This is a different kind of Writing Guide article. To understand how it affects your writing, you need to first know how it influences you on a personal level. So you’ll forgive this first segment of self-exploration.
Have you ever asked yourself who and what you are? What about your strengths and weaknesses? Your fears? Let’s go with a harder one: am I a good person or am I the villain? Or do you let others define those for you?
Those questions, as well as your actions are what I call the Personal Narrative, how you tell your life’s story. As someone who’s done a lot of introspection lately and who’s grown more than he expected to, I’ve gotten a clear understanding of my own Personal Narrative. I know for example, that I am not the villain. Sure, I’m not perfect, but I try to be a good person, to the best of my ability. I know my fears, the source of my moments of sadness and regrets and I know how strong I can be and what my weaknesses are.
For the longest time I let others dictate my Personal Narrative, I let them define who and what I was in our collective story, until I realised the foolishness of that. Only you can decide what your Personal Narrative is, how you are in the collective story you share with those around you, even the ones who hate you and wish you ill.
Don’t let anyone make you the villain of the story when you’re not. We all make mistakes, but don’t allow others to impose their Personal Narrative on you because of them. But on the flipside, don’t make others into villains unless their actions condemn them. Don’t impose your Personal Narrative on them, instead let actions, efforts and attitudes define your relationships, those points where your narrative connects with others’. And if your actions indeed make you the villain, accept them and make amends where you can. Don’t victimise yourself to escape, instead accept that you may be the bad guy in the story and try to come back from it.
The Personal Narrative is a delicate thing. It’s how you view yourself in the story, and it’s easy to create a particular narrative that suits your needs, to make you seem stronger and better, or make yourself the victim at every junction, for a sense of pity from others. Keeping an honest Personal Narrative is harder, where you accept your faults and strengths in equal measure.
When you’re writing a story, you need to understand and be aware that each of your characters will have their own Personal Narrative and the interactions between them will define their world and the status quo that frames your story. One of the hardest things we do as storytellers is defining those Personal Narratives in our writing. How do your main characters view themselves? How do they tell their own tale? These are important considerations and the more your flesh them out, the more real and relatable they will be.
When I mentioned how the characters tell their stories you might think narrative point of view, but that is a technical aspect of the writing. I’m talking about their core. In their minds and hearts how do they see themselves in their world? Are they monsters or heroes, damsels in distress or valiant knights, a pauper or a prince, an exalted individual or a simple man trying to survive? Are they good or bad? Are they deluded in their goodness? Most villains in your story won’t think they are villains, they operate under a strong Personal Narrative of goodness, convinced they are right and others are wrong or just misunderstand them. Some may be right of course. Fiction writing is littered with examples of villains who were right all along, their ‘evil’ goal turning out to be a good one, making the main characters the fools who messed things up—in a classic “Good job breaking it, hero” scenario—and then had to clean up the mess.
Relationships are harder, the connections of Personal Narratives. At each link, you can see how their narratives affect how they view each other. To your main character, the local politician could be a villain, but to that character, your protagonist could be a villain as well, someone interfering with their good plans. A perfect example in writing is the Kingpin & Daredevil relationship during the first season of the Netflix series. For most of the season, despite his actions, Fisk’s Personal Narrative is one of a good man, simply doing what’s necessary to help the city. In this deluded narrative, Daredevil is not only an enemy but another villain. To the blind hero, the Kingpin is THE villain, the big bad, for obvious reasons.
While you as a person should always try to keep your Personal Narrative honest, I know it’s sometimes impossible. We can never truly be objective except during those odd moments of deep introspection, moments of pure clarity when you realise that, as comedian Christopher Titus so eloquently puts it: “you’re screwing up your life.”
For the most part, even if we don’t impose our Personal Narratives on others, they’ll colour our perception of them. We’ll mark them down as foolish, misguided or even villainous in our Personal Narratives, even if they don’t do the same with ours. Some might be important to us, central to our narrative but to them, we might merely be a footnote.
So too will your characters’ Personal Narrative be. When you’re writing them, you’ll probably have to create two overlapping narratives. The truly honest one, where you list every good and bad attribute your character possesses, and the deluded one, the one they use on a daily basis, the one that affects their relationships. It’s likely you never use the honest one and it only remains a reference to your character’s core, but if they ever get one of those moments of clarity, that’s when you pull it out and you can let your readers know just who these characters are, what they truly are in the world.
Writing characters for a story is one of the hardest things in the world, because you want and need them to be real, so your audience connects to them, feels for them and go with them on the wild ride you’ve devised. I won’t tell you I’ve always been successful at this, because I haven’t. My character writing has its moments of glory and some terrible ones as well. If you read Bad Blood, you’ll see many examples because there isn’t a plan when it comes to Margot’s story. As I state in the novel’s page, I’m writing it off the top of my head. As such, their Personal Narratives are as much a work in progress as the rest of the plot. If you see any inconsistencies in the status quo, in the relationships, it’s because they don’t have defined Personal Narratives.
I could tell you there’s a formula, or a checklist, to writing Personal Narratives but there isn’t. You simply have to sit down and figure them out, writing your characters as honestly as possible. A good exercise is to write your own Personal Narrative first. Take a look at yourself and write who and what you are. Then when you’re done, add your relationships, the people around you, friends and foes alike. Write how you see them in your collective story. Perhaps it will help you understand them a bit better and yourself for that matter, and you’ll get a clear idea on how to go about writing your characters’ Personal Narratives.
As with every novel writing guide, the next time I’ll give you a few examples, though my Personal Narrative will remain a secret. I’m sure you understand.
As always, I hope this helps.