Worlds, Inside and Out

Suppose the apocalypse begins tomorrow. How long would you be able to go without food? Water? How would the transition between ordinary civilization and the end of the world feel?

Now suppose your characters, instead of you, find themselves in the apocalypse. Assuming they're ordinary people like us, what's different about their reaction?

Characters, just like real people, have needs. They require food and water. They're sensitive to changes in their environment. Emotions are felt not just once, but multiple times throughout the story. Something that happens at the beginning of a book might affect the character to the end, just as childhood abuse can manifest signs throughout a real person's life.

Characters are people too! This sounds like a political slogan, but it's simpler than that: forgetting that characters are beings with ever-changing emotions, basic everyday needs, and likes/dislikes takes away from a book's realism, especially if it's set in the real world. Let's look at some examples with a character named Alisen from Stories of the Night.

Example #1. Alisen is sitting in her yard, thinking over the traumatic dreams that have kept her awake every night for weeks. Her thoughts are interrupted by the arrival of her friend, Sadie. In a fictional world, Alisen might drop everything she's doing to spend time with Sadie (probably what she should have done!) But, like most of us would be, Alisen is preoccupied. She doesn't forget her thoughts just because of another character's arrival. Though the focus should be on the interaction between Alisen and Sadie, it's important to remember that Alisen has an outer life and an inner life. The inner life doesn't disappear.

Example #2. Alisen finds herself in a dangerous situation she could have prevented, though technically, she didn't directly cause this situation. This event and the events that follow cause pain not only for herself, but also for her friends. In a fictional world, Alisen might focus only on the present moment and how to escape before she fully analyzes the situation and its cause. In the real world, however, nobody can live completely in the present moment. Alisen is caught up in the agonizing realization that if she had acted differently, she and her friends might have stayed safe. Was the situation her fault? Did it matter whose fault it was? What would have happened if she had done something differently? The focus of the story should be on Alisen's present situation, but as in the previous example, it's important not to ignore her inner life.

In these two examples, Alisen's world is divided clearly into two parts: the inner and outer. Her 'outer life' is the physical world outside of Alisen's mind, and her 'inner world' is her thoughts, emotions, and intangible needs such as hunger and thirst. Of course, her outer world can affect her inner world, and the outer world can affect the inner world. In ordinary life, most people don't make this distinction in their actions and everything flows together. This mix is what creates a true-to-life story.

There are times when it's important to shift the balance between inner and outer worlds. For example, during a battle scene, most people are so involved with the conflict of their outer world that they don't focus on the inner. In situations like these, the outer world should be the primary focus. However, when there's not much action or the character is reflecting after a long day, they're probably lost in thought - the inner world. Most situations should be evenly balanced, but this is an exception.

In general, it's important to ensure that your characters are true-to-life. This, for most people, is what makes a story entertaining. If a reader can relate to a book, they'll find themselves in the story. If they can do that, they'll be truly immersed. And that's what stories are meant to do.