What is it, and why is meaning vital to us as writers? Why should we look for it where it grows in our work, clarify it, and hone it? Why should we care?
How do truth and the life-changing meaning that arises from our stories impact our characters, both in their world and our own?
I haven’t seen any writing book dig into the subject of how truth impacts our characters and creates meaning as well as Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors.
I’ve had hours of profitable fun looking into Brandilyn’s writing techniques because they are based on the reality of truth and lie, good and bad, wrong and right in the human heart. She shows us how to grow ‘true’ characters that reflect reality with clarity, whether we write fantasy, contemporary, memoirs or any other genre.
I have felt the impact of truth and meaning in books since I first began to read when I was quite young, but for a long time I could not pin down or express why some stories left me with a sense of hope, exhilarating beauty, and strengthening courage, while others left me with a feeling of cumulative despair, disgusted by ugliness, and fearful of life. What made the difference? How was it done? Why?
These questions have only grown clearer since my tweens. Their emerging answers are a big part of what drove me to write YA fiction. Lately I have been mulling over what I can see of these answers. They relate to prevalent thought in our age: that truth is relative to you, and meaning is what we make it.
So much destruction comes from this.
Good stories deal with truth and error, testing the validity of individual people’s ‘inner truths’ against each other and a universal framework of inherent truth apparent in everything around us, in the way the world works. Acting on the belief or premise that good and evil are interchangeable to any degree never works well in fiction, nor in real life. Calling evil ‘good’ creates a muddle where all is shifting sand and there is nowhere to stand.
The fact that this thinking defies logic, conscience, and experience quite effectively counters the idea that good and evil are the same – for the thinking head as well as the feeling heart. People who seek to rob the words, ‘good’ and ‘evil’ of meaning by saying they are interchangeable, in the end act as if there is no real meaning in the world, nothing that does not change to conveniently fit their surroundings, like a chameleon. This results in their speaking nonsense and fostering chaos, and ends in despair because it is far more of a fabricated fiction than stories.
It is an absolute fiction, if you will.
The presence of true good and true evil, clearly identified as not being the same, are necessary to create a solid story. We all realize on a gut level that some things are wrong and some right. Just as a lie, though a small lie, is nothing more or less than a lie. A small untruth cannot be true, or you deconstruct language and the reality it reflects.
Truth is vital to living in reality.
Conflict arises from the opposition between real good and real evil. It is true that good and evil are often mixed in us as well as in our characters, but one never becomes the other. The smallest bit of evil remains wrong, just as iron and clay may be mixed and set in a mold, but even the tiniest grain, though it appears part of an amalgamated whole, is yet itself. And pursuing even a grain of truth has potential to lead to great good.
And the actions of evil men, though the men themselves may have some good in them, cannot be allowed to destroy others. Evil demands conflict, and well we know it, in the interest of right, conscience, and hope of real peace. As it is in life, so it is for our stories.
Truth is not relative but absolute in relation to us, whether we believe it or not. This becomes unavoidably apparent in fiction.
Core ‘truths’ we believe are tested in our stories when our character’s actions prove them good or bad as they act from the inner values or core truths we operate from, with tangible spiritual and physical results. This is why great classics of every genre are so powerful. Meaning arises from the interplay of truth with what we believe – wrong or right – with what others believe, and what we both do about it. In the great stories we recognize the battle of our hearts and hands.
Brandilyn’s book has a lot to say about seven vital aspects of meaning, how to uncover our characters’ secrets, how to reveal these truths to our readers, and how meaning arises from it– all without getting philosophical. The ramifications of what she teaches gives us a huge potential to craft and forge and design what we once created by feel alone, when we were half blind to truth and meaning.
She digs into:
- How connection at the level of truth is essential between the character and the reader. Secret # 1 – Personalizing, “discovers a character’s inner values, which give rise to unique traits and mannerisms that will become an integral part of the story.” (Pg. 12) She calls these inner values or beliefs “core truths”, which have meaning that our characters act on. (Pg. 22) This extends into traits, or attitudes, and to mannerisms that reflect a character’s reaction and grows yet further. As she says, “The beauty of this personalizing secret is that the process creates the entire character, both inside and out. Still, this is only the beginning. In the following chapters I’ll show you how the inner values and traits you’ve found through Personalizing lay the foundation for further discoveries about your character and your plot as a whole.”
Truth goes far deeper than the surface actions of a person, empowering that person and everything they do, building the meaning of the story as a whole and directing its impact. Meaning powers our story into fictional reality.
- This leads us to Secret # 2 – Action Objectives. Every Action Objective is based on an inner value, or core truth. Every core truth holds meaning, which is a fascinating force that drives our entire story on every level, from the characters, to the conflict, the plot, the story’s climax, and its accumulation of meaning to the reader. Brandilyn uncovers the four D’s that touch them all: our main character’s overarching Desire, obstacles that Distance them from it, then circumstances that force the Denial of their desire, and finally, the Devastation of their desire.
As she says, “Once you’ve determined your Protagonist’s Desire, ask, ‘What happens if she doesn’t achieve it?’ In other words, what are the stakes? … often it’s not just the character’s way of life at risk, but loved ones as well. In a “high concept” story, the whole world’s existence may be at stake.” (Pg. 54)
Both failure and achievement of the Action Objective has real meaning and propels the story forward. Exploring the truth of who a character is and what they believe in the face of challenges and contradictions clarifies and deepens the meaning of our stories.
- Secret # 3 – Subtexting in dialogue reveals the truth of its underlying meaning. Brandilyn’s techniques make it easier to do this while increasing tension.
“Without an inner reason for existence, lines in a play [or book] will be simply words, recited by rote, lacking believable emotion. When an actor looks beneath the lines to fully understand a character’s desires and fears – the subtext of what is spoken – the words spring to life. … They express a character’s strengths, weaknesses, passions. They bare a human soul.” (Pg. 91) “In subtexting the real communication is artfully woven through description into the context of the conversation.” (Pg. 95)
In other words, bursting with buried meaning, layered meaning, and nuanced meaning, subtexting reveals truth.
- In Secret # 4, Coloring Passions, often variable and seeming highly contradictory, the truth of our human emotions requires exploring the many shades of feeling that collide in our hearts.
So Brandilyn shares with us, “Stanislavsky likens a human passion to a necklace of beads. Standing back from the necklace, you might think it appears to have a yellow cast or a green or red one. But come closer, and you can see all the tiny beads that create that overall appearance. If the necklace appears yellow, many beads will be yellow, but in various shades. And a few may be green or blue or even black. In the same way, human emotions are made up of many smaller and varied feelings – sometimes even contradictory feelings – that together form the ‘cast’ or color of a certain passion. So, if you want to portray a passion to its utmost, you must focus not on the passion itself, but on its varied components.” (Pg. 120)
Exploring truth versus lie in all their degrees creates complex characters: such as the truth of twisted, dying love that can reveal itself in hate (Pg. 126), or where the contrast between Jean Valjean’s steady empowerment after his heart was changed by mercy and Javert’s pride and unenlightened conscience, are clearly seen in the height and depth of their meaning. (Pg. 135)
Truth and meaning give us the endurance and growth of Eamon despite horrific evil in Anna Thayer’s The Knight of Eldaran series, shines the light of hope throughout the lands of S.D. Smith’s The Green Ember series, instills the will to live beyond ourselves in The Wingfeather Saga, and shows how stories like these can draw our hearts to goodness in Andrew Klavan’s The Great Good Thing. But how do these authors communicate from their hearts to ours?
- Secret # 5 – Inner Rhythm, deals with ‘hearing’ our characters’ rhythms, both the rhythm of their actions and the truth of their emotional motivations, and using these to weave a potent picture. Brandilyn puts it succinctly. “Once you are ‘hearing’ the Inner Rhythm, you can blend it with your character’s personalized traits and mannerisms, and with his Action Objectives for the scene, to create action that is believable and full of emotion.” (Pg. 158)
Facial expression and other body language of a character create powerful telltales that reveal truths to us, but we must hear those rhythms in our character and translate them clearly, or our reader won’t be able to feel them, though we outright tell them. It’s like watching a movie without the music, or hearing the music and the script alone without the actor in play. But when the music is there with the actor, and both translate the script, you find yourself within another heart, swept inside the story.
- Some words encapsulate truth and our translation of it better than others. Secret # 6 – Restraint and Control, are pivotal to cutting away the confused, the vague, and the extraneous words that destroy, hide, or bury the truth of what our character feels, thinks, and does, and consequently – muddies or clarifies the meaning of our story. Restraint and Control also correlates the beat of the words and sentences with the dominant rhythm of the scene, whether it is the inner rhythm of emotion or the outer pace of the action.
“If a scene is weak or moves too slowly, it may be the result of superfluous or poorly chosen words – words that blur the focus of the scene and slow the pace. Through Restraint and Control a novelist learns how to use the best words to flesh out characters, create an aura, and move the scene forward.” (Pg. 175)
Words either deaden meaning or sharpen it.
- But how can we explore truth we do not yet know, find meaning we have not yet experienced, in a character we feel is alien to us? Emotion Memory – Secret # 7, is a way for us to plumb the depths and heights of every character, from heroes to villains.
As Brandilyn says, “Time to get personal. To this point, we’ve focused on your character. By now you have a clear understanding of how important it is to know your character from the inside out. We’ve discovered who he is – his inner values, traits, and mannerisms. We’ve discussed his Action Objectives, his Inner Rhythm, his motivations for Subtexting, the widely varied colors of his passions. Now we’re going to talk about you. Like it or not, the truth is this: your character’s emotions begin with you. You are the well from which every passion of your character – every tremble and smile and tear and jealousy – will be drawn.” (pg. 200)
So, the truth of our character is the culmination of ‘who he is’ and ‘what she means’ to our story and the world. The act of lending our life and heart and breath to a character leads to our discovering them – and ourselves. At the least, in seven aspects of truth and meaning.
To recap, connection at the level of truth is essential between the writer, the character, and the reader. Second, every core truth holds meaning, which is a fascinating and driving force behind our entire story. Third, subtexting in dialogue reveals the truth of concealed meaning. Fourth, often variable and sometimes seeming contradictory, the truth of our human emotions requires exploring many shades of feeling that collide in our hearts.
The fifth aspect deals with ‘hearing’ our characters, the rhythm of their actions and the inner truth of their emotional motivations, then using these to weave a picture bursting with life. In the sixth aspect, restraint and control cut away the confused, vague, and extraneous words that destroy, hide, or bury the truth of what our characters feel, think, and do. Our skill in this muddies or clarifies the meaning of our story. The seventh aspect reveals how we can we explore truth we do not know yet, discover meaning we have not experienced, and bring to life a character who is alien or unfamiliar.
So why pursue good meaning in what we write?
Our story stands on solid ground – in truth revealed as our characters grow, truth woven throughout the human spirit and mind, truth given birth in action, and the meaning arising from uncovered rhythm, clarified by the right word, honed by judicious cutting – meaning stands on the reality of truth. As our villains discover, and our heroes learn, meaning built on lies, on false reality, fails when it is tried in conflict. We must dare to see truth and its meaning, dare to name it, dare to act on it. Dare to live in it.
Because it’s true.
Because we want to present others with a real picture of hope and goodness that exists to overcome evil and despair.
Because we desire to illuminate each person’s potential, explore who we are, and truly experience the world and the universe.
Because, if we are a Christian, we dare not hide him who is our hope and the hope of the world.
Because we live by faith alone, through God alone, in Christ alone.
Because no human was created to be silent.
Truth is the only solid ground under our feet. The sand of lies heaped beneath us will betray us the moment we are tested and discover we have no solid footing. Why is this important?
Because it points to truth and lie, and the meaning of both impacts far more than ourselves. Truth and meaning are vital to our existence, to the life of the world. They make up the very fabric of the universe.
So, what do you think of truth?
Where do you think meaning comes from?
Why does it matter to you?
Suggested reading: C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, chapter 1.