Thursday Writing Prompt No. 25

Window of an abandoned building in Washington, D.C.

I’ve signed up for an online graduate humanities class as an elective for my history degree program. The class is pretty small, which means there will be no getting away from discussing philosophy — and its cousin — politics, with each other. Which is what we’re supposed to be doing, anyway. Discussing philosophy, that is.

I don’t intend to discuss politics here on Focal Plane. It’s not that I’m apolitical, it’s just that I didn’t set up this blog so I could pontificate to the world. But here at the start of a new semester, I find myself poised to really get into some heavy discussions elsewhere. No doubt it will affect me, although exactly how remains to be seen.

All human interaction changes the participants somehow, both in real life and on the page. Let’s face it: no one wants to read a story or watch a movie where the protagonist doesn’t change somehow. In the classic Hero’s Journey, the protagonist must answer the call, and that changes him or her for good. Not only are stories that offer no change or growth in the character boring, but they’re not technically stories because nothing really happens in them. And that brings me to this week’s Thursday Writing Prompt.

Writing fiction should be something you enjoy, or else why are you doing it? But your story probably has a character that you like and maybe one or more that you don’t like. Here’s the difficult part: you can probably identify with your main character because you’ll give him or her some aspect of your own personality that you like. Political opinions, for instance, since we’re sort of (but not really) talking politics. That also means any characters in opposition to your main character will probably have different opinions and ways of acting. The trick is to write these people as real people, not stereotyped jerks for your main character to knock down.

Think about stories or movies you really like. What are the antagonists like? Aren’t the best ones three-dimensional humans (or aliens) who have a stake in their own affairs? Face it, the crappy ones are cardboard cutouts and you probably don’t enjoy them. They make for weak stories. So this week’s Thursday Writing Prompt asks you to do a little research into the pros and cons of an issue that interests you, and then write a few paragraphs from the opposite viewpoint. Your job as a writer here is to get inside the head of a character who thinks differently from you and find a way to make that person interesting and real on the page. For starters, you can look at newspapers, but sites like ProCon.org are more useful for getting background information.

Your job with this assignment is not to criticize or argue the issues, because I’m asking you to write fiction, not a letter to the editor. Allow yourself to portray your character in a way that makes him interesting. Don’t make your antagonist a jerk or a fool — even if he is one, readers pick up on your feelings and instinctively know that you’ve put this character into the story just so you can knock him down. Please don’t write that way, because it alienates your readers. I can say that nothing bothers me more than an author who takes a political dump into the middle of their story just because they know that the reader can’t respond to their statements. It’s a cheap shot, and unworthy of a good writer. Be a good writer, not a mediocre one!

Above all, try to have some fun with this. It is a difficult assignment, because we all instinctively want to dislike things we disagree with. But if you can create a believable character who happens to have different views from your main character, you’ll have a much stronger story because all your characters have a personal stake in the story’s outcome. And that’s worth reading.

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