“No one is free until we are all free.”
– Martin Luther King Jr.
It is human nature to search for absolutes; Joe is a liar, while Helen is trustworthy. Abe is punctual, while Ruth is always late. Absolutes give us the illusion of security, but they also lead to lazy stories because they simply aren’t true. When we employ absolutes, we are trading in generalities, and that leads to cliché.
It is the curious writer that scratches the surface of their characters’ actions to investigate the impulses that informed them. And it is the brave and empathic writer who investigates where those impulses live within themselves, because this provides their characters with true humanity. If we don’t do this, we may miss the true lesson that our story is offering us. There is a certain distance that gets created when we relegate a character’s actions to anomaly. It lacks curiosity. If we are to write a compelling conclusion to our memoir, we must explore a true resolution that doesn’t wrap our story up into a neat bow. In memoir, a tidy conclusion is rarely a satisfying one.
For example: While it may be obvious to say that a drug czar’s actions are heinous and evil, it is also reductive. What is far more frightening to consider is how he is able to persuade thousands of others to do his bidding. We hear stories of the Mexican drug cartels who take men living in poverty and force them to commit violence in order to survive. While these men are perpetrators, they are also victims. It is the same, perhaps, for some of the police who fear they cannot afford to take care of their families, and so they accept bribes. There are customs agents and politicians who are on the grift. And what about the otherwise law-abiding citizens who purchase the narcotics? While they may not be guilty of murder, without their financial involvement, the violence may likely not have occurred.
There is a cause and effect, a ripple that travels throughout the world that connects us all to each other. By examining the circumstances of your characters and exploring their backstories, you will begin to understand their motives and perhaps gain greater compassion for them. As human beings, we are all connected, and therefore, on some level — on some level — we are each of us complicit. This is not to say that we are, each of us, responsible for the drug trade — of course not — but until we recognize that we are all connected, we tend to judge the actions of others without being curious about the circumstances that drove them. Until we empathize with the circumstances, we will fail to see our story as clearly as possible.
When your protagonist’s focus is solely on freeing themselves, notice how they move further into bondage. When their focus is on happiness, notice how it leads to misery. But when their focus shifts outward toward connection to others, notice how, ironically, they become compassionate, forgiving, and thus they move in the direction of fulfilling their inner need.