THE BOOK DOCTOR
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MOTHERLAND AS MUSE
Image by Art Lasovsky
By Caroline Donahue
The idea of ‘Motherland’ creates group identity in the world. It is the source, the culture we were raised in. It is the membership we didn’t have to apply for—for the most part, we got in by showing up in the right place at the right time. Or for some, the wrong place at the wrong time, in the case of a mismatch with values and identity.
This idea comes up often in memoir and on the news, but it holds just as much meaning in fiction.
What is your character’s motherland? If you can clarify that, you’ve got the beginnings of a story.
After all, classic story structure hinges on the character’s origin:
- At the beginning of most novels, we see the character in their status quo reality, whether it’s a place where they are happy and at ease or somewhere they’re dying to escape
- No matter how they feel about home, in order for the story to start, eventually the character has to leave, physically or metaphorically. If the rules in their town change dramatically, or a new person moves in and upsets the way things have always been, this still counts as a departure.
- In this new state away from their origin, the character learns many lessons, either by succeeding or, even more often, by failing. They have a limited understanding of the world, based on the beliefs they carried up to that point and this limits their ability to get what they want.
- Finally, there is a change. Either they fail forever and never get to come home again, as in a tragedy; or they are able to evolve, apply new skills and go “home” triumphant. This may be a new home they find in themselves, or they may return to their physical home and experience it differently.
Home is the starting point for stories.
Stories and novels don’t exist in a vacuum. Characters have to come from somewhere.
We invest in characters and care about them when we understand where they got their ideas and why they believe them. If we see them in a small town, only ever meeting the same people even while they dream of the city, we are protective of them when they first end up in a metropolis and overwhelm hits them like a steam train.
Without understanding their origin, we don’t know how to feel about the events they experience.
Here’s why spending time on their homeland helps you build stronger characters:
You’re able to clarify the foundation they stand on.
To quote Lin Manual Miranda, when Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr get to know each other, Hamilton asks “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for?” It’s hard to invest in a character if we don’t know what they stand for, and what they stand for is often in direct relationship to where they come from, even if it’s standing against that beginning.
Let’s keep going with Hamilton: we know he was an orphan, that standing out and making an impression was how he got a scholarship and came up the ranks to make an impact in the war and the government. For him, fading into the background meant the possibility of a death like his mother’s.
If you know these details, then you can create situations that challenge and possibly change your character’s beliefs. Making these challenges directly oppose what they hold dearest is an excellent way to write a story that people relate to and are deeply moved by.
Sharing your character’s background, culture, and what they will stand and fall for means we’ll want to stand and fall right alongside them. It’s also an essential step for you to see how your character may differ from you, or to find backstory you share and can bring into the writing process.
So how do you create convincing origin stories?
Ask a few simple questions as you consider your character:
- What is most important to the culture where your character grew up?
- What is taboo and could lead to exile? (actual or just rejection by others)
- What do they love about where they come from? (If anything)
- What do they wish they could change?
- Does their culture support or forbid their dreams?
- What could they do to become a hero in their culture?
- What could they do to become a villain to their homeland?
By exploring the questions above, you’ll have a strong sense of where your character is coming from, and some great ideas for conflict in the story. Because, as we all know, conflict is the lifeblood of fiction.
Use this process to find the challenges your character faces, and we’ll be on the edge of our seats along with them. Dive deep and enjoy the discoveries.
Caroline Donahue is an American writer, podcaster, and English teacher living in Berlin. She is the host of The Secret Library podcast and co-host of GTFO pod. She is the co-editor of I Wrote it Anyway: An Anthology of Essays, and the author of Story Arcana : Using Tarot for Writing. She is currently at work on her first novel. Learn more at carolinedonahue.com
Hey, this is really helpful. I’ve gone back through several, and I found some gems.