Do you care about what you write? Any story with a strong conflict will evoke some measure of empathy. The tension of the narrative will convince your reader to care about the challenges faced by your protagonist and cast of characters. I propose that how much you or your characters care about the conflict will directly influence the strength of your narrative. Honestly speaking, I have only experience to draw on, so you will need to judge for yourself.
My heart was on display in a fanfiction I wrote dubbed Called to Fight. As a novice writer, a felt invigorated as I wrote this story. The character stemmed largely from the moralistic worldview I carry. The observant reader might notice the religious overtones. While not religious myself, it stems from the upbringing I received. Themes of justice and love permeated my childhood instruction. However, such ideas can come across as stale or abstract. So, how did I ground them enough to turn them into a believable conflict? By making pitting my protagonists dedication to the virtues against a world reliant on violence.
It is a hard notion to swallow that force, even lethal measures, are necessary to protect us. At least, it seems as such in my rather sheltered experience. I’ve always been taught that there is another way to resolve issues. In like manner, my character, Lawrence, shares a similar point-of-view. While he comes from a much wealthier family than my own, it serves to provide a like shelter that prevents him from having to rely on violence. Does he face physical danger? His family hired a bodyguard when he enters dangerous areas of town. (For context, he does volunteer work in his city’s slums) Is he threatened by legal trouble? His father fills a seat on the city council. Whatever troubles he faces, his family’s wealth and power enable him to overcome. All this privilege makes touting virtues like justice and non-violence fairly easy. Why fight when someone else will do it for you?
This all comes to a head when his life path is radically changed. He is recruited to join an order of peacekeepers (further context: the series this takes place in is an alternate timeline of The Inheritance Cycle wherein the organization of dragon-riders who keep international peace isn’t destroyed.) Suddenly, he is faced with challenge after challenge. He is stripped of all rank and privilege when he leaves his hometown to join the order. Furthermore, he has to learn how to fight. The conflict slowly breaks him as his values are challenged. In the face of actual danger, Lawrence finds his ethics untenable and is thrown into an existential free-fall. What can he do if he actually has to fight? What does justice look like when he has to draw a sword?
Aside from moralism, this character is known for a strong sense of belief, and a firm dedication to his beliefs. Prodded by mentors and friends, he presses on with a new goal of figuring out the aforementioned questions. He starts look for non-lethal modes of fight. He tries to rely more on magic. Furthermore, he renews his dedication to justice even as he redefines what that exactly means. Experience forces him to take a hard look at what he believes and tests whether or not it accurately reflects life.
Soon, he himself comes to personal harm. In line with his character, he uses the unique opportunity to advocate non-retaliation. His unique position as a dragon rider (who has influential ties in his home city and beyond) grants him an opportunity to live our his beliefs which he has sorely been wanting. Peace, justice, etc., these are clear, but they have limits he has yet to accept. This line in the sand gets engraved in stone when he takes an oath refusing to kill. Thanks to magic, he can’t physically break this oath. This prevents him from killing the physical antagonist at the books climax. It costs thousands of lives, one of which is a dear friend. He learned the hard way. Another friend has to help him reconcile his failures and his successes. He shouldn’t abandon his beliefs because of his tragic failure, but he needs to learn how to adapt and cope with their limitations.
I hope I’ve tugged on some heart strings as I shared the narrative. The idea is to use experiences that you have with which others can empathize. Have you ever had something you believe challenged? Ever been lost and confused? Have you ever failed someone because you disagreed with the course of action necessary? Perhaps, these questions don’t strike home. However, this won’t necessarily prevent the reader from seeing how the same questions affect the character.
Has anyone read the traditional Christmas story? Any Bible will suffice. The two texts I want to mention are at the beginnings of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Both texts come before the Christmas story and are usually skipped. They are the genealogies. A long list of who is the son of such and such. Aside from close knit families, most people don’t know who their heritage beyond perhaps their great-grandparents. While most probably care little about what happened in the distant past, for the Jews these names meant stories, meant history which helped them make sense of who they were. That’s why these otherwise dry lists of names are recorded.
In a similar vein, my aunt went to great lengths to compile her genealogy. Her immediate ancestry, namely the identity of her father, was a mystery to her. So, she began a quest to learn her heritage. Thus, a journey began that would lead her to make all sorts of contacts and have all manner of difficult conversations. My mother and sister did DNA tests, along with my aunt and some other relatives. This helped them to identify certain names in past records from whom they came. She then would reconstruct lineages accordingly. She’d get in contact with living descendants to ascertain whether or not they could help fill in the blanks.
The search came to a head when my aunt finally met her father. He was a musician of skill and had lived a rather full life. Sadly, that life drew to a close. Yet, blessing of blessings, my aunt had a short season of life wherein she and her family got to meet and spend time with him. She was there by his bedside when he passed. While not a direct member of the journey, the close relationship I share with my aunt permitted me many wonderful stories of this journey as it unfolded. The passion she spoke with as she told the narrative of this journey enabled me to experience the potent emotions she’d encountered along the way.
The power of understand can only be known when the experience of one becomes the experience of another. By writing Called to Fight, I tried to relay my struggle to live out a moralistic life when things aren’t always so black and white. The emotional highs when the road is clear can hardly be compared to any other. The depressions I could sink into when I was left to question all I believe create an opposite extreme of like potency. While each life story is unique, I am not alone in those questions, those victories, and those failures. The only question is who I share it with, and how to explain it to those with whom I don’t.
Likewise, I needn’t further explain the power of someone discovering their past, part of who they are. What bittersweet joy it was for my aunt to meet her father in the twilight of his life, but she holds the memory dear. The struggles we face touch on deep issues and ideas which ring universally true, in most cases at least. When such struggles form the spine of our narrative, they help define every part of the story and share the emotion depth within. Now, only one question remains: what do you care about?
Title image of and by TheGhostSiren, and used with their kind permission.