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