Characters With Something to Say

I have to admit, I didn’t pay much attention to the rescue of the Thai kids from that cave. Now, I may be the only person in the US to basically ignore that whole thing, but…well…hell, let’s be honest about this: The whole constant, 24-hour coverage was about nothing more than the same motivation that drives a lot of interest in auto-racing: the prospect of disaster. You know what I mean, the whole “if it bleeds, it leads” philosophy.

“Impending Disaster!”

“Doom!”

“The End of the World/Civilization/Mankind!”

It’s all emotion-based coverage designed to elicit sympathy while simultaneously titillating that dark curiosity that makes folks slow down to stare at car accidents…all leavened by a frisson of fear. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer my news to be intelligent, well-written/presented, and focused the basics of things likes facts and events. Emotions are for stories, not the news.

All that being said, I read a column today that used that whole cave-rescue drama to make a point that resonated with the needs and truth of storytelling (vice covering the news). That point, to put it succinctly, was a reminder that in order for something to have impact, it must be personalized.

I don’t mean that something must be customized in order to “work,” I mean rather that an issue or event must have a face and an identity in order to truly resonate. And, yes, that concept is, in fact, why reporters and politicians always resort to anecdotes and storytelling, rather than focusing on facts and policies. A bad law or policy doesn’t make much of an impression, but a child who is the victim of that bad law does.

So what the hell does any of that mean to writing and storytelling?

It’s all about characters.

Look, all writers — well, most of us, anyway — have something to say in our stories that goes beyond the story itself. As I’ve said in posts before, a story is not, and does not have to be, about what it is truly about. Does anyone really think Waiting for Godot is actually about waiting?!

But you, as the creator, have to put a face and an identity onto the issues and problems that you are putting into your story. If you want to encompass a message about homelessness, for instance, you have to have a meaningful character to whom homelessness is an impactful reality. Just think about a story that wanted to be about that particular problem, but was focused solely on the feelings and activities of someone who had only ever read about homelessness…

It just doesn’t work.

As the author of the piece I just read asked, why did the Thai boys resonate and become real to us, while the thousands of Rohingya kids suffering and dying are nothing more than numbers and barely-remembered words in a handful of articles? Because the Thai boys had names and faces, they became more real to us, and thus more meaningful and impactful.

Now, in all honesty, I don’t really like or encourage “message stories.” You know the ones I mean, those stories that are personal or political or social “crusades” first, and stories second. But I do like and encourage stories and writers to have something to say. And stories are a great way to do that…through the lens of your characters.

To put it another way — a lot of folks condemned the book and show 13 Reasons Why for “glorying” or “encouraging” teen suicide. I’m not even going to get into just how stupid and short-sighted and plain ignorant are those objections, but instead I will say this: there is absolutely no way to tell a story about the reality of suicide, and what leads up to it, without writing about a suicidal character. That’s it, that’s reality. That particular story works precisely because it is about Hannah, albeit through Clay’s eyes. It works because we care for her, and we understand her…and we feel the pain and devastation of her death.

That, in the end, is what storytelling is all about: emotionally connecting your reader (or listener or watcher) to your characters. That is how you say what it is you want to say. That is how make a story about more than it is about.

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