Welcome back, writer friend! This week, I’m talking about your values – and I don’t mean what you’re worth. We’re gonna get deep and real about what principles and morals are important to you. Grab a beverage, bring your pen, and let’s dive in.
When you first start writing, you might not be thinking about the principles you use to guide your own life. Or your values might be what bring you to the page in the first place! No matter where we come from in life, our real-world views can influence our writing. It might be harder to see in certain fiction genres than it would be in, say, memoir or poetry, but it’s true.
If you took any literature classes in school, you might have learned to look for the ways an author’s world colored their work. Who you are and where you come from – including what privileges you do or don’t have –
Regardless of your background – and whether you’re aware of it or not – you’ve developed a set of values you live by. When we grow and change, we discard certain principles in favor of ones that apply more to our current lives. As the world expands around you, the things that are important to you change to reflect your new knowledge.
Are you entering your writing life without having thought about how your values might play into your work? Take a good long look at what things are important to you. Those principles might not always make it into your writing. But being aware of them can help you enhance them in your work – or avoid them if you want to keep yourself totally separate from your words.
How To Discover Or Connect With Your Values
I’m going to point you to a resource by Russ Harris, author of The Confidence Gap – particularly the list of values from page 4 to 5. You don’t have to read the whole of The Confidence Gap, which is actually an intro to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, to use this list. (If you need a confidence boost, though, I do recommend this book! No affiliation, it’s just a good one.) As you can see, each of the common values listed has a brief definition. Glance over the list and see which things resonate with you.
If any of those values give you a good, strong gut check, they’re probably important to you. Take a moment or two to consider how you connect with those values in your life. Do you see any of them flowing over into your writing? Maybe your writing already focuses on specific values. Authenticity, for example, might translate to writing characters with roots in your own heritage. Independence may show up in your writing as characters who take great pride in handling themselves. If romance is important to you, you might lean toward romantic sub-genres so you can share the love with the world.
Using What You Learn In Your Work
We may not all be focused on using big values in our writing. You might want to write a hack and slash horror novel with no moral content. I’m not gonna judge you (and not just because acceptance, open-mindedness, and supportiveness are among my values!). In fact, I’d argue your choice supports values of authenticity, excitement, fun, and self-awareness, at the very least!
But let’s say you do find the idea fascinating and you’re now wondering how to work your values into your writing. There are so many ways you can do this!
The first thing you need to do is really connect with your values. Did you look at the resource list above – or some other list you like better? If not, take at least a minute or two to jot down the things that come right to your mind as being important. It could be your strong belief in equal rights. It could be your desire to seek adventure in everything. Maybe you believe honesty is the most essential value there is.
Got your list?
Now, let’s consider how you might use those. I’m going to point you in several directions here, but I don’t put any weight on the order. If you’re a character-driven writer, it may feel better for you to start with your characters. A theme-driven writer might prefer to start with the morals they wish to present.
An easy way to include your values in your writing is with characters whose values mirror your own. I’m not saying you should write yourself into the story. I am saying if justice is important to you, you may have a character who fights for the underdog.
I’m a married, heterosexual woman, but most of my friends are members of the LGBTQ+ community. It’s easy to see why I tend to write characters who reflect my real-world friend group. The protagonists and “good guys” in my universe are all accepting advocates for that community. It’s important to me to showcase this, and not only because I’m an ally. I also grew up with friends who expressed disappointment in being woefully underrepresented in literature.
(PS: if this bothers you, feel free to move along. I don’t feed trolls. You’ve been warned.)
An excellent method for getting started with using values in your characters is to work with enneagrams. These nine personality types come built in with fears, desires, and motivations. Take a look at The Enneagram Institute’s descriptions of the nine types. You can go as deep as you want on there. I recommend at least clicking through the examples and scanning the descriptions. You can cast each of your characters as one of these types – and you can start to imagine how the types might affect each other.
Feeling a little more like you’ve got something significant to say? You’re probably already considering how you can use your values to deliver a message to your readers.
The main pitfall you’ll want to watch out for is a heavy hand. Theme work often rides a fine line. Subtle, supportive theming should interweave naturally through the whole work. Otherwise, you risk a stuffed-in “moral of the story” moment at the very end. I can never emphasize this enough! If you’re focusing on theme, be certain you support your theme with the right characters, settings, and actions. Jabbing your message in with a heavy hand can jolt readers out of the story. Worse, it can actually turn them off to the information you’re hoping to convey to them!
For great info on theme, check out K. M. Weiland’s article: Is This the Single Best Way to Write Powerful Themes? (If you’re not familiar with Weiland’s work, I highly recommend checking out more articles on her blog or buying one of her resource books!)
Your setting can provide you with a vast array of options when it comes to working your values into your writing. A team on a football field, a minister in a church, a thrillseeker at the top of a mountain? They might all have the same values. But you can probably spot room to play right away in those examples, right?
Is supportiveness is important to you? Maybe a member of that football team has experienced a major family tragedy. The story could be about the team coming together to help that player put the broken pieces back together.
Perhaps courage is one of your values. In this case, you might put that minister in a situation where they face a masked gunman who demands they renounce their faith.
If persistence is on your list, you can put that thrillseeker up against every obstacle you can think of before they reach the top of that mountain.
Your settings should always support your stories. Don’t throw something in just because you think it would be cool. Only include it if it makes sense within the world of your story and it can slide seamlessly in line with your characters, theme, and problem.
Ahhhh, problems. We’ve all got ’em. And we writers? Not only do we have to keep up with our own. We’ve also got to keep up with all the ones we throw at our characters!
Remember, in this post when I said there are some basics for each story: a character, a villain/struggle, and a resolution? Yep. Still true. Without a problem (or villain or struggle, if you prefer) your character has no reason to react or grow or change.
The problem is the way you prove your character’s values (and yours, if you’ve chosen to insert them) through your character’s action. How your character reacts to the problem is the action. And that action/reaction is what promotes growth and change in your character – and maybe not all for the best, depending on how the story goes.
Are You Noticing A Trend?
For each one of the options I’ve given you above, you’ve probably noticed the other options playing in. You can’t have one without the others. Even if your setting is a voidless nothing, it’s still a setting. And even if you think there isn’t a theme to your story, there probably is. Chances are you haven’t teased out the strings of your plot far enough to discover the theme lurking beneath. Which is why it’s a great idea to have someone else – someone who knows what they’re doing – take a look at your work.
So, this week I challenge you to examine your values. Make a list of them and put it in a place you’ll see when you’re working on your writing. As time goes on, add to your list – not just other values, but ways you might weave them into your work. Look at them when you get stumped or need a boost of inspiration. Let the principles that guide you in your life guide you in your work and see if your writing becomes even more meaningful for you.
Until next time, writer friend, cheers and happy writing!