Monday, May 21, 2018

How To Write A Novel Readers Love – The Misbelief

Dear Writer,

Congratulations! You've figured out one of the most important things about your novel: What your protagonist wants more than anything else in the world.

But it’s only one of the most important things.

There’s another thing that’s equally important. And you must figure it out as well.

What is it?

It's…your protagonist’s fear.

You must identify the deep-seated fear, wound or hang-up that keeps your protagonist from easily getting what she wants more than her necessary food and water.

But the words “fear,” “wound” and “hang-up” seem a little judgmental, don’t you think?

What if there were a word, or a phrase that more accurately describes the thing that keeps your hero from reaching his goal, but without all the unnecessary condemnation?

Ah, but there is such a phrase. It's the…

Longstanding Misbelief

The inner issue that keeps your heroine trapped in fear, doubt and emotional paralysis is what as known as her longstanding misbelief. Pay close attention to the word “longstanding”. Your heroine’s misbelief didn’t start overnight. It’s something that she adopted a long time ago, probably during her childhood or adolescent period.

By now, you're likely asking two questions.

1.    What is a longstanding misbelief?
2.    Why should I care?

A misbelief is something that a person misguidedly believes about herself, other people, or the world, that just isn’t true. She might believe something like, “The sweeter people act toward you, the more they want to take advantage of you”.

A person might cling to such a foolish misbelief so intensely that it not only seems true, it seems normal. It feels natural. And in most cases, the person doesn’t even realize she clinging onto the misbelief.

Many people have had something bad happen to them as children, which mentally or emotionally wounded them. In the hearts and minds of such people, these wounds birthed a morbid fear of the hurtful things that caused their specific fears. You might be one of these people.

One person might have fallen from a high place as a child and an older sibling just laughed at him when he hit the ground. Another person might have gotten separated from her parents at a state fair, and wandered the fairgrounds in tears, fighting heavy crowds in search of her mother and father. Still, another person might have been locked in a dark room alone, and he nearly beat the door into splinters trying to get out.

These people now fear heights, crowds and the dark. But just because the traumatic events that caused the fears and wounds happened once doesn’t mean they will happen again. 

Yet, each person developed a defense mechanism against the specific things they came to fear most. Every day they rationalize their fears, assuring themselves that their fears provide a sense of safety. In the cases of emotionally traumatic events such as divorce of parents, the death of a loved one or abuse by a trusted older guardian, the wounds and fears run even deeper. Oftentimes, they cause psychological issues which intensify their misbeliefs.

At the time the people in the above examples developed their fears, they seemed right. To them, their fears were absolutely right. But later in life, as they continue to struggle with their evolving fears, their resulting wounds cause nothing but problems.

In real life, these fear-driven phenomena are debilitating. In your story, these phenomena are critical.

You, the writer, must identity what your protagonist’s longstanding misbelief is.

Your protagonist’s longstanding misbelief must act in direct opposition her greatest desire. They must wage war with each other. Her misbelief should keep her from easily getting what she wants. 

Allow me to use an example from my young adult novel From Bad Girl To Worse in an effort to explain what I mean.

Sandra Porter wants a true friend more than anything else in the world. But she has a longstanding misbelief that she can’t do anything right—including maintaining any kind of friendships. She believes she's unable to form human relationships at any level with anyone else. She fears that the closer she tries to get to someone, the further she will push her or him away.

Sandra misguidedly believes that she doesn’t deserve a chance to have a deep friendship with anyone because she’ll only end up destroying it.

But why does she believe this?

We need to dig deeper into Sandra’s life to find out more information about her fear. It isn’t enough for her to have a misbelief. We need to know more. We need to answer another important question.

Why does your protagonist have such a deep-seated longstanding misbelief?

You not only need to know that your heroine does in fact, have a longstanding misbelief capable of wrecking her life. You need to know what caused it in the first place.

So, why does your protagonist have her misbelief?

I answered the question for Sandra, my heroine, something like this…

Sandra adopted her longstanding misbelief when she sent her father away during a bitter fight between them. She was sixteen years old at the time. And when Sandra sent her father away, her mother went into a catatonic state. Her mother lost the ability to communicate with anyone—including her—in any way. Effectively, Sandra lost both parents on the day she kicked her daddy out of the house.

There is a third follow-up question you must ask in order to dig even deeper into your heroine’s misbelief.

At what point did your protagonist’s worldview get skewed toward her longstanding misbelief?

In other words, what exactly happened on the day your protagonist developed that fear, wound or hang-up that birthed her longstanding misbelief? When did it happen?

To answer this question, I wrote a scene where Sandra confronted her alcoholic father during a family fight. During this fight, Sandra told her father to leave. And guess what? He did. He walked straight out the front door of their house. And he never returned.

For the sake of time and space, I won’t include the whole scene here. But I did write a short short story that showed this scenario playing out, what the tragic results were and how they affected Sandra internally.

Write a one scene short story about how your protagonist received her wound, which birthed her deep-seated fear that turned into her longstanding misbelief. In this short story, you must show the reader how your protagonist reacted internally, how she felt about what happened.

Once you have a clear picture of your heroine’s misbelief, you can begin to create a series of events in your story, otherwise known as the plot, where you force her deepest desire and her deep-seated fear to wage war with each other.

One thing you should know about the longstanding misbelief you create for your protagonist: Even though it might seem like a wrong way of thinking or looking at a situation, to your protagonist, the misbelief seems totally right. In fact, your protagonist will claim it's kept her safe for many years. It’s like a security blanket to her.

Your job is to show her just how off base she is, and that her misbelief is the core source of her life’s misery.  This is an important ingredient in writing a novel readers love.

In the next letter, you will discover the secret of how to do just that.

Here’s to your storytelling success,

L. R. Farren
Author of From Bad Girl To Worse
and The Dangerous Way Home

P. S. – A longstanding misbelief doesn’t always have to be the product of a bad experience. Misbeliefs can form as a result of seemingly good experiences during childhood or adolescence, misbeliefs such as "being rich is the only way to gain friends".

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