Man writing in a book
Culture Writing
Robert Marion  

A Core Missing Factor in Fiction

Something felt wrong when I first started the three-book series I’ve entitled The Prodigal. It felt like there was some core missing factor in my characters. Something absent from the pages. Ultimately, as I was writing, I discovered the problem. I figured out what was wrong with my characters.

The cared only for themselves.

This is an odd thing to say aloud. Most people read books because of the characters. I’m currently digging my way through the Jack Reacher books, and I can say with absolute certainty that I wouldn’t be into them if not for the character of Jack Reacher. I can remember some plot points, sure. But the enjoyment of these books came from enjoying Reacher as he wandered around being Reacher.

But if you read through the Reacher books, you’ll quickly discover that the stories are not about him. Reacher is an agent of chaos. The stories are about people, and how the whirlwind that is Jack Reacher stirs things up as he moves through the pages. It’s pretty rare in these books that Reacher acts strictly on his own behalf. After all, if he did that, he would pretty much just wander the US alone all the time.

Rather, Reacher cared about others. Maybe not at first, but he found himself drawn into their stories and circumstances. Something that becomes the core of almost every book.

Something my story was missing.

Thinking of Ourselves

The first shot I took at drafting the book that eventually became The Prodigal was called Know Thyself. The themes hovered closer to horror than the mystery the book eventually became. But right off the bat, I should have known I was on the wrong track with the working title. It took me a while to figure that out. In fact, the word count ticked past 50 thousand words before I realized there was a core missing factor from this story.

The storyline wasn’t bad. In fact, I recycled many of the character beats directly into the first book of The Prodigal. I still rather like the main storyline of Know Thyself and may revisit it in the future. I feel it could work as a strong Christian-based horror story, and there aren’t a lot of those out there.

Still, let’s look at the main character of Know Thyself and how the reader is introduced to her so I can really drive this point home.

The cold opening of this story featured the main character, a woman named Lee, holding onto her child that was dying of leukemia. The father wanders in and out and is almost a no-show during this event. As such, Lee is left to suffer almost alone as her daughter leaves this world. A tragic opening, sure, but one that accidentally set the tone for this character. Fast forward some time, and the main character visits a “friend”. A friend that went behind her back and got involved with Lee’s husband while she was in the hospital with their daughter.

Within the first two chapters, this story clearly became about Lee. And all about Lee, really. It might as well have been the working title for the story – All About Lee. And that’s where it fell apart. The story became about Lee’s tragedy and her need to rise above it, and little else except those that stood in her way.

Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Rising above tragedy can be an admirable goal. People love success stories. Someone struggling with weight loss… rising above poverty… leaving a toxic life behind… all of these stories can be done well and incorporated into a larger narrative.

But in my case, I had a character dwelling in her own loss. And it killed the story before it ever really got started. The story was just all about Lee. What Lee needed and wanted. How she suffered. Where she believed she belonged. And when your protagonist is only concerned with themselves, you have a problem.

Fixing Ourselves

I mentioned before that I took many character beats and directly moved them over to The Prodigal. But how did I get past the problem of Lee and her self-obsession? The answer was, really, quite simple.

I introduced another child.

Suddenly, my character had something more than herself to think about. In The Prodigal, the character undergoing the trauma is Audra instead of Lee, and the child in question isn’t even hers. But that doesn’t matter to Audra, and it doesn’t matter to the reader. The child became something for Audra to fight for. And in my opinion, it was the core missing factor that the story needed.

Ultimately, people are more than just the sum of their own abilities and strengths. People are social creatures. Our relationships make us who we are. God focused on the family before he ever focused on the church, and then later Christ patterned the church after the family. No person is an island.

But this runs contrary to a lot of storylines in recent years. The shift of storytelling from others to the self has followed popular culture’s ethos where the self is paramount. The stories told by any generation reflect the ethos and culture of its time. And in a culture where the self has taken God’s place, anything speaking out against the self is seen as heresy.

Do become what you were meant to be stories have a place in fiction? Of course, they do. Any storyline can be told and told well. But treating the self as the ultimate destination – as worship – gets old and gets old fast. As our culture scrambles to replace God with our own ambitions, our stories have reflected the change of focus. The core missing factor in our stories has gone AWOL and has yet to return.

Maybe that’s your taste. Maybe this core missing factor doesn’t matter to you. Maybe for you, the self is enough. We certainly live in a time where depression is on the rise. I can understand why stories that promote the self over all else can be appealing. Involving ourselves with others can be difficult. It makes us vulnerable. It takes energy. And when all our energy is focused on survival, who has time for others?

But that doesn’t change my opinion that the self makes a lousy god.

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