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Home, Where the Heart Is

I have to thank Simon and Garfunkel for this post which was inspired by their song Homeward Bound.

The lyrics go: “I wish I was homeward bound. Home, where my thought's escaping. Home, where my music's playing. Home, where my love lies waiting silently for me.”

Hopefully, his love isn’t lying there silently because she is dead. If so, it would place the story in the mystery or horror category.

For most, the word “home” conjures warmth and belonging, especially during the American holiday of Thanksgiving. Home can be a place where Dick finds nurturance and love. It can be the place where he feels safe in a world gone mad.

Home can be a place that he longs to return to, a situation he longs to build for himself, or a place he needs to run from instead of to.

What kind of place do your characters call home? What lies in wait for Dick when he gets there? Home can remind Dick of all the things he lost or never had. Family get-togethers may be bitter rather than sweet. If a story problem forces Dick to go home, the game begins.

What if home is full of ghosts, personal demons and the walking dead, either literally or figuratively? Home can be full of mildly or severely dysfunctional people. If Dick’s family home or hometown is filled with addicts and felons, then it isn’t the cheery Hallmark scenario everyone imagines.

Going home can be psychologically or physically damaging. Can he tell anyone what home is truly like for him? Not necessarily. Shame is a huge motivating factor. It may keep Dick from telling anyone just how bad home really is. Even if Dick tells, he might be mildly rebuked for being so hard on his nearest and dearest. Surely it can’t be that bad? Except, it is. When his coworkers are rushing home, eager for the weekend or his schoolmates returning home at the end of school term, it can fill Dick with dread.

Coming from a family with something to hide places Dick in a precarious position. Even if he is brilliant and has a laudable talent or amazing skills, he has to be careful to not allow the spotlight to veer in his direction. It might startle the cockroaches from his past and make them frightened, which can make them dangerous.

Home can be a trigger for a recovering Sally. Most characters long for home. If going home puts Sally at risk for a relapse, it may not be the best place to visit. If the dysfunction that exists there is the thing that made her get high or drunk in the first place, the trigger will always be there, waiting like a land mine to blow up in her face. Sally may have to avoid home as much as she craves it. She will have to find a way to build her own home and that is not an easy thing to do. What if Sally feels more at home somewhere else? As much as her friends or other family members may like her, she isn’t really part of their home. Will they make room for her? Can they? Should they? To what extent?

Home can be full of actual ghosts or zombies. That places the story in the paranormal realm. Can Jane tell anyone? Maybe not. If she has to deal with the paranormal element at home while trying to live a normal life outside of it, Jane has serious conflict. Keeping a secret becomes a prison whether Jane is hiding that her Dad is a serial killer or a faerie King. How far is she pushed? Who could she tell? Who would believe her? How could she prove it? Her life is in danger either way.

What if Dick returns home and finds it markedly changed? He can return from college, a trip abroad, or from living on another coast or planet. What if it isn’t what he remembered? Dick may have a hard time reconciling the idealized version of home with the reality. How do the changes make him feel? Have things improved or gotten much worse. Has the town been invaded by trolls? Maybe Sally and Jane don’t remember things in quite the same way. Maybe Dick is forced to face a completely different “truth” about the way things were. The story can review all the things he thought he remembered and offer a completely different twist.

A fully drawn hero has both a home life and a work life. It’s important to give your reader a glimpse into both. It is unbalanced when we are presented with characters that are never at home or never at work. We don’t need to see every little thing they do at either location, but it helps to understand them if we see how the character operates in both worlds. They are defined by how they navigate the tricky waters both inside and outside the family.

For more on crafting conflict to create tension, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict available in paperback and E-book.

Stirring the Plot: Denial

Denial is an subconscious defense mechanism. When you ask a two-year old if he took a cookie from the jar (and he knows he will get in trouble for it), he denies it.

Characters deny things for complex reasons: to protect themselves, to protect people they love, to dodge a painful truth, or to deflect blame or suspicion.

When confronted with an internal dilemma or overall story problem, Dick (the protagonist) can choose to accept something or not oppose it at first. He may deny that aliens have landed or that his wife has lost that loving feeling. He may deny that he has cancer. As events unfold, Dick is eventually forced to accept it.

When confronted by information that counters his belief system or faith in someone, a character’s first response is usually denial. Many stories center on his journey as he struggles to accept the truth.

Dick may deny that he is the only one who can stand up to an injustice or a bully, but the overall story problem forces him to do so.

Jane (as antagonist) can see that her plan is failing and refuse to accept it. The reader will be thrilled that she failed.

Dick (as protagonist) can refuse to accept that his cause is lost and push on until he wins. The reader will be elated when he succeeds.

If Jane refuses to believe that Sally is dying, she may plan vacations and purchase air tickets that will never be used. She may insist on trying every far-fetched “miracle cure” on the market while Sally tries to bring Jane back to acceptance that the end is nigh.

Friends and foes chiming in on the issues make the story problem more difficult for the protagonist to succeed and the antagonist to fail. Their own acceptance or denial can create obstacles.

Friends and foes can continue to deny that vampires exist or a friend’s spouse is cheating even when they see the cheaters together.

Friends and foes can deny they were at the crime scene, withholding critical information either out of fear or out of malice. 

Denial creates conflict and tension as the reader waits for it to resolve. You can use this tactic to drive the story at scene and overall story levels.

To learn how obstacles create conflict for your characters, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, available in paperback and E-book.

Crafting Characters: Angel or Devil?

Conscience is that angel sitting on Dick's shoulder that tells him when he is doing something wrong. Conscience makes him feel bad when he does things that are counter to his morals or belief system, or when it registers that he has hurt another person. Empathy goes hand in hand with conscience.

Conscience is the thing within that keeps Dick from lying, cheating, stealing, or killing. It forms the psychological lines that Dick won't cross or the cultural taboos that direct his behavior.

An antagonist doesn’t have to be without conscience. He can truly believe in his cause or plan and at the crisis point realize that he has been doing something wrong. He can know from the beginning that he is doing something wrong, but justify it until the crisis comes along and he can’t anymore. He can exit the stage steadfast in the belief that he was correct.

Shame can serve as strong motivation. 
Shame creates that burning sensation in the chest. It can make Dick regret something he has done and apologize for it. Lies and betrayals, large and small, can lie heavily on his conscience. Shame can inspire Dick to do something noble to make up for his mistake.

Shame can have the opposite effect. Jane can feel so full of shame that it sends her into a death spiral of low self-esteem that forces her further into addiction or crime. It can so damage her self esteem that she doesn’t see the point in trying to be any different. Trying to drag Jane back to a sense of balance can be impossible.

Shame can create small, subtle conflicts within a psyche, a marriage, a friendship, a social club, or a work group.

Characters can accept blame for things they didn’t do either because their self esteem is low or because they want to protect someone else. They can take responsibility for things they shouldn’t. A crisis of conscience can be a story problem or a story solution. It can be a protagonist’s personal dilemma.

Conscience can drive different characters in different directions. Conscience can send Dick to war and make Jane a conscientious objector.

On the dark side, are characters who lack conscience. Psychopathy and sociopathy are similar disorders. Both are considered antisocial personality disorders. 
Some consider sociopaths less in control, more anxious and easily agitated and more likely to act up in public. They are often homeless because they can’t do what it takes to live in normal society. A psychopath is considered calmer, more secretive and manipulative. They can be charismatic and charming, hiding their pathology with a veneer of health. They don’t feel remorse or guilt but are aware enough of what the appropriate human responses are that they can mimic them. They both mean trouble and make chilling antagonists. However, they tend to be one-dimensional. An argument could be made that they have been overused.

Characters are rarely one-hundred percent good or evil. Crafting them with shadow and light makes them more interesting. Internal conflict enriches the story. Wrestling with their choices creates tension.

For more about how to craft characters, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, available in paperback and E-book and Story Building Blocks: Build A Cast Workbook, available in paperback and E-book.