About the Humanity – Ask Alice Saturday

Benjamin Braddock in The GraduateQuestion: What is the most important element of good storytelling?

Answer: Mike Nichols was a master storyteller. I saw him in an interview where he was asked this same question and here’s his answer. “All we care about is the humanity.” And that’s a direct quote.

He was saying we must put the core of what makes us all human into the characters in our stories. Their dreams and hopes. Their disappointments and losses. Especially how they FEEL. All portrayed in some well written scenes.

Look at Nichols’ film The Graduate. All of that is there. Benjamin Braddock spends the entire story trying to figure out what his dreams and hopes might be. He stumbles into disappointment – mainly a big one he creates for himself by a huge error in judgment with Mrs. Robinson.

That blunder sets him up for the loss of his life – Elaine Robinson marrying somebody else. It FEELS like the loss of his life and that’s what matters. How it FEELS to the character. He triumphs in the end and we FEEL it with him even though he’s still as confused as ever.

The entire story is Benjamin Braddock. It could have been titled The Adventures of Benjamin Braddock. Each of our stories could be titled The Adventures of ________ (fill in the name of your main character). Or more accurately The Emotional Adventures of ­­­­­­________.

Because what our audience or our readership really cares about is the humanity of our characters. And how that humanity acts itself out – behaves and talks and most of all FEELS – in the story. In other words they care about the character’s Emotional Truth.

Emotional truth is what’s really going on in your story. The real truth of what’s happening to your characters. What your characters allow us to see and hear on their surfaces can conceal what they are truly feeling. Great stories are all about TRUE FEELINGS REVEALED.

This is exactly like real life and real life is the mother lode from which you mine your own emotional truth and refine it into storytelling treasure. The deeply felt emotions that are the beating heart of your story. The deeply felt emotions that make your reader feel deeply too.

I write romantic suspense novels. Scary things happen in my stories. The main character of the story I’m currently writing is assaulted by a brute. That happened to me once. My character and I both survived. Now we both benefit from my emotional truth of that awful experience.

The powerlessness while it was happening. The shock and numbness after it was over. The way others reacted. I didn’t need to take notes. All of that was branded on my humanity in indelible emotional ink. Now it is branded on my character’s humanity.

Unfortunately we’ve all had similar indelible experiences. We’ve been changed by them – traumatized by them – sometimes stopped in our tracks by them. Now we get to convert them into the very raw material of intense and dramatic and powerful storytelling.

You know what these stories are for you. Write them the way your heart FEELS them to be true which may differ from factual truth. Facts are verifiable. Feelings are not. Someone else’s emotional truth may vary from yours. That doesn’t make your truth any less valid.

Emotional Truth is individual. Your characters’ truths are what they honestly FEEL. That honesty gives your story authenticity. That authenticity gives your characters their humanity. It’s what makes your story really matter – to you as you write it and to your readers as they read it.

So dig down and dig deep. You’ll know when you hit the humanity mother lode because it will zing straight to your heart – just before you zing it straight to the page.

Find my books at amazon.com/author/aliceorr.

Alice Orr – www.aliceorrbooks.com

20 thoughts on “About the Humanity – Ask Alice Saturday

  1. Thanks for a fabulous and a great reminder. If my reader doesn’t care why my hero or my heroine want what they want, they won’t care about their story.

  2. Beautifully stated, especially for your genre. In crime, there’s that Sherlock Holmes end of the continuum, where the intellectual challenge of puzzle-solving is paramount, but most readers probably like some kind of a blend. PS–the photo in your new masthead is spectacular!

  3. A perfect article on how to present humanity through your/character’s heart-felt experiences made into brilliant stories.
    And I agree, Mike Nichols, was a master storyteller. He’ll be truly missed.

  4. Alice
    Your blogs are terrific! Good to hear that you’re back on track, sort of–and never end a sentence with a preposition, right?
    Love to you

  5. Excellent — on both points: how we, as readers, care about the humanity of the characters and how we, as writers, must mine those emotions from real life. Of course it’s not necessary to experience something specific to pair the appropriate emotions with the character. It is necessary that we deal honestly with the character’s emotions, bleed on the page, as they say ( I’ve never given CPR to someone and then failed to save them, but I’ve listened to people who have). Writing an accurate and empathetic account of an experience pays homage to those who have been there and helps those who haven’t to understand.

  6. Perfect timing for me to read this, Alice. To articulate why my new book, “Thrown Again into the Frazzle Machine: Poems of Grace, Hope, and Healing,” connects with people. The deep humanity of the story, giving voice to emotions, and allowing the feelings to come through. As one reader said: “made me laugh, made me cry.” Thank you!

  7. Alice, you constantly amaze me. Your generosity in giving back all you have learned both professionally and emotionally is not only inspiring but challenging. Thank you for that constant prodding. We can all do better.

  8. Good morning John Lovelady. It’s so good to hear from you. You asked me once why I keep on doing this – the workshops & the blog posts & all of it. First I do it because I love the writers’ community which has given so much to me in so many ways & it is only gracious to give back. Second I do it because I love doing it & to be honest I don’t think I’d know how to quit. Plus I’d like to say that you amaze me too. Your spirit is a bright contagion. I’ve caught it from you more than once & each time it was a blessing. Thank you for that & I hope to see you at the Romance Festival in June.

  9. You’re welcome Margaret Dubay Mikus. You are definitely on the right track if you’re making them laugh then making them cry. Keep on keeping on down that road.

  10. You are so right Susan Schreyer. We don’t have to have experienced something ourselves to know it at its heart. We forget sometimes – or writing pundits neglect to tell us – that we have experienced the lives & sorrows & joys of everyone around us. As writers & as caring human beings with empathy we see & hear & feel those other lives & what they struggle through. Sometimes we can feel their traumatic passages even more deeply than we can yet feel our own traumas which may still be too raw to access. It is most important in our stories to come from that place of empathy – for others & for ourselves – & tell the story of the human experience – warts & wallows & all.

  11. Thank you Sandra Barone. Just knowing you is inspiring & helpful. I can’t wait to see you at the Liberty States Fiction Writers Conference on the 21st.

  12. Hey Wyn Berry. What a trip it is to hear from you. Yes I’m on track with both feet. But as for the preposition thing. My grammarian self has taken a back seat to my expressive self deliberately. Except for one thing. I’am careful to absolutely never split an infinitive.

  13. Yes Victoria Kaloss. It all begins & ends in the heart chakra. We must write from there so they will read from there. Mike Nichols knew that. He was a master storyteller for sure & one of my forever mentors. I owe him a great debt of gratitude just for that one sentence. “All we care about is the humanity.” Whenever I forget that in my own writing I inevitably go wrong.

  14. Thanks you for the Bingo Terry Anya. That means a lot to me because it comes from you. But alas I still can’t three-ball juggle.

  15. Hi Vicki Weisfeld. Thank you for your kind words. As for the mystery genre – my first publishing job was as editor of a mystery novel line for a mainstream publisher. The books that sold best always gave the reader an emotional connection to the character and that character’s struggles. It it was the sleuth or the potential victim we wanted them to triumph. If it was the villain we wanted him to be stopped. We wanted & the more we wanted the better the book sold. If it was a series — the better the many books sold. We fall in love with a continuing main character & that love affair deepens with each book. Ask any successful mystery series character creator from Kinsey Milhone to Spenser. If they understand their process they will tell you the key to their success is that they make us care. The rest – the plotting & puzzle – is the mechanics. Mechanics are never as crucial to anything as is the blood of life.

  16. You’ve got it exactly Anna. The most important action in all writing – whatever the genre or level of physical action may be – is the emotional action. Does the reader care what happens to our characters? That caring is the real & most powerful story hook of all.

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