Writing Character Driven Narratives in a War-Time Setting
This was originally published March 29, 2018. I’ve revisited and revised it with new perspectives and insight on March 22, 2019
When I started writing What Once Was Home over a year ago, I set out to write an epic science fiction action blockbuster. I soon discovered that wasn’t what I was actually doing. As I wrote the story of Jace Cox surviving an alien invasion and the aftermath, I found myself focusing less on the war and more on Jace himself and those around him.
Since then I’ve set the manuscript aside, written several novellas, started a business, and – most importantly – studied the craft of storytelling across all kinds of media.
When writing any kind of war story – be it historical, contemporary, or speculative – one must realize that the war itself isn’t the story; it’s the setting. Jace, and his life, is the story that I found myself writing. It is his coming of age story, his struggle to survive hardships, his reluctant growth into a leader figure, and his constant battle to retain his moral compass.
A great example of character-driven storytelling in a war-time environment is the film Enemy at the Gates. This film is set during the battle of Stalingrad in World War II. It’s not about the battle of Stalingrad though. The film is the story of Vassili Zaitsev, a Russian sniper and hero of the battle of Stalingrad. More important than this, he is an ordinary person thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Although the events of the film are not confirmed to be fact or fiction, the storytelling stands on it’s own as an artistic achievement.
I was already two chapters into What Once Was Home when I watched this film (not for the first time), and it helped me to recognize the direction in which my own book was headed.
I observed that the story of Vassili isn’t the story of the battle he participated in, but the story of how he participated in it. While the legend of the character is how he inspired the other soldiers in the battle, the story of the film centers on his own experiences and what he endures. From the cold and lack of food to observing the suffering of his fellow man, and even a romantic entanglement, the story of Vassili is the story of one man’s life in a war-torn city. Even his conflict with the antagonist, a German sniper, is played out beautifully in a way that comes across as an unspoken dialogue or well-choreographed waltz.
Wars are an amazing setting for storytelling. What I have learned – in what some may call my maturity – is that these amazing stories are not about the conflict itself, but about what people endure and accomplish given the situation in which they find themselves. It is an extreme challenge placed upon ordinary shoulders, and what some may say is the ultimate backdrop with which to explore the human condition.
The story of Jace Cox became something that even I had not expected. It is something deeply personal, and Jace is facing challenges to his own moral compass and humanity in much the same way as Vassili did during The Battle of Stalingrad. The question still remains: Can he hold onto this humanity in a world gone mad?