One critical element in a well-written novel is that the characters seldom do anything “out of character.”
Accomplished novelists take care to give their characters believable behaviors by crafting credible backstories. My favorite novels are those where normal people react to abnormal situations in ways that are outside my own experience, but totally acceptable given what the author has told me about the character.
Stephen King writes some bizarre stories, but his characters (at least the normal human characters) always do what I suspect I might do in the same circumstance. No matter how weird the plot gets, characters in a Stephen King novel rarely cause me to think, “That’s dumb. He’d never do that.”
Fiction writers often develop extensive personality profiles on their characters before they start spinning their tales because human beings resonate with stories that make sense. And, the stories that give us the most satisfaction are those where each character sticks with the script no matter how far-fetched. We’re OK with a “mild-mannered reporter” slipping into blue tights, donning a red cape and flying “faster than a speeding bullet” because we’ve been told that Clark Kent is actually from the planet Krypton.

You are the central character in your own story and your life makes more sense when you stick with the script.

John Hawthorne is chair of the sociology department at a mid-western university, and a good friend. He’s lately been looking into how people react when their stories get broken. “Our sense of self, identity, and well-being is tied into the maintenance of a particular narrative,” he writes. Our personal stories are sub-plots in an ever-expending circle of macro-narratives and when significant changes occur in the bigger picture, our personal story can become what he describes as broken.
Our personal narrative is the sum of everything we believe about ourselves and, as John explained to me over dinner, “we make decisions and act out in ways we perceive as being best for us, based on the story we’re living.”
Sometimes the bigger story shifts to such a degree as to make us feel like a soap opera character who is suddenly killed off and written out of the script. Our sense of well-being is shaken and we begin to do things that are (painfully) out of character. We strain to fit our personal narrative into the new story and lose sense of who we are; leaving us angry, frustrated, confused, beaten, hopeless, ineffective and a host of other unhealthy feelings.
The point of this stretched metaphor is to acknowledge the reality of broken stories and to encourage you to think deeply about the essence of your personal narrative. Having a firm grasp on the nitty-gritty of who you are and what nourishes you will prove valuable as your personal narrative moves through the bigger story around you.
Take time to dig deep; go beyond your current abilities and assignments. Develop an inventory of the things that excite you, the stuff you look forward to, situations where you lose track of time. These are the non-negotiables; the building blocks of who you are. If you were indeed a character in a novel, these would be the bullet points in the author’s profile of your personality.
When the bigger story shifts (and it will) you can use these as anchors or sign posts – holding you steady and pointing the way. Your situation may change, but you will still make sense to you.
To help you think about this:

  • What have you done recently where you were so wrapped up in something that you lost track of time?
  • What up-coming assignment on your calendar are you most looking forward to?
  • What was your dream job on the day you finished school?
  • If someone paid you to advise them on a specific subject, what would it be?
  • If you were asked to write a professional report on the one thing you are most passionate about, what would the title be?

Until next month,
Jim Seybert