Your life is a novel. If you think this sounds odd, consider the following seven basic needs to a story line:
1. A hero, defined as the person through whose eyes we see the story unfold, set against a larger background.
By this definition, we are all heroes, because we all see the story of our lives unfolding against the larger background of family, friends and location. Each of us is the central character in the novel that is our life. I think one reason why people move to exotic places is because they want an exotic background for their life story.
2. The hero’s character flaw, defined as a weakness or defense mechanism that hinders the hero in such a way as to render him/her incomplete.
By this definition, we all have character flaws. I know I have many. Pat and Megan Nolan, the central characters in my novel A World I Never Made, are deeply flawed. They would not be interesting otherwise, and neither would we.
3. Enabling circumstances, defined as the surroundings the hero is in at the beginning of the story, which allow the hero to maintain his/her character flaw.
I call this the X – or excuse – factor. In A World I Never Made, Pat Nolan’s excuse for being an absentee father was the death of his wife, at age 20, while giving birth to his daughter, Megan. Pat clung to these enabling circumstances for a long time. I think we all do the same in the novel that is our life.
4. An opponent, defined as someone who opposes the hero in getting or doing what he/she wants. Not always a villain. The opponent is the person who instigates the life-changing event (see below).
We all have opponents. People who try to abuse us, belittle us, stand in our way. An opponent may also be a fear of something, or an addiction. There is no success in life without confronting the opponent, in whatever form it takes. In my novel, Pat and Megan are each other’s opponents. This creates the story’s emotional and psychological tension. Pat and Megan have a common opponent as well in the characters of the bad guys who are trying to kill them.
5. The hero’s ally, defined as the person who spends the most time with the hero and who helps the hero overcome his/her character flaw.
In A World I Never Made, the hero’s ally is the beautiful and sad Catherine Laurence. In the novel that is our life, this role is, I believe, usually (but not always) filled by our spouses. It’s probably why we get married, and sometimes divorced.
6. The life-changing event, defined as a challenge, threat or opportunity usually instigated by the opponent, which forces the hero to respond in some way that’s related to the hero’s flaw.
This is where the pain comes in. Sickness, death, self-destruction. I don’t think I need to say too much on this topic. We face what we have to face. If it doesn’t kill us hopefully it makes us stronger. It changes us for the better.
7. Jeopardy, defined as the high stakes that the hero must risk to overcome his/her flaw, the dramatic events that lend excitement and challenge to the quest.
When the stakes are highest, both Pat and Megan Nolan go all in. Their courage – their willingness to die in order to re-establish their love – is, I believe, what makes them compelling characters. In the novel that is our life, our very lives are not usually at stake, but who among us has not learned the lesson of no pain, no gain, no risk, no glory, on some level? And then there are those who really do risk their lives. The people who fight for their country, those in law enforcement, firefighters, the stranger who saves the life of someone drowning. Think of the novel that is each of those lives.
James LePore is The Story Plant’s Author of the Month, which means we are offering sensational deals on his work. You can read more about the program here.