Writing Exercise: Make Your Characters Take a Stand

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I feel like I am surrounded by strong opinions lately. Here are both sides to some controversies I’ve been hearing:

  • We should boycott Chick-Fil-A for discrimination.
  • God-fearing Daniel Cathy has the right to state his opinion without persecution in the media.
  • The doping controversy over Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen shows clear Western bias.
  • The doping controversy over Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen shows how much of a problem doping is in today’s modern Olympics.
  • Joe Paterno’s statue should not have been removed.
  • Joe Paterno’s statue should have been removed sooner.
  • Illegal immigrants should be deported.
  • Illegal immigrants should be given amnesty.
  • Mitt Romney is a terrible presidential candidate.
  • Barack Obama is a terrible president.

Okay, are you riled up now?

I would make a terrible politician, at least by today’s partisan standards. Truthfully, I just don’t like to argue. When it’s holiday time and the family or a group of friends cranks up on politics or other controversial issues, I am far more likely to walk out of the room than I am to take a stand. The older I get, the less use I see in hammering my points home. On top of that, I can often see valid arguments for both sides of an issue, and many times I don’t feel the need to come down strongly on either side of the fence.

Does this make me wishy-washy? Some would say yes, but maintaining relationships with friends and family members is more important to me than showing them the error of their ways, even if I do feel like they are really, really wrong. If I were a congresswoman or casting the deciding vote on the Supreme Court, then things would be different, but in my world, most of the time it’s not worth it to win these discussions at all costs. Think about it: when someone has a strong opinion on an issue like gay marriage, or gun control, will anything you say change their minds? That’s why Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher are so popular; people feel far more comfortable hearing their own opinions fed back to them. It’s too jarring and exhausting for most people to discuss issues calmly with intelligent voices coming from the opposing side. Better to shout them down, or just not be in a position to have to listen in the first place.

However, I lose something in refusing to argue with those with whom I disagree. Sometimes, it’s the arguing itself that helps us clarify our positions. When we are trying to explain how and why we feel what we feel to each other, we often understand ourselves better in the end. I miss out on that a lot. I sometimes miss the days when I was more reckless, brasher with my opinions, more hardcore. And if you get me on the right day, and ask about the right issue, then look out.

So what does this have to do with writing? Well, keeping the peace doesn’t make for interesting writing, unless keeping the peace at all costs is the cause of the conflict. If you write dramas, or mysteries, or anything that requires complex human interaction, chances are, you are going to have to write about a disagreement. Maybe it won’t be directly about an ISSUE, like the ones we are talking about here, but it might touch on the ISSUE. Maybe your character will have to admit to taking steroids and then get kicked out of college, or will find out a beloved friend is gay, or will see on the news that a neighborhood child has shot someone with a parent’s handgun. At some point, if your character is going to have to argue about an ISSUE with someone, perhaps you need to explore how you feel about the issue a little bit, and do some fact-checking, as well.

Today’s Writing Exercise

Whatever ISSUE you think your character might be facing, write it down, explore how you and the character and others feel about it, and write a discussion between your character and someone else. What’s your character’s stance before the incident? Why does the character feel that way? How is the incident likely to change things? How do others in the book feel? Then, map out an argument that the character might have about the incident, which shows some grayness has appeared in how the character feels about the ISSUE. There’s no better way to add complexity to a character than to force him to change a little part of his mind. If your character is not the one to change his mind, maybe someone around him does.

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