My favorite piece of writing advice is to follow the Rule of Power. The Rule of Power is to “follow the rules of your story’s universe”, and basically asserts that if you want your story’s themes and morals to impact your audience, your characters and story’s world need to be believable throughout. After all, if the story had to effectively lie in order to get across a moral, how effective do you think that moral would be in real life?
For example, if I want to express that to have friends you must be friendly, and that moral/theme/idea is true, all I have to do is tell the truth in a story where that moral would be in play, and the theme will come across!
Sally’s friendliness resulting in her having friends is what shows the moral works. If Sally is a jerk and still gets a lot of friends, we’re either telling a different moral or may have created a story where the characters don’t reflect how people in real life work.
So if we want to create a believable story, we need to be honest with the story’s universe, with the characters, and so on.
But how do we really know that we are right when we choose what “would” happen?
Would Sally really take those emotional scars from being abused as a child and use them as drive to protect others in her circle, or would she become bitter and resentful instead?
Would Bob really be relieved that Sally refused to marry him, or would he feel a tinge of pain?
Would Thomas really go to all that length just to get back at Bob, when he knows Bob didn’t really mean what he said?
We can’t guarantee that everyone will agree with our character choices- but that’s not the point. The point is if the characters are acting as they would, according to who they are. We don’t want them “breaking character”.
I think it’s important to trust our instinct on this first-off, but if you’re uncertain if your characters or story’s world would really work the way you’re writing (not if they should work that way; not if it would be cool if they worked that way; not if it would be deeper or more meaningful if it worked that way), here are some questions you can ask to ground yourself:
1. Why would this happen?
If you don’t have a solid answer, it might be time to reexamine. If you believe a character would do something, or that something would happen, there are reasons for it regardless of whether the character sees them or not:
Some possible answers:
- She’s triggered because what just happened reminds her of their conversation earlier.
- He’s exhausted and hasn’t eaten all day; he’s extremely grouchy now because of it.
- The idea came to his mind because of spiritual forces, and it hit the spot; so he’s going along with it. (This working, of course, depends on your story’s universe)
- She doesn’t trust them because she’s been burned too many times by people claiming she could trust them.
- That’s their personality; they’re expressive as a core personality trait. (Make sure it really is a core personality trait! “Core personality trait” cannot be an excuse!!)
If you really feel like it would happen, and you don’t know why, it doesn’t mean it wouldn’t happen- you might just need to write out more backstory or examine yourself and the reasons why you believe that would happen.
2. Am I asking the right question?
Again- at least in my experience (because I take words very literally to the degree of lunacy) I never ask “should” this happen, I ask “would” this happen. If you’re like me, you may need to choose the question you ask to yourself very carefully. I have examined myself multiple times and I will give a different answer to what “should” happen vs what “would” happen.
Did you ask the wrong question? The only question I ask myself when writing is “What would happen?” Maybe you need to take a similar approach.
I think this largely depends on personality (and how literally you take things), but the following questions are no-gos for me (they’re great for brainstorming, but be careful of writing what happens based on the answers!):
- “What should happen?” -because then I often make it a moral issue in my head or either what “should” be done in the story or what I “should” be okay writing. Neither of those are bad questions, but it’s good to be aware of the difference in the question. No, morally Bob shouldn’t rape Sally, but he would, and that’s what I should write as a writer. The “what should happen” question confuses my literal mind and so I avoid it.
- “What do I want to happen?” -because sometimes what I want to happen isn’t based on what would happen but on my own triggers, anxieties, tendencies, etc. Asking “what do I want to happen” brings my own biases and flaws into the equation to a greater degree. I have had to force myself not to write what I wanted to write because it wasn’t truthful: two characters were in an argument, and I wanted one to “win” and put them in a pitiful light, when they were actually being extremely passive-aggressive and cruel. So I had to step back, and make sure that I went with the right question instead of following the path I wanted to follow. And the story is better for it.
- “What would be funniest?” -because sometimes what’s funniest breaks character and is suddenly very unfunny. When characters are written not based on themselves but based on comedy, they lose their comedic power because the audience loses their ability to connect with them as deeply- honest characters can do absolutely nothing and be hilarious (that may be subjective, but I’ve found that to be true to me). Characters who break character lose their power.
- “What would be the most meaningful?” -the truth would be the most meaningful, because the truth is what helps people see themselves and see reality. Don’t fall for the trap that anything less than the truth will be more meaningful. Even if people respond well to something that isn’t true, if they try to apply lies to their lives their lives will either break or be weaker in that area. Tell the truth; that, in the end, is the most meaningful.
- “What would people respond best to?” -because we’re judging what the “best” response is. Plus, response is based on the person- one person might fist-pump at a villain’s death, another cry, another get angry. Let them feel what they feel- it gives them an opportunity to examine themselves and learn more about themselves (of course, I realize, they might not take that opportunity to learn about themselves and they might say that you did something wrong). And again, the truth holds power- don’t think that telling anything less than the truth holds more power than the truth itself.
Remember- the truth is what gives your stories’s themes power. Without truth there can be no themes, and stories can have no lasting impact in peoples’ lives, and stories essentially become meaningless to everyday living. Our opinions, ideas, and angles don’t give stories power. I’ve had to swallow that pill that my own opinions don’t mean that much in my stories, but it’s actually comforting because it shifts me to a new frame of reference and I can look to something. Your opinion on this will strongly vary depending on your worldview, but if you don’t believe in meaning or truth you probably aren’t reading this article with the intent to draw anything from it anyway.
3. What would it take for them to do something different?
Besides this being a great brainstorming exercise (and a way to make sure you know your characters), it can show you if your mind is stuck on only one possibility and not allowing any other possibilities in.
For example, would Sally still kill Bob if…
- …the police found them right now?
- …she found out she was out of bullets and she’d have to kill Bob with her bare hands?
- …she learned that Bob was innocent?
- …she had five guns pointed at her telling her not to shoot?
- …her best friends were watching?
- …she remembered what her uncle told her about Bob?
The answer might be “yes” to all of those. That doesn’t mean you’re wrong; please understand that these questions don’t exist to prove that you’re wrong. You probably aren’t. But if you’re uncertain and you can’t think of any conceivable way that would change, it’s worth going back to question number 1: “why?” and if you have no answer, I’d recommend developing one (you’re a writer, that’s allowed).
Trust your instincts. This isn’t a post about questioning everything and doubting yourself- but if you ever question or doubt, hopefully these questions can help ground you and give you confidence in your direction!
Plus I think they’re just fun writing exercises.