Character, Value, and Change

A story is born when an event, known as an inciting incident, disturbs a character’s deeply held beliefs or values. There’s more to it than that, of course. Characters persist in a state of deprivation. They have unmet needs. Repressed desires. Subtext, history. No character walks onto the story’s stage without carrying a heavy load of this baggage. But, until the bad thing– lightning strikes, the gun fires, the lover says the unsayable thing –disturbs a core value, there is no story. Strout, Elizabeth

Consider an example. In Olive Kitteridge, an Elizabeth Strout novel composed of connected stories, in “A Different Road,” we meet Olive and Henry, middle-aged, long-time marrieds in the throes of reacting to a terrible event. Eventually we learn that they were attacked and held hostage by a gunman in a hospital during a drug robbery. At the opening, we only see the change, or reversal that they suffered as a result of the attack. Affable, humanitarian Henry, an utterly trustworthy pillar of the community, who values being helpful in a doting, fatherly sort of way, is sad and distant. “It was like seeing him through a screened-in porch.” Olive, never affable but known for her cranky ability to empathize with and help others who are suffering, is even more critical, acerbic, and dismissive than ever before. To the point of dismissing as nonsense a friend’s suggestion of counseling. “Aren’t they ugly words, Cynthia, that those people think up—process, internalize, depressive whatever.” She values being honest about emotions, even if that means hurting feelings, such as those of a friend trying to help.

One might suppose that fear of the gunman is what brought them to this impasse. But, no, reading on, we learn that being held hostage at gunpoint merely provides a stage upon which each, under pressure, reveals much of what has long been hidden behind their public masks. Which brings me to the next principle.

A character’s value is the best predictor of how that character will behave under pressure.

Values remain the same during a story, but their expression goes through an evolution. If a conscious desire allows a character to start a story with a positive expression of a value, that means the value’s negative expression lurks as subtext behind the mask the character wears in public.

Olive KitteridegeLet’s take Henry, for instance. Early on, his need to help in paternalistic fashion allows him to be the anchor and guide for a lost young innocent, even when he might be accused of somewhat ignoring his own son. That same protective paternalistic need to help, during the hostage situation, causes him to add to the danger he and Olive are already in. Locked in the bathroom, confronted by a nervous young captor, Henry asks: “Do you think you could find a blanket for my wife?” Olive, having been examined earlier, is wearing only a hospital gown, and while trussed like a turkey, her gown has slipped open. “You think this is a fucking hotel?” said Blue-Mask. “Just shut the fuck up.” “But she’s…” “Henry,” Olive said sharply. “Be quiet.” In other words, Henry’s value is pushing them into an even more dangerous situation. His value’s negative expression, to demand decency even when it is apparent that to do so will cause irreparable harm, is pushing through the public mask.

So, the value itself doesn’t change, but the evolution in the way it is expressed signals the change, or reversal, in the character.

Many stories end with a value faced with a situation in which its needfulness is contradicted, or, in the case of tragedies, negated altogether. In this case, it is not the gunman, but what Olive and Henry end up saying to one another, once the masks are removed, that does the real damage and causes the lasting change.  “’Olive, we were scared that night.’ He gave her knee a faint squeeze. ‘We were both scared. In a situation most people in a whole lifetime are never in. We said things, and we’ll get over them in time.’  But he stood up, and turned and looked out over the water, and Olive thought he had to turn away because he knew what he said wasn’t true.

They have arrived at the end of the usefulness of their values. The values have not been negated. Neither is put in a situation, such as in prison or exile or deprived of limbs, where the value cannot be exhibited, but both end in a situation in which the expression of the negative side of their value has destroyed a game of collusion that had heretofore made their marriage ironically supportive.

If you want to understand how your character will behave under pressure and how they are changed by the story’s journey, you have to understand, and exhibit, your character’s value.

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