter how flawed they are. Villains, in particular, are prone to becoming empty, cliché, meaningless obstacles to the hero – they exist solely to do some evil (usually out of greed or hatred with no clear motivation), make the hero look good and get blown up at the end.
“But Erik!” I hear some of you say. “How could you possibly say that there’s Fundamental Goodness in everyone when there’s so much evil in the world?! How could there be Fundamental Goodness in Hitler or something?” I would argue that someone like Hitler is a perfect example of my theory: that guy absolutely did what he believed was right – for Germany and Germany alone. He was absolutely determined that his vision was the right thing, believing it was necessary to remove all so-called ‘impurities’ from society and creating a great empire. However insane, despicable and evil his crimes were, they still came from a human place. And the best characters in fiction (hero, villain or anything in between) have something from this human place, this fundamental belief that what they do is right (even when it isn’t), to drive them. That is what makes them human, it is what makes them interesting, it is what makes them worth reading about.
Heroes and Villains 101
So if you’re going to have a hero who does some very standard hero-ing (go on an adventure, find some treasure, fight bad guys, save the world, get the girl), ask yourself why he does what he does. What is it from that place of Fundamental Goodness that is driving him to do that? Why does he/she go on an adventure? Maybe he just wants to get out and explore the world – or maybe he wants to go on an adventure because he feels the need to run away from his responsibilities, trying to ignore the pressure of his family to settle down? Is he right, is he wrong? You decide! But whatever you decide for this character’s motivation, make it something interesting. Make it something we can relate to. Make it something that is psychologically real.
Does she want to find the treasure just for the sake of finding it – or does she want to find the treasure because she’s in deep with the wrong people (maybe from funding the previous explorations?) and needs a big break to pay off her debts?
Do the same with your villains: why is Mr. Big Bad driven by greed to tear down the poor orphans’ home? Is he just an evil piece of shit? Or maybe he wants all that money because he has a very demanding, materialistic wife? Or maybe it’s the opposite: maybe Mr. Big Bad is actually driven by greed because he wants to provide enough wealth for the family he feels that they deserve, using the gifts he brings them to compensate for the fact that he isn’t good at expressing his love for them in different ways, all because he was emotionally hurt in the past by his own father! See how I just gave this random, nameless villain depth in the space of a minute? It’s all because I started from an idea of Fundamental Goodness with this character and his motivation quickly blossomed into something that feels tangible, psychologically realistic and kind of interesting.
So much for the first lesson. Next time, I’ll provide some good examples of Fundamental Goodness before we move on to the next topic. What do you think so far? Agree/disagree, feel free to let me know in the comments!