Last updated on July 26, 2011
A very wise genius (Rick Moranis) said in one of the most meaningful movies of my generation (Spaceballs), “There’s two sides to every Schwartz.” Later on, when Dark Helmet faces off against our Fearless Hero, Lone Star, we’re treated to one of the most astute discourses of our time on the nature of Good and Evil. (And oh how I wish there was a good YouTube link, but alas, YouTube hath failed me on this one). But we’re not here to ponder the nature of good and evil, but rather the sides of The Schwartz.
We all write our stories colored by our values, beliefs, and experiences–in other words, the heroes of our stories can usually be found to have one or more traits or worldviews in common with ourselves. If you are a spiritual person, chances are, your hero characters will bear a certain friendliness towards spirituality. At the very least, it will have had some bearing on their lives. If you value man’s relationship to animals, even if animals don’t play a part in your story, chances are, your characters won’t be the type to kick puppies or drown kittens. This may not show up directly, but think about the character–if you grew up with a healthy respect for cops, you’re less likely to write a character who’s ready to mouth off to one who pulls him over, unless it’s a deliberate decision on your part to paint the character in a negative light.
One of the fun things about writing (and indeed, thinking) is examining your values…and then flipping them. I make
no secrets (or apologies) that I’m an unabashedly liberal hippie-type, who’d love to see universal health care for everybody in the whole world (why stop at political borders?), along with ponies, rainbows, and unicorns WITH JET PACKS. I’ve been known to make daisy chains and wish for more dudes with long hair in politics (actually, more dudes with long hair everywhere. Broke my damn heart when Alex Skarsgard chopped his locks. And when he wasn’t going to be Thor, but I digress…).
But one thing I have a lot of fun with, safe in my mind, is imagining a world as envisioned by my political opposites (or really, people with opposing opinions on more than just politics, because Issue Books get thrown against the wall more often than not, and I try not to get preachy). I tend to suspect people in positions of authority because I’ve met some bullies in my time and not had good experiences come out of it. One of my writing exercises is to craft the possibility of characters who are, in fact, good people in positions of authority, and ask, what motivates them, what challenges them, and what might push them over the edge to become the bullies.
Doing the reverse is just as fun. I take my own assumption and dig until I discover the unconscious roots in a character. If he or she is indeed a bully in authority, why? Is there a noble motivation behind it? Are they coming from a position of hurt and defense? Do they get off on displaying their power? And if so, why? What drives that need for a person to display power over someone else? Re-created schadenfreude?
In real life, of course, people sometimes don’t have deep internal motivations for random douche-moves (or random hero moves). But people being random is not why we read. In fiction, characters are much more interesting when they have a reason for doing what they do, even if they don’t know it. Your characters will benefit if you examine your values, and play with them like you would plot points. And honestly, when you make a habit of digging into the opposing viewpoint’s point of view, you gain a greater understanding of both their viewpoints, and your own.