Telling Your Story

I think that instinct, that storytelling instinct, rescued me most of my life. – Armistead Maupin

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Image courtesy of PhotoSteve.

As many of you know, I’m spending a lot of my spare time lately working on a pair of novels. It’s been a challenging experience – but an enjoyable one.

For me, one of the biggest parts of writing fiction is understanding who the characters are. In order to write something interesting about a character, I need to know to at least some level of depth who these people are.

One thing that I’ve come to realize is that it’s very difficult to write a truly evil character or a truly good character. Characters tend to operate based on the morals and values they themselves hold and the idea of “good” and “evil” has far more to do with the reader than it does with the characters themselves.

In the same way, the characters I create – and this holds true for every person I’ve met, too – has an “ideal” of how they would like to act in a given situation and a “reality” for how they usually act. The “ideal” path is usually what they see as the best way to act, whereas the “reality” is how they would normally act in that situation.

For example, a person might see it as an ideal to give food to the homeless people that they meet, because they believe in the idea that everyone deserves to have some sustenance in their belly. However, the reality of doing that is a lot harder when you’re trying to make your way to work and pass twenty homeless people. Can you bring them all food? Sure, you can, but it eventually becomes an obstacle to the other things that the person needs to do in life.

Reality eventually (and often) trumps the ideal, in other words.

Yet, the people we respect and remember are the people who managed to achieve their ideal with some regularity. When I think back to some of the people in my life that really made an impact on me, they’re people that went above and beyond the call of duty to help me. I remember an uncle who would always make an effort to make me laugh. I remember an academic advisor who made lots of phone calls to help me find a summer internship. I remember a friend who pretty much helped me through every step of my early career.

In each case, the “regular” thing would have been easy. I’m sure my uncle was sometimes in a down mood, but he found ways to tell me a joke and make me laugh even when he was in a hospital bed. I’m sure my academic advisor had an army of students to help, but he spent a lot of time helping me find great opportunities. I’m sure my friend could have simply not given the job notices and other opportunities a second thought, but he made the effort to bring them to my attention.

It is their consistent ability to go beyond what was “regular” and strive for something more that set them apart.

Over the years, I’ve interacted with lots and lots of people. I don’t remember the vast majority of those interactions. The ones that stick are the ones where someone did something exceptional.

That distinction between the “regular” and the “ideal” is what makes for the memorable people in my life and it makes for interesting characters in my writing.

It also makes for a powerful guideline for my own life.

Most of the things we do in our lives are going to be of the “regular” variety. Think of the example of the person whose ideal is feeding the homeless – if they stuck to that ideal, they’d never make it to work. We’re going to do the “regular” thing most of the time.

The question is when do we choose to go for something better than the regular thing? When do we go from living our ordinary lives to doing something more?

Here’s another way to think of it. When your life is over and someone describes you by saying “that person was a really good…”, what is the word that’s going to come next in that sentence?

Whatever it is, that should be your ideal and that should be the thing where you try to avoid taking the regular route. Cut corners elsewhere. Do this one thing in an exceptional fashion.

When I’m writing a story, I don’t really want to focus on the boring parts of a person’s life. I want to write about the “ideals” that the person achieved. What happened when that person did something that went beyond what their ordinary life called for? It might be something as simple as giving away a meal each day to a person in need. It might be being the person that just says, “Don’t worry about it; I’ll take care of it.” It might be leading a group. It might be turning on all of your teaching skills to really reach a group of students.

Quite often, though, you’ll find that doing that one thing really well requires resources and money. That’s where personal finance comes in. Good personal finance skills are often one of the underpinings of achieving that “ideal.” Doing the right thing with your money is often just as important an “ideal” as other things you might be doing because it makes those other ideals possible. Other skills often help, too, such as strong communication skills and organization skills and self-control.

Going for the ideal means taking control of what you’re doing. It means doing something powerful and positive that you know, in your gut, that you’re capable of. It means changing the world, sometimes in a big way, but often in a small one – but, in the end, is there really any difference between the two?

It’s your story. Make it a good one.

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