July 22nd, 2015

Regarding… Me? The Surprising Revelations of Fiction’s Reflection

Vaughn Roycroft

IVR headshot cropped’m a Believer? I always thought I knew what I believed. Don’t you? I always knew I believed in, you know—stuff. Stuff like … um. Well, there’s my longstanding belief that the best way to a championship is still a consistent running game and a great defense; that the first beer is always the best and should be savored slowly; that the end of Calvin and Hobbes was the beginning of the end of the newspaper business. I’m on firm turf with this stuff. This is stuff I can confidently assert to my barber, or my neighbor as our dogs play together.

What? Not serious enough? Okay, then how about long-held beliefs such as: that my father’s generation of Americans really is the last great one, and it’s as much about their humility as their triumph over economic depression and world war; that something one works hard to obtain, something that truly feels earned, is better appreciated than something received by gift or windfall; that one should utilize the opportunity of going to college to study what truly fascinates them, rather than focusing their studies on a specific future vocation; or that the pillar of friendship is as important as the pillar of love in building a solid marriage. Yep, these are a few of my truths, evolved in the course of a life of school and work, living among family, friends, and coworkers.

But how often do we delve into what we really believe? You know, the things that make us tick, that influence who we are and how we live.

My friend and Writer Unboxed colleague Jo Eberhardt recently wrote a wonderful post exploring the importance of understanding our characters’ beliefs. And not just in a general way, but specifically what they believe, and how those specific beliefs influence their behavior, their approach to what life throws their way. I highly recommend the read as it really got me thinking (hence this post). But you can only click over now if you promise to come right back. Okay, go on. See you on the other side.

Letting the Days Go By:

“And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, Well…How did I get here?”
~David Byrne (Talking Heads)

Good, you’re back. See how I serenaded your return? Nice, huh?

Anyway, we all know how hectic life can be. And it just keeps speeding by, doesn’t it? I’ll admit that before I left the business world and started writing, I rarely analyzed or questioned my own beliefs. Who has the time for that? Beyond business and family and friends, I admit that my understanding of my own beliefs was fairly superficial—tied to my own work-a-day world.

Politics, world events, history, even religion—they’re all pretty much spoon-fed to us, if we willingly consume what’s offered. Belief becomes mired in how an issue will affect us now, or next week, or by Christmas or the next election. In today’s world, if you mistake tribal opinion for belief, its spouting becomes psychic junk food, readily gobbled on your favorite news channel or website. If we’re not careful, life can slide right by without any thorough analysis. And then we might find ourselves asking: Well, how did I get here?

The Great Instigator:

“There can be no true love of lie without despair of its end.” ~Albert Camus

Death has been called the great leveler, but a better name for me would be “the great instigator.” I’ve written several times before, and probably will again, about the role death played in spurring the life change my wife and I undertook, leaving a successful business to move to our beloved cottage in the Michigan woods. I don’t want to get bogged down on death, but I want to acknowledge its role in getting me here. When we left Chicago, our mantra became “life’s too short,” which at its core is a recognition and an acknowledgment of our mortality. We knew we were living in a blur of activity, and recognized that there should be more to life than accumulating possessions, no matter how nice those possessions might be.

I think this was my first real recognition of one of my core beliefs. And I sensed there would necessarily be more recognition, more analysis and contemplation, to follow.

Who’s That? – Appraising the Writer In Fiction’s Mirror

Questions, Questions: Have you ever been ambushed by your muse? As you’re writing, do you ever find yourself wondering: “Where is this stuff come from?” Yeah, me too.

In fact, this happened throughout the writing of the first draft of my trilogy. I think this is why I never had an issue with getting to “The End” that first time—I just had to find out how it all came out!

So long story not so short, a bunch of stuff was happening to these characters that seemed to have appeared from the ether. Along the way I found myself forced to ask myself a lot of questions. For example: Is war ever justified? If so, is killing another human being justifiable? How would it feel? How would one live with having done it, even if it felt justified? How do warlike cultures evolve? Could one be raised in a warlike culture, brought up to feel that killing others was a part of one’s duty, and still find it morally repugnant? How would they navigate that circumstance?

Just to name a few. Before I finished all three manuscripts, my list of questions had grown long, indeed.

Psychic Excavation: I at least have some idea that my warrior exploration was rooted in the loss of my father, who served in both the European and Pacific theaters during WW2 and never spoke of it. Long after his death I still find myself wondering about his experience. He was such a kind and peace-loving man, and he’d had this brutal—savage, even—experience in his young adulthood.

But that doesn’t explain everything that I unearthed in that first draft.

Again and again, issues which I hadn’t consciously considered in depth appeared as I drafted. Feminism as it applies to the ancient world, racism and cultural jingoism, even the economic reliance and subsequent cultural rationalization versus the injustice of slavery. That’s a lot to find myself pondering in the course of a single story. Even if it is an epic fantasy.

Like one of those farmers in England who goes to dig a simple well and stumbles across the ruins of a Roman outpost, I’d stumbled upon a rich archeological site … my subconscious mind.

Delving Deeper: Once I had a finished draft, I still had a lot to consider. I knew I had a lot of stuff happening (plot), and I’d been ambushed by my muse regarding overriding issues that generated plot (themes). But, getting back around to Jo’s post on WU, I still hadn’t exactly explored why my characters reacted to what was happening the way they did. In order to give the story depth and meaning for readers, I still needed to consider their true goals and motivations, and the conflicts that arose from those goals and motivations. I needed to figure out what they believe—specifically believe—and how those beliefs affect their behavior.

I can see the importance of the incorporation of belief, and how an inner journey springs from belief—how a character’s convictions both incite and conflict with what is taking place. I aspire to master a weave of the inner and outer journeys of my characters in the pursuit of satisfactory story arcs. For me, this is the key to powerful fiction. It’s something worth striving for. But I’ve discovered a side-benefit to the endeavor: self-knowledge.

Fateful Findings:

“Knowing oneself is the beginning of all wisdom.” ~Aristotle

“He who looks outside, dreams. He who looks inside, awakes.” ~ Carl Jung

It can be strange at first, to recognize glimpses of your true self reflected back from the page. I’ve come upon many of my truths though my appraisal of fiction’s mirror. I better understand the importance of loyalty and friendship, of honor and humility. I better appreciate and admire a willingness to sacrifice for others. I’ve examined my thoughts on the influence of societal dogma, on fate versus free will, and the importance of proactive choice.

I hesitate to veer into the mystic, and I readily admit that organized religion hasn’t played a large role in my life. And yet, through writing fiction I’ve come to more deeply consider my own spirituality. I’ve contemplated the existence of evil, and the power of love. I’ve come to know and be at peace in the knowledge that death isn’t the end of love, and never can be.

A Worthy Examination:

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved on stone monuments, but what is woven into others.” ~Pericles

There’s a long road ahead, but I appreciate the distance I’ve come. Through striving to better understand my characters, I’ve come to better recognize aspects of myself, and of those I love, in them. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity for self-exploration. And though I’m a work in progress, I believe that the effort continues to make me a better citizen, friend, and husband—a better person.

But I hope that my exploration might, in some small way, offer even more. At the least, I suspect the effort to understand my own beliefs will make for more engaging fiction. And, with a little luck, someday it might even help someone else to better realize their own beliefs. I’d say that’s a worthy endeavor.

Many thanks to the ladies of Writers In The Storm for the opportunity to share a bit of my journey. I firmly believe they are among the most generous and supportive folks in the writing community!

Your turn! Do you believe in the sustaining power of Calvin and Hobbes? Have you been ambushed by themes, or surprised by your characters’ convictions? Have you found a deeper understanding of your own beliefs through writing fiction?

About Vaughn

In the sixth grade, Vaughn’s teacher gave him a copy of The Hobbit, sparking a lifelong passion for reading and history. After college, life intervened, and Vaughn spent twenty years building a successful business. During those years, he and his wife built a getaway cottage near their favorite shoreline, in a fashion that would make the elves of Rivendell proud. After many milestone achievements, and with the mantra ‘life’s too short,’ they left their hectic lives in the business world, moved to their little cottage, and Vaughn finally returned to writing. Now he spends his days polishing his epic fantasy trilogy.

26 comments to Regarding… Me? The Surprising Revelations of Fiction’s Reflection

  • Vaughn, I love your voice – and that your message lays buried amid the words you throw.
    Isn’t this life incredible?! Each level you achieve, you think, ‘okay, this is it, I’ll sit here in a lotus position and relax.’ Yeah, right. The closer I get to the end (whenever that is), the more I cherish every second and every layer….and can’t wait to see what comes out, typed onto the computer screen that I didn’t know before I typed it.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us – great stuff!

    • Such a perfect point to add, how it’s an onion we’ll never quite get peeled. The new stuff’s growing at the core. But it’s a worthy pursuit. I love seeing it unfold on the page.

      Thanks for your insightful and kind words, and for having me, Laura!

  • Thank you, Vaughn Roycroft, for a perfectly delightful morning think. What better way to start the day than an almost-discussion with a new friend that stretches the mind and clears out dusty corners?

    I’m with you, too; clear, deeply felt, and well expressed values and beliefs are the foundations that make for great fiction, no matter what genre or subject.

    As for Calvin and Hobbs…I’m thinking maybe it’s time for me to check out that iconic duo.

    Thanks again!


    • I’m glad it could be there to dust for you, Faith! 😉 Here’s to deeper fiction, whatever the genre (amen to that!). And yes, believe it or not, that smart-aleck and his stuffed tiger will have you digging, too. Thanks and happy exploring!

  • Thank you for sharing your journey with us. When I plot a new story, I always start with what motivates my characters and what drives them to do and say what they do…and say. Adding a belief system, as you say, only adds another layer and texture to the entire writing and reading experience. You’ve encouraged me to delve even deeper into my characters.

  • […] ladies at Writers In the Storm have been generous enough to host me once again. It’s a vibrant, supportive, and insightful […]

  • Good morning and good words. Just when I think I have a handle on what keeps my characters ticking, you come along and knock over my Lincoln log and Tinker Toy village. Thank goodness I am only 20,000 words into my new project. Time to give my characters more depth. Lovely and thought-provoking post.

    • As a former Lincoln Log and Tinker Toy fan (even one who combined the two as a child), I totally feel for your great analogy, DeeAnna. Yes, do keep after it. It’s actually easier to figure out the ticking for them, which helps us to analyze our own ticking. Thank you!

  • Orly Konig-Lopez

    I always feel like I know what motivates my characters but your post made me really stop and think about all those OTHER seemingly insignificant things that clutter our brains. And such perfect timing with noodling a new project. Brilliant post, Vaughn! Thank you.

  • Beautiful post, Vaughn! And as with Jo’s it left me with more questions than answers. The deeper I delve to know, I find that knowing just the tip of an iceberg of a thousand new unaswered questions. Perhaps the answer in the journey is the journey itself, or perhaps the answer is that there are too many questions with an infinity of different answers, I don’t know, and maybe that is how it’s supposed to be, to keep the journey never-ending. The only thing i am certain of in this point of my journey is that as my characters strive for answers, I strive with them, and sometimes we discover things that blow all of our minds to the core truth of our souls. Thanks for making me think about it all this morning, my brain is gearing up for some exploring. Can you smell the rubber burning?

    • Hey B – Who doesn’t love the smell of rubber burning in the morning? Smells like…Writerly Freedom. 😉 It’s very evident to me that you are never content to “let the days go by.” Your characters, and your fine analysis of mine, prove it! Thanks so much, for everything!

  • Hello, Vaughn. I am so pleased that my last comment until I retreat from my blog and commenting on others for my summer break will be on your thought-provoking post. I’ve been blessed being a first generation Italian, a boomer, a crazy-off-the-wall spiritual person who could never sat still in church or Catholic school. Blessed by the wealth of language and culture my life brought me, by being an incurable people-watcher and knowing without knowing I knew that all of that would weave into my work.

    It surprised me … those revelations and realizations you spoke of … surprised, frightened and delighted me at once. I see and hear them. I have often had long conversations with them and one rule had held true … if I become a talking head or start to sound shallow, they kick me in the ass.

    What I also know as certainly as I know I need this insane life we live is when another voice rings true. I have this curse of perfect pitch, a BS meter, and the ability to smell the stench of hackers. Your voice captured me. I didn’t scan to the bottom. Oh, well … maybe I’ll leave a polite comment. Your voice is one I can sit back and absorb and I look forward to reading you. Hope you come back often … the ladies here are indeed among the best. NOW … I’ll go and see what the WU post is all about. Write on 🙂

    • Wow, I’m honored, for the last slot before the break, and by your very kind and generous words. I think you’re so right, that the element of surprise, and the revelations, are what keep us coming back to the page, and keep us from resting on our laurels. It’s a heady pursuit, and the delving becomes addictive if we let it. Which can only be a good thing.

      Thanks so much, and have a wonderful and revitalizing summer break!

  • Marcy McKay

    Terrific post, Vaughn. Even after 20 years, my writing still takes me by surprise, makes me question my core beliefs, delights and frustrates. It’s AWLAYS a journey. I’m not always happy, but I’m never, ever bored. 🙂

    • Hey Marcy – Isn’t it funny? When I was in the biz world I was always waiting for something – for the numbers, for the shift changes… for Friday. Waiting like that is boring. Then the weekends in Michigan were such bliss, but oh-so-fleeting. And I suppose I was happy in those moments after the boredom and the waiting. But now I can see that happiness is better founded in periods of contemplation and study and meaningful work. This life really is a better basis for enduring happiness than the “happiness as reward (paycheck and weekend binge)” that comes in the work-a-day world. Happiness is not “coming soon”, it’s in the now, being molded in our every effort, our every triumph, and even in our setbacks and failures. And you’re right – it’s never boring. 🙂

      Thanks as always, my friend.

  • Thank you, Vaughn. You leave us with an important element to include in our character journals, sometimes at the outset of the larger writing piece, sometimes upon revision, often along the way.

    • Hi Rick, I think you’re onto something here. It’s not only true that this sort of digging can go on at various stages of a story’s development, but that it *should* continue throughout the process. Indeed, it should include throughout our journeys. Best to you on yours.

  • See there, Ekta? You’re way ahead of me, starting with an examination of motivations and their origins. I’m glad I could add incentive to dig down another layer. Thank you for weighing in!

  • So glad to be here, among such great company! Great post, per your usual. I’ve been delving deeper into my own core beliefs through poetry. I realize it’s a gift and something I need to share, and that I’ve been afraid of it means, even more, that it’s where I need to focus. So, I’m working on something that needs to be written. I found the thing that’s been burning and the exploration is a series of epiphanies, some loud, some raving, and some are like lighthouses.

    And all along the way, I keep stumbling across posts like this one that speak to this truth: these mediums are powerful, be they stories, poems, a combination of the two, or art and music. And in changing the artist as we work along, trudging around in all those onion skins that are layers of who we are becoming, there is certainly that potential to impact others. You can see that shining in some people- like you and all the others who write and read this blog. How cool is that?

    • Hey Tonia! As I mention in the essay, I have explored fate versus free-will, and what you’re talking about seems to allude to what I’ve come to believe – that there are pieces the Universe puts into play in our lives, but that it’s still up to us to connect the dots, and to then make the choices that reset the board for the next move.

      Sorry don’t mean to get all woo-woo on you (although I know you can take me deeper on any given day 😉 ). You and your poetic badass self are definitely one of the fortuitous friendships on my board. Again and again, we show each other the hidden trails of the journey – the ones that are full of inspiration and wonder. So thanks, trail-buddy.

  • You’ve done it big-time for me this morning, Vaughn, stretched my complacency. It’s wonderful when a friend becomes a teacher. Advice like yours is one of the non-monetary rewards of this life, how to live it while learning how to imbue characters with real breath.

    • It’s wonderful indeed – particularly when it can be utterly reciprocal. I’m delighted to not only admire your dedication and persistence, on the page and in your many other pursuits, but to shoulder the load together – encouraging each other onward – along this challenging pathway to writerly successes. We both know there’s no real crest for this climb, but it’s wonderful to be reminded to pause and take in the view every now and again. Thanks for your kind praise, your example, and your encouragement, Tom.

  • Thank you for this insightful article, Vaughn. I think this is necessary leg work for all authors.

  • Thanks for such a transparent post, Vaughn.
    “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” ― Flannery O’Connor