Lots of craft books advise writers to construct deep back stories for the main characters in their books. I don’t disagree. But I also like to think about those character’s belief systems.
A character’s belief about themselves and their world is part of their back story, yes. But beliefs are a little different from the more evident parts of the backstory (e.g. genealogy, home life) in that beliefs are often the unseen motivators in a character’s story. Beliefs get them out of bed, comfort them, spur them to organize, get them crossways with other characters.
Over the course of the novel, a character’s belief system often changes. What they believed at the beginning of the story is different by the end. Depending on the plot, sometimes their beliefs are shattered. Sometimes, they are expanded. Sometimes they have to reweave everything they believed before. It is part of the journey of the book. Who the main character is at the end of the book is different from the beginning so, too, are their beliefs.
Rather than cite a character’s journey in a novel, I’d like to share a personal journey and how a belief system of my own changed. After all, it is our own experiences in life that bring depth and contour to the characters we write.
I was born quite a few years after my trio of older sisters. For years, I didn’t talk. They seemed to interpret everything I needed and often surprised me with things I didn’t need but liked. At some point, though, I had to grow up and think for myself. I wanted to think for myself. In the beginning, I was often out-voiced or out-thought by them. It was frustrating. I withdrew into writing. I wrote long letters to friends about all my thinking, all my woes, all my hopes. They wrote back. They liked what I said. Somewhere in all of those letters, I made up a belief: If I become a writer, if I express myself through writing, people (read: my family) will understand and admire and respect me. I actually cringe a bit writing those words. I can see all the cracks and fault lines in that statement. Now. I didn’t then. In fact, I didn’t for a long time.
The problem with that belief is that the work one does in the world, whether it’s writing or building furniture, becomes an empty exercise when the source of satisfaction is dependent on others’ praise. Yes, it’s great when the reviews are positive. It’s fantastic when editors are clamoring for your manuscripts. But what if they aren’t? What if you are alone in your room toiling, doubting what you are doing, wondering if putting words on a blank document even makes sense anymore? What if you doubt yourself as a writer because no one is cheering? What if you want to give up? What if that belief system no longer works?
If this journey were a novel, the character would be at a crisis point. Do they go on? If they do keep going, how? And why? Without the end result of cheering and admiration and respect (i.e. the belief system), the character is lost.
For those of you who are reading this post for a craft tip, this crisis point is exactly the place you must take your character because finding their way from that point forward is the richness of story.
For those of you who are reading this post to understand my personal journey, all I can tell you is that I am going to the well each day and today, I have these words.