A common thread I heard time and again while pursuing my MFA at Vermont College is the belief that a story isn't truly a story until a main character is poised for change. This is true for fiction and non-fiction, picture books and novels.
Each time I revised my work-in-progress for a new advisor, I mused about the notion. But I didn't fully appreciate it until Kathi Appelt lectured about controlling belief during a Vermont College lecture last summer.
According to Appelt, the most compelling and memorable characters are the ones driven by a controlling belief, a dream or conviction so central to the character it propels the entire story.
Hearing Appelt explain character this way was a light-bulb moment for me. In my goal to understand my MC more deeply, I'd been tripped up by the human condition. We are fantastically complex individuals, often influenced by more than one belief. I assumed my character must be, too. Yet, in her lecture, Appelt made an important distinction. When talking story, especially works for children, the need for one controlling belief is central. Aha. Yes! I finally get it.
Here's how I visualize the concept for my own characters: Imagine controlling belief as an invisible set of eyeglasses worn by your character. Every choice, action, or inaction must be filtered first through those lenses.
In her lecture, Appelt further explained the role controlling belief plays in story. A story is ripe for the telling, she says, when a character's controlling belief is challenged. She shared examples of characters and their controlling beliefs. I developed the following example on my own to help illustrate her point:
Kate is a short, overweight fourth grader whose dream (controlling belief) is to become a famous dancer, and tour all of Europe like her grandmother did during the war. Kate's controlling belief is challenged the day she overhears her friends snickering behind her back in dance class. They call Kate's plans for the future an "impossible dream." Whoever heard of a short, fat ballerina, one asks the other?
A story is born. The spotlight now is on Kate's journey. The narrative will be driven by how Kate responds to the events and characters challenging her controlling belief. Will Kate prove her friends wrong or give up her dream? In the face of the odds, does she achieve her dream or modify it? Does she reject her friends, or win them over? In the end, does Kate change and grow, or refuse to do so?
So how does this apply to my own work in progress? I've pinned down the key belief that should be driving my MC. Thank you, Kathi! I finally have what it takes to quilt the pieces of my story together, and discard the rest. Feels good.
Caveat for next time:
Understanding a character's controlling belief before launching a work in progress will whittle down months of discovery, and save dozens of trees.