What’s Your Story?

In pondering the perplexities of modern life, I’m finding it useful and perhaps even comforting to reflect that stories aren’t just things that we find in books. Everyone has their own story — the things they tell themselves about who they are.

When pondering how to act in or react to a situation — any situation at all — we consult our own internal story. The story tells us what to do, or more specifically, “What a person like me does in this type of situation.” In the absence of this half-conscious narrative, we wouldn’t know what to do or even what to think. We would be as lost as a shipwrecked sailor on a raft with no land anywhere in sight.

Strange as it may seem, it almost doesn’t matter what the story is. Any story at all will give our drifting sailor a star to steer by.

Not only that, but once we have internalized our own story (and this happens at a very early age) we will resist changing it. Change is not easy! Certainly, there are former Christians who became atheists, just as there are former atheists who became Christians. But this is less a change of story than it might appear. What happens, in such a case, is that an individual has two internal stories that don’t fit together well. Eventually, one of them forces its way forward and pushes the other out.

The supporters of Donald Trump share a common story. It’s an insane story, foisted on them and constantly reinforced by conservative propaganda, but it’s a story that gives meaning and structure to their lives. Their otherwise incomprehensible behavior makes perfect sense when seen in the context of a strong internal narrative.

A punk drug dealer has an internal story that tells him how to react in a great variety of situations. A kindly kindergarten teacher also has a story. In many situations in daily life, these two people would act very differently — but it’s not because they’re any different from one another biologically. It’s because, in the moment, each of them consults his inner story, and the story tells him how he will react to this type of situation.

Writers of fiction are advised not to rely on types of characters, except for very minor background characters — and even if you’re writing a scene with a taxi driver who will never appear in your novel other than in that one scene, relying on a type (a stereotype) can be dangerous, especially if it involves an ethnic stereotype.

We’re advised to make sure all of our important characters are three-dimensional. But even then, the parts of a three-dimensional character will all, ultimately, be types or characteristics that that character feels she possesses.

“I’m not just an accountant; I grow beautiful flowers.” There’s the start of a 3D character. The accountant story (a type) and the gardener story (a different type) may live together happily for years — or they may come into conflict with one another, forcing your character to choose which story to embrace and which to discard. But in any case, your characters will be telling themselves half-conscious stories about what sort of person they truly are. Those stories will shape their experience of the world.

My story is that I’m smart and creative. What’s yours?

This entry was posted in fiction, random musings, society & culture, writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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