Primates exhibit a huge capacity for emotion. Otherwise, you’d never hear the occasional stories about the primates who aren’t human risking their lives for those not even of their own species. For human primates, though, story remains among the most powerful sources of emotion and therefore empathy.
Story becomes increasingly essential in a world where the internet and media dull our senses: Cataclysm and death become routine in a way they never should. As a species, we dare not lose our capacity to empathize with poverty, suffering, enslavement, and tragedy. To remain human, we must continue to feel the suffering of those who endure what we cannot begin to imagine. At its best, story forces us to imagine that when we’d rather stay numb to. After all, that’s what plot and characterization are for.
The kind of suffering that spawned the French Revolution still exists. Yet that uprising feels remote. How do you bring it close? Make a movie. Reproduce a mother’s willingness to prostitute herself for her child, a bishop’s tenderness toward the thief who stole from him, a man forced to choose between passion for a woman or for freedom. Make the movie from characters who’ve endured for 150 years yet seem relevant right now.
Les Miserables has a lot to do with whatever story you want to tell. The questions it poses are the same ones your story must ask.
· What does each of your main characters desire more than anything on earth?
· What opposes each of those desires?
· What lets each character control fate?
· What obstructs each character from controlling fate?
· What links your antagonist to the values of the good guys?
· What feelings and situations connect your characters to all people regardless of time or place?
· As the story advances and you pile up problems for the good guys, what humor or beauty or insight keeps the audience anxious yet still believing that morality stands a chance?
· What truth about human nature leaves your audience with some glimmer of hope when your story ends?
These aren’t easy questions, and many writers confess to me that they write “only to entertain.” Entertainment gets people to movies and originated story in the first place. Entertainment sells films and books. It also sells empathy. You need bushels of insight and energy to create a decent novel. So when there’s so much trouble in the world, why go to all the trouble of writing a novel that doesn’t use its entertainment to teach us a little something about being human?
Tip: We write stories because we’re human. Our best stories remind us what that means.