Ruth E. Walker
A recent newscast featured a Saskatchewan couple who’ve been waiting for months to celebrate Christmas with their grandchildren. As the pandemic lockdown has eased in their region, and gatherings are now possible, they could celebrate together at last.
But they didn’t have to pull out the holiday trimmings. The holiday tree, adorned in lights and ornaments, and the carefully wrapped presents under that artificial tree have been waiting since December for restrictions to loosen and for family to gather.
What on earth could inspire a family to be ready for Christmas all this time? Day after pandemic day, looking at the reminder of what didn’t happen. The grandkids’ gifts unopened. The goofy animated décor gathering dust, still and silent. What kept them optimistic?
It is the saving grace of the human race. The thing that keeps many of us going when everything seems impossible, frightening or deadly. Hope.
In Greek mythology, Pandora (meaning All Gifts) was created by Zeus’s order to punish mortals for receiving the gift of fire from Prometheus. Zeus designed Pandora to have insatiable curiosity and when he gives her a jar as a wedding gift, he tells her never to open it. Sure enough, she eventually can’t resist and the miseries and evils – greed, avarice, jealousy, hatred, cowardice, illnesses, pestilence – were all released.
Interestingly, ancient versions of this myth have all sorts of variations:
- the jar was full of blessings, not evils
- Zeus had two jars in Olympus, one with blessings and one with evils
- Pandora’s husband, Epimetheus (meaning Afterthought), opened the jar, his name suggesting he learned from making mistakes like that one
Good with the bad
Not only did the ancients write various interpretations of the myth, over the centuries, translations and poetic license gave readers alterations to Pandora’s tale. In the version I learned as a child, the jar was a box like in Waterhouse’s painting and one thing remained inside: Hope. Hope begged to be released too and when released, gave all suffering mortals something to keep them going.
But is Hope a two-edged sword? Does it underpin all stories from the romantic to tragedies? Do readers hope for the lovers to finally find each other or hope that survivors will find the strength to carry on?
And what about our real lives? Hope surely underpins real lives, keeping us going when all is bleak. But sometimes Hope prolongs our agonies, offering something to sufferers that cannot be.
What drives your stories?
Just as we writers hope our work will find an audience, hope provides powerful motivation to characters in stories. And as we’ve suggested again and again, motivation drives your characters and keeps a forward momentum in your stories.
Your characters want to win the race, to learn the family secret, to escape from poverty, to slay the dragon and release the captives. And your readers are right there with them, cheering them on, hoping they achieve their goal. Unless, of course, you’ve not capitalized on the idea of motivation.
As you edit, look for motivation:
- Make it clear in beginning chapters – what does your character want?
- Keep it the driver of your main character – tie in reactions, choices, behaviour
- Avoid motivation that makes no sense – unless it is key to creating a conflicted character
As your character grows emotionally (character arc) that motivation (want) can change and often does.
Winning the race becomes less important when she realizes the prize at the end is not worth leaving friends and family behind. Releasing the prisoners won’t succeed even if he slays the dragon unless he finds and defeats the dragon master.
Hope holds lots of power to motivate your characters. But you can motivate your characters through other powerful emotions: fear, longing, grief and so on. No matter the choice, don’t lose sight of it as you write and look for its presence as you edit.
Speaking of Hope:
Gwynn and I hope you don’t miss our summer contest, closing June 30th. It’s a fun way to imagine Summer ’21, the most hopeful summer in a long time.
Celebrate with us the Summer of ’21 and create a poem in any form as long as it has 21 lines. There will be prizes, bragging rights and the top 3 entries will be published right here over the summer.
Visit the post to get all the details and a boatload of inspiration and ideas — 21 of them, in fact. Entries are already coming in and we hope to read yours soon.