A father, Jim, takes his son thirteen-year-old son, Roy, to Alaska in the tradition of all those great male adventurers. It’s long been an ambition for Jim, to pack up and live off the land for a year. It gives him the chance to connect with his son and show the boy what it means to be a man.

But Jim doesn’t know this environment. When challenged, he makes mistakes, bad decisions and over-rules his son’s suggestions. After all, Roy is still a child. What does he know? Jim is the father; he should know best.

But he doesn’t.

In many circumstances, dad will know better than his son. It will have been true for most of Roy’s life. But it’s Jim’s belief that dad always knows best (among other things) that gets them into trouble. Serious trouble.

This is the scenario in David Vann’s novella, Sukkwan Island, part of his collection of stories in Legend of a Suicide.

Character flaws

Jim’s world view isn’t that different from that of many fathers. They want to help their sons grow up to be good people, strong and able to support their families.

But, in some instances, that world view is flawed.

We all have these views, biases, opinions and beliefs that color how we see the world. We’ve developed them over many years, and they help us make sense of everything around us.

These core values matter a lot to us, and it’s difficult to change such strongly held beliefs. When we’re confronted with someone who has an opposing view, we are convinced we’re right and the other person is wrong.

In psychology, this is called naïve realism, when you’re sure you’re right and the other person is wrong and biased. Obvious examples can be seen in discussions of polarizing topics, such as gun control, abortion and the death penalty.

In stories, it’s a wonderful tool to be aware of because when your characters’ core views are challenged, they’ll defend them. That leads to (some degree of) conflict, and conflict means drama.

If Jim’s core view wasn’t challenged, there would be no story.

Discovering your protagonist’s core world view is crucial to any character-based story, and certainly useful for any other kind of story. This view doesn’t have to be implicitly stated—Vann never says it out loud—but it helps immensely if you, the author, is aware of it. You can then look for those moments when that world view will be challenged, and if your antagonist has the opposite world view, or the same but different ideas of how to achieve the same goals, then you automatically have drama built into your story.

Character values

In an earlier post, I outlined ways to discover your characters’ true motivation, and those techniques can help you find your characters’ core values.

Another way is to think about an argument your protagonist has in your story, ideally about something they passionately want to defend.

Look at that argument and try to define what is really driving your character’s defense. If you’re still developing your story, think about arguments your character could have or look at some of those polarizing topics and try to work out what your hero would think about them.

Typical values common to many people, and therefore story characters, include:

  • family – many people will stick up for family members at all costs, even if they know that family member has done something wrong, even if it’s murder
  • partners – the romantic rather than the business type; love has always been a great motivator in stories
  • other relationships – friends are vitally important to some people and they should be supported no matter what; coworkers could fall into this category too
  • work or study – this could include school or volunteer work, something that your character will fight to be able to continue doing or gain access to
  • spirituality – this could be religion, some higher being, nature, a spiritual community or making sure you get time to meditate
  • leisure – maybe your character just needs a break sometimes, get away from the routine, or maybe routine is very important and they just have to get to gym, get to the game, play the game, hang out with friends, paint, sing or do nothing

We all have a combination of these values, each to varying degrees. No single value is all important to any one person. To find out what’s most important to your character, you can put this list into the order of importance for your character and try to pick out a specific aspect of each. Jim’s list might look something like:

  • family – son
  • spirituality – nature
  • leisure – hunting, fishing, being self-sufficient
  • work – gave him the money to come on this trip

Partners and other relationships would be pretty low down Jim’s list since it was the break-up of his second marriage that led him to abandon everyone but his son and be self-sufficient in Alaska.

But since family is his dominant value, that’s the most likely place to find his world view. In this case, that a father should be a good example to his son. This view is then influenced by all the other values, even the negative ones, such as Jim’s general bitterness toward the women in his life. These will only make him argue more that he is right and that even his son—someone he values more than anyone else—is wrong.

You can go through the same process for your antagonist. What view does this character need to have to challenge your main character?

These views will inform every decision the characters make throughout the journey of the story, with their conflicting attitudes driving the drama and making them more realistic characters along the way.

What world views do your characters have? Will they pursue these ideas at any cost? How did you discover your characters’ views? And how have those views helped to develop drama in your story?

About Jim Dempsey

Jim Dempsey specializes in detailed analysis of novel manuscripts. He has worked as an editor for more than 20 years. He has a master’s degree in creative writing and is a professional member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. Jim is fascinated by the similarities between fiction and psychotherapy, since both investigate the human condition, the things that make us uniquely human. He explores this at The Fiction Therapist website, where he looks at different aspects of fiction—character development, plot, story structure, etc.—and uses concepts from proven techniques in modern psychotherapy to offer editing advice to authors who want to publish their novels. If you have a specific concern with your novel, send an email to jim [at] thefictiontherapist.com, or visit the website to ask for a free sample edit.

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