Happiness in Stories
I turned sixty-five on Friday, and it was a good day. I’d be lying if I said I never thought about the dwindling number of years left without a certain degree of apprehension, but for the most part I do my best to keep my focus on the here-and-now which still contains plenty that delights me—the love of my sweet wife Cathy, our little orange tabby cat Stella, the best neighbors a guy could wish to have, the friendship of many of you who read my blog, the opportunity to keep writing and teaching. Not to mention the glory of autumn and all its beauty, the taste of Honeycrisp apples, pumpkin cake donuts, and cider. Oh, I know the world can seem like a dark place right now, but trust me there’s still these small gifts to sustain me.
What sustains your characters? What pleasures do they have in their lives? So often we focus almost exclusively on all that troubles them—all the problems, all the pressures. After all, we all know stories start in the midst of some sort of instability. It’s only natural then to open a story at the point where trouble comes to call or where the life a character thought was theirs gets thrown into doubt. Trouble begets more trouble and sends a narrative along a path of cause and effect. Your main character acts which leads to a certain result that requires further action, and like that you have a plot that grows organically from choices and consequences. Trouble pays off big-time for the plot, but what about your characters’ joys? How can a narrative make good use of happiness?
Happiness can lend texture to a narrative, allowing it to sound more than one note. The joyful provides an interesting contrast to the trouble. You can even use happiness as a way of making way for that trouble. Paradise always gets disturbed by that pesky snake inviting us to eat the apple. Temptation is so hard to resist especially if we’re talking about the superbly delicious Honeycrisp apple. If we know what makes our characters happy, we have an invitation to a plot that will threaten everything they hold dear.
Happiness can also be used to great advantage when creating round characters. The moping loner enjoys singing along to pop tunes inside his house. Who would have guessed? The angry boss relaxes by doing watercolors. The possibilities are endless. Try creating a hobby that will stand in opposition to the baseline of the character. Immediately, you make that character more interesting and more difficult to pigeonhole. The gloomy with sugary sweet pop music. The angry with delicate watercolors. You get the idea. Ask yourself what hobby or activity or talent would you least expect your character to have. Then all you have to do is to make it believable that such a person would enjoy that hobby, or do that thing, or have that special ability. To do that, all you really have to do is pay attention to the particulars. Can you describe your character painting watercolors with authenticity? Do you have the intimate knowledge that will make the details convincing?
Finally, happiness can be used to great effect at the end of the story as a reminder to characters of everything they’ve lost or almost lost. The bittersweet ending relies on this acknowledgment of both the ugly and the beautiful, or to put it another way, the trouble and the paradise.
Which is where I find myself at age sixty-five—an age from which I can realistically see the troubles behind me, all around me, and on into the diminishing future, while also giving thanks for everything that gives me pleasure. If you ask me, that’s not a bad place for a writer to be.
Happy Birthday! Laurelville cider, I hope. It’s a nice drive south to get it.
Thanks, Angela. I’ll have to check the cider to see where it came from.