Doubt exists in each of us much of the time. We are unsure about our futures, our relationships, our new tile in the bathroom, our car insurance, etc. Doubt is the cradle of conflict, both internal and external. In the heart of every character lives a dilemma. As you become curious about that dilemma, it will lead you to what is universal in your story.
Action dictates character, and just like in real life, our characters are susceptible to temptation. This is what makes the human animal so endlessly fascinating. Any character could take any action at any time. It is our job as writers to expose the dilemma, and by being curious about our own hearts, find a way to support the situation in a way that is believable and compelling.
At any moment, a character can go either way. We are always at what I call a choice point. (Actually, I just made that term up, unless perhaps I unwittingly ripped it off an old Syd Field book). Character is never static, never rigidly definable (which is why character sketches are limiting and a waste of time). If you know a character is going to make a decision, it is by exploring the opposite decision that we can create conflict and reveal humanity. In the film, It’s A Wonderful Life, when Mr. Potter offers George Bailey the opportunity to come and work for him, George momentarily considers it. This is a crucial choice point. Potter is the man who is dead set on corrupting the town George loves so dearly, and George considers this?! Why?! Because that is how desperately George wants to get out of Bedford Falls. The stakes are life and death. He ultimately tells Potter ‘No’, tells Potter that he’s “nothing but a scurvy little spider,” but not before considering the offer! This is what makes George human, makes us connect to him. At any moment in your character’s journey, be curious about the opposite choice, the choice the character finally DOESN’T take. This can make your work sharper, more specific. Doubt and uncertainty are hallmarks of human experience. I think of story as a way to track those key moments or choice points (I’m really loving this term), where characters make significant choices that lead them to a fundamental shift in perception.
If I know my character is going to get the girl in the end, what makes my story compelling are the beats in between, the moments of doubt and uncertainty, the various and infinite number of ways that the boy might NOT or ought NOT to get the girl, all of the steps that precede this reunion.
Doubt exists in Romeo and Juliet as it explores the question of the possibility for a sustained love in the face of warring families. This doubt is universal. Is it possible to follow one’s heart in the face of societal pressures?
Cyrano explores doubt through internal pressure. Cyrano doubts whether he is loveable as he is.
Story asks me to question everything for a reason. Because in order for there to be a transformation, a shift in perception, I must be thorough in my exploration of my character’s dilemma. When I am thorough, the answer I arrive at is always love, but it is necessarily different from the idea of love at the beginning of the story. The desire to write is connected to the desire to evolve, to work through doubt, to understand that which I did not understand previously. “Is it possible to maintain love?” “Can I fulfill my purpose?” “Will I ever recover from this grief?” We are pushed to the brink by these questions. Transformation does not imply an answer to doubt, it merely allows for a reframing of one’s values in order to have greater clarity in navigating that doubt.
My job as a writer is not to rid myself of doubt. Too often I hear well-intentioned people talk of the human animal as if it were an object, a machine that simply needs regular maintenance. We don’t simply drink water anymore, we hydrate ourselves. According to recent popular thought, we are now to banish all negative thinking from our minds, because it is bad for the machine. To my mind this is a panicked objectifying approach which is particularly common in the new-age movement where the focus seems to be on arriving at some kind of absolute answer, mastering some secret rather than remaining curious about the experience. I have met more creatively blocked “spiritual” people than any other group. They seek “enlightenment” and become so engrossed by their idea of God that they become relatively incurious, seeing life as containing rules to be followed to ensure their safety.
Is it possible that enlightenment has to do with a widening of perspective, perhaps even developing a greater capacity to suffer by recognizing our common humanity, rather than having to solve some riddle of existence? None of us is getting out of this thing without pain and struggle, and for me to position myself as one with answers, one who has risen above it or mastered it, is a lie. It perpetuates shame, and frankly, it is immoral. The brave writer is ruthlessly curious about life as it is, not as they hope it to be. “Nothing human is alien to me,” said Terentius, the Roman playwright. An absence of doubt, which is really sentimentality, lacks true wonder, it keeps things vague, relies on aphorism and is ultimately the most cynical view because it fears the grandness of life. Life is plenty achingly beautiful without having to apply Turtle Wax to the deal. Sentimentality cheapens the whole experience by telling us that everything is going to be OK, all we have to do is know that deep down our families love us. Ironically, it is doubt which transports us. It is our curiosity, our unwillingness to be certain of anything, that carries with it the endless possibilities for a bold new world.