Bestselling authors humanize stories – narrow the overarching story conflict, question or problem to focus on a single character (or limited few) who grapple, make sense and ultimately transform.
Instead of reporting narrative events like a newscaster, they drill down to the personal level, showing how the global story events affect the individual (often the main character or point of view character). I like the saying, “Don’t tell me about an earthquake like a news reporter, show me the ground shifting beneath a mother desperate to rescue her lost daughter.”
In many ways, humanizing a story is about reaching the “gut level” where life is messy and emotions painful. This is not a place most of us like to go. Yet, the best of us not only acknowledge this part but explore it fully in our stories.
How to Humanize a Story in 3 Simple Steps
1. Focus on a Single Character (or 2-3). The fewer characters, the more story space you can give to exploring personal pain and, ultimately, transformation. Hint: Focus on the character with the most at stake, most to lose, most affected.
2. Show Personal Stakes. What matters to this person? How does the story threaten this person at the deepest, most profound levels? How is this person affected by the story problem, conflict, question? Why must this person act?
3. Remind Readers of Emotional Stakes. Periodically remind readers of what is at stake, what has been lost, what matters most to the focus character. Don’t hammer readers over the head, but gently and occasionally (and unobtrusively) remind readers (and characters) of the stakes.
Ok, if you are like me, you appreciate concrete examples. Take the mega blockbuster novel (and film) Divergent. The story focuses on one character, Beatrice, who is quickly shown to be unique – Divergent – and switches factions (societal groups created to separate and one might argue – control – people). We follow her through her agonizing decision to leave her faction (and family) and to explore who she is in a new faction, among other things.
Veronica Roth, the author, reminds Beatrice (and readers) of what she has sacrificed to switch factions by having locations, people and objects trigger memories and feelings about her family and former faction. These are brief moments interspersed in between ongoing action, and delivered over many pages and chapters.
Three questions to keep in mind as you humanize your story
Who is this story about?
What is at stake?
How can I keep the stakes top of mind?