Actions always speak louder than words.
This is never more true than in a story, where characters’ behaviors may or may not align with their claims. Behavior offers the audience a truer assessment of motives and beliefs than any other single storytelling aspect; readers (or viewers) relies on action for clues as to what’s really happening.
But too often, we writers let our characters act without knowing why they act. If characters’ actions speak louder than words, then we ought to know what our characters are saying, and make sure it aligns with our goals for them in that story.
This topic came to my attention recently in some feedback I received on my own work. A beta reader pointed out how much more engaging my pragmatic villains were than my principle-obsessed (if misguided) hero.
This surprised me at first; after all, I loved my idealistic hero and loathed my shady villains. Didn’t everyone else?
Upon reflection, I realized that I aligned my hero’s behavior toward my beliefs, with little thought about whether or not these beliefs were authentic to the character and/or would resonate with the audience. On the other hand, my villain’s perspective was far more clear and considerably more logical given the crisis their world is enduring. No wonder people felt sympathy for the bad guys!
This feedback has been valuable as I revise my characters. If I want my hero to have the same dynamism and emotional relevance that my villains (apparently?) have, then I must know more about why he acts. And his actions must reveal his inner beliefs in an authentic, engaging way.
That brings us to the issue of worldview.
Worldview has been defined as “the fundamental cognitive orientation of an individual . . . encompassing the entirety of the individual’s knowledge and point-of-view, including natural philosophy; fundamental, existential, and normative postulates; or themes, values, emotions, and ethics.” (Wikipedia)
That’s a big definition, so I bolded the most important words. Let’s turn them around and apply them to your characters. If I could have coffee with each of them, one on one, I would ask them a few questions:
Would your characters be able to answer those questions? Would you?
Learning your character’s particular philosophy or ethics doesn’t mean taking a course on Kant or Confucius, Socrates or Kierkegaard (though this might be helpful). But it does mean being aware of how your characters approach life, and how that approach influences behavior.
Overall, there are two main worldviews characters may espouse. As polar opposites, of course, they also offer a range of combinations in between. Once you’ve got these in order, and figured out where your character lands on the spectrum, you’re ready to scribe authentic, believable, emotionally-engaging action.
A principled character operates based on a set of principles, or ideals that lie outside him/herself. These principles may originate in spiritual belief, religious practice, philosophical dogma, a guru the character follows, or some other source. Principled does not always mean nice or “good,” either. An excessively cruel character could be quite principled! Either way, the key to this character is that they are guided by what is objectively right. Both methods and outcome matter.
On the other hand, a pragmatic character operates based on a set of ideals that lie inside him/herself. We tend to think of pragmatic characters as the “What’s-in-it-for-me?” types, like roguish Han Solo or plucky Tyrion Lannister; however, a pragmatic character could be motivated by the good of others or the good of a whole society. The difference is, a pragmatic character is guided by what is subjectively right. As long as the outcome is good, methods don’t matter.
Characters may shift between the two worldviews, of course. A character may start out with high ideals and later adopt an “ends justify the means” approach, especially when battered by obstacles and antagonists. Or, a highly pragmatic character may discover and adopt a strong guiding principle that transforms his or her behavior. Or, a character may fluctuate between the two based on circumstance or strength of will.
Certainly, there’s a place for both types of characters, and stories. How does a writer choose between them? What are those pros and cons? And how can writers use a character’s worldview to its fullest advantage?
We’ll be looking at these questions over the course of this mini-series. In our next installment, we’ll tackle principled characters and tips for developing them. In our third installment, we’ll look at pragmatic characters and harnessing their power. In our final installment, we’ll draw conclusions about blending these characters seamlessly into a multi-faceted story.
Until then . . . take your characters out for coffee and ask them why they do what they do. Write down their answers (or make some up!), and stay tuned for our next installment.