Welcome back readers, to another installment of Being a Better Writer! This week … Well, this week we’re talking about a very different sort of topic, as you may have gathered from the title. It’s one that was inspired by this most recent Life, The Universe, and Everything writer’s convention (which again, if you’ve not attended or at the least watched the uploads from their panels, definitely reconsider if you’re interested in the nuts and bolts of writing). Anyway, this topic came up in passing at LTUE and it stuck in my mind, even inspired me to take a look back at some of my own work to see exactly how it used the “psychology” of it in the story.
Now, before we dive fully right in, a little bit of news, as usual. Both Axtara – Banking and Finance and Jungle picked up some new 5-star reviews this weekend, which was nice, and sales are starting to shift upwards once again. As I said last time I talked about news, I’m tested a few new advertising approaches, so gratifyingly they seem to be working. Whether or not they pay for themselves is another question, but getting knowledge of my titles out there is a priority.
In other news, last Saturday saw the upload of part three of A Trial for a Dragon to Patreon as a reward for those supporting the site. For those of you that aren’t yet supporting, Trial stars the older brother of Axtara (yes, that Axtara), Ryax, as he attempts the trials necessary to be recognized as a wizard. Of course, nothing is ever easy, and Ryax soon finds that there’s quite more to being a wizard than simply knowing one’s magic. The fourth and final part will be dropping soon, so supporters take note!
After that, well, I’ve been looking at other material to drop on Patreon, so there will be more rewards in the future. For now though, look forward to the last bit of Trial and what happens when a dragon attempts to become a wizard!
All right, that’s the news. Now let’s talk about homes.
I realize that this is a really weird topic, but it’s one that suddenly clicked with me despite the brief discussion it got at LTUE. Or rather, two discussions. It came up more than once, and both pieces sort of merged together in my head, and well …
Okay look, there’s only one way to dive into a topic like this one. We’re going to start with an example. Hit the jump.
All right, you’re here! Okay, you ready for this? Here’s what we’re going to do: Picture the most generic fantasy hero’s journey story you can. Right at the beginning. What happens? What key events kick things off for them?
Well, there’s “the call,” right? But the hero (well, someday hero) doesn’t always answer that, or want to. So what usually happens to “kick them out the door?” To get them moving, usually by lack of another choice.
Their door gets blown up. Or set on fire. Or ripped apart by arcane forces. Be it bathed in laser fire or demolished to make way for a space highway, one of the key elements of a lot of adventure stories is that the protagonist loses their home and can’t ever go back.
But why? Sure, it’s nice to give them an incentive to leave the door. But why do so many stories see it devastated on the way, with family reduced to char and a lifetime of possessions erased? Wouldn’t it be more effective to simply persuade the character to go on their journey, like Gandalf does Bilbo?
As a matter of fact, the answer lies in comparing Bilbo’s situation to that of his nephew. See, Bilbo’s situation is pretty unique. He is able to leave his home, but his home is safe (well, excepting the overzealous relatives that wanted his silverware). He didn’t have to leave, but made the choice to.
His nephew Frodo, on the other hand, does not have the same luxury. He doesn’t find his home destroyed either (at least, not at first), but instead is forced out of it into the wider world simply because it’s no longer a place of safe refuge. The nazghul are coming, for him, and they know where his home is. To stay will only see his home destroyed, as it isn’t safe.
And that’s a key element here in these two examples—Safety—as well as an example of how its use differs in each story. Because what is a home?
A place of refuge. A place to hunker down against the storms of life. A place where one can relax and feel safe. At least, that’s what we want from a home. Security. Safety. Refuge.
This is why a home is one of the bottom elements of Maslow’s Hierarchy that people need in order to have stability. A home is a prime source of stability. A place where we are in control, where we feel protected from the storms of the world. A home is a place where we can feel secure, in control, and stable.
Which, as a side note, is why social unease and stress stem so heavily from housing problems and large number of people renting. Renters quickly learn that despite being a place to sleep, rentals can be just as shaky and lacking in stability as sleeping in a public park. Something often leveraged by landlords to their advantage.
Now, that is relevant to what we’re talking about today, but I don’t want to get too off on it, as we are discussing the realms of fiction. The important part here is that we acknowledge a home as a source of stability, security, and comfort.
“Okay, neat,” some might be thinking. “But how does this apply to our stories?” Well, let’s look back at the example above with Bilbo and his nephew Frodo, and the differences between them. With Bilbo, and his associated story in The Hobbit, we have a classic adventure story (originally told as a bedtime story). Bilbo willingly leaves his home, his place of comfort and security, in search of adventure, travels across the known world, and faces down a dragon. At any moment in his journey, especially the early trails, he’s more than capable of turning back and returning to that comfort. It’s an option to him. That security is always there. But Bilbo has a thirst for adventure, and knowing his home is there, continues on.
But what about Frodo? Frodo loses that security very early on in his journey. If he returns home, the naghul will simply find him there and end him. He cannot stay at home. Driven from it, his only choice (for the first part of the story) is to simply push onward to do something about the ring. Now, he later chooses to become the ringbearer over the option of staying with the elves, but the elves would only be a replacement home, not his home. The only way for him to ever get that back is to destroy the ring, thereby ceasing the hunt for it.
Now, I ask you readers this: How does that make Frodo’s story feel different from Bilbo’s? How does one having a choice of being able to go home change the story’s feel from not having any choice or security at all?
If you thought something along the lines of “it changes the tension or tone” then congratulations, you’re spot on! A reader, especially a young one, knows that if the journey gets too dangerous, or too hard, Bilbo does have the option of noping on out of there and going home to the comfort of his pantry and cushioned chairs. Even if he never takes it, the option is there, and that gives the character and the reader a sense of stability and comfort. In fact, if memory serves me properly, Bilbo himself invokes this, sometimes thinking or wishing he was back home in his comforts but then using the memory of that to push on anyway.
Frodo, meanwhile, does not have that option. Frodo can’t ever think “Well, this is getting hard, maybe I should just go home?” Both he and the reader know that if he does, his only fate will be death. At best. Frodo has no stable ground to retreat to. He can only push on. Which makes his journey, though in some cases just as perilous as Bilbo’s, different in tone. More tense, more pressured. The only way for Frodo to find comfort again is to push on. Bilbo can just turn around (and suppress any lingering guilt).
The result is that although both stories start hobbits going out on big adventures, each undergoes their journey with a different tone, a different level of, shall we say … tension. Bilbo’s journey is more relaxed, more fun, because he can go home at the end. He desires the adventure, and is in it by choice.
Frodo’s journey, by comparison, is more perilous because he cannot simply “go home.” He has no home until the journey is done. Whether or not he desires adventure, it is his, and he must persavere.
In a way then, you can look at it like camping. For the modern camper, the act is fun and joyful, because at any moment they can simply pack up their tent and go home, back to the comfort, protection, and stability they have. But someone who is camping because they have no home can’t simply decide to do that when the going gets tough. If they don’t survive … they don’t survive.
Moving back to our earlier example with the call of the hero, this is why so many “hero” narratives begin with the protagonist losing their home (and often parents). It forces their journey to begin and means that if they want to have that comfort and security once more, they have to work for it. Or maybe it forces them to reevaluate what kind of safety and stability they have.
But in both cases, it affects the tone and the kind of story that will be told. A protagonist who has a home waiting for them will have a “less tense” journey because the reader knows that they can turn back. A protagonist without a home, however, cannot turn back.
Sometimes this is played with too. Sometimes a protagonist feels that they can’t go home until they understand something about it or themselves. Other times to do so would come at a great cost, and it is therefore cut off from them. Other times, they return home partway through their journey, ‘giving up,’ only to find that they’ve changed and what was home is no longer so to them.
Point being, a home is a powerful focal point of stability for our characters, and therefore a powerful tool in any writer’s toolbox. Giving a character (or characters) that sense of stability, ripping it away, making sure they never have it in the first place, making them earn it, or letting them return to it temporarily … All are ways to affect the tone and tension of your story in different ways.
So let’s look at some examples of how this is used in some other stories and mediums. The first example I want to look at is that of the Harry Potter series, which uses the sense of stability (and familiarity) a home brings in a way that pulls the reader into its setting.
So quick question for those of you that have read the series: Where is Harry Potter’s home in the early books? If you answered “The Dursleys” well … you technically correct, but not actually correct. No, the correct answer is actually Hogwarts, the wizarding school Harry attends (and something Harry becomes more aware of over the course of the books).
Okay, how and why? Well, the how is pretty straightforward: Harry’s technical home, with the Dursleys, is not what anyone would consider stable, or comfortable, or secure. In fact, the opening chapters inform the audience that it is anything but. Harry’s food is leftovers, his clothes hand-me-downs, his life torture and abuse. It is a “home” in the sense that he has a place to sleep (where he is frequently locked), but it does not provide much of what anyone would consider the basic requirements for a home.
Hogwarts, however, does. It gives Harry food, stability, clothing, etc. But it also does more than this. In fact, it affects the audience. See, we as readers spend the first little while of the story seeing how awful Harry Potter’s “home” is and feeling ill at ease about it. We know it’s fiction, but it’s not a place we’d want to be (nor does Harry).
When Hogwarts is introduced then, and the elements of a home are brought to play in it, we subconsciously recognize those elements and feel more at ease with them present. Which thus makes us more accepting of Hogwarts as a place!
In other words, Harry Potter uses the psychology of a home to ease its readers into being more accepting and welcoming of its fantastical elements. We start the book out without that stability, only for the protagonist to acquire it at Hogwarts later, which helps it feel more “real” to the audience by bringing a stability the book has lacked until that point.
Let’s talk about another use of the home concept, and one that actually clicked inside my head when the topic breezed by at LTUE this last February. Let’s talk for a moment about Subnautica and its stand-alone expansion, Below Zero.
Now, I’ve talked about Subnautica before on the site, and heavily recommended it. I’ll also at this time add the stand-alone expansion in there as well, Below Zero. Both are fantastic sci-fi survival adventures with fun stories and settings.
But one of the things that suddenly clicked with me as this topic was brushed on at LTUE was why both games work so well, and that had to do with their “homes.”
See, for the unfamiliar both titles are survival based. You’re trapped on a hostile, watery world (either by circumstance or by choice, depending on the title) and need to try and fend for yourself. And one of the first and most important things you’ll do is make use of some Sci-Fi construction tools to get out of your lifeboat and into a secure, stable base of your own design.
A base that will be your base of operations for the rest of the adventure. In safe waters, where you won’t be threatened. Where you can safely work on new projects, or recuperate after the last big expedition you made.
Now, Subnautica is not the only game to do this (a lot of survival games do), but they do it because it works. What these games do is let the player create a home, a place of stability. And we, as people, strongly associate with that. I will never forget either of my Subnautica journeys in part because of the sense of relief and comfort that came with every successful return from an expedition. In fact, because I’m a renter in a very unstable situation (“Welcome to the club” says the majority of America), my Subnautica bases felt more like “home” than my living situation because, well, they had more stability. Virtual existence aside, they felt more “real” than my home simply because they were “mine.”
And if you’re wondering how someone might write that in a story, read The Martian or Robinson Crusoe.
Okay, so this post is now titanic, but all we’ve talked about is examples. What about application? How can a young writer use this in their stories? How can they make use of a home, or lack thereof, to impact or even drive a plot? Or tension? Or pacing?
Well, you can do the classic thing and give the characters a goal of getting home. Colony, for example, has the three protagonists who are strangers to one another shoved together on a mission, with the stated promise that once they do their jobs, each of them will be allowed to return home to Earth. Much of the first book’s plot, then, is driven by the three of them having a desire to get home.
But you can use a home in other ways. Some stories use a “home” as a means to dissolve tension and give the audience a breather. Save rooms in Resident Evil, for example, are safe havens to relax a player. Likewise, characters taking a brief stop at their home (or someone else’s) in the middle of a story can offer a temporary “safe haven” that allows both them and the audience to breathe for a bit. Only to then ratchet it back up if that home comes under attack.
Speaking of attack, even without the break, the “last bastion” of a character being overrun can also be used for tension (such as at the end of Jungle). Or you can have characters that have no home, a constant, tense experience that wears on them over the story as they aren’t given a moment to relax.
Keeping a home can be a pressure as well. Axtara opens with the titular protagonist arriving at her newly-acquired dream home … but well aware that she needs to succeed at her bank in earning a set amount of funds each month in order to keep it.
Basically, look at what a home provides and gives, and then think of ways to use the ownership or lack of such in your story. What does the lack of a home do for the character? What even is their home? Is it a truck on the road? A spaceship among the stars? A lone wizard’s tower? What does the character see or get most from that home?
What about the audience? What does the home or lack thereof impart to them? What does it do for the tension? The tone? The pacing? The drive of the story, even?
Now, I know that this might all seem like a lot. And yeah, it is a pretty big topic. But honestly, that it is shows that a home is simply a central element to our existence. In other words, it proves Maslow’s Hierarchy correct in that we do aspire to have a sense of safety, stability, and comfort in our lives.
And if we do, that means that our characters do as well. Readers and audience then, can share in that desire. We empathize with the characters searching for it, and we also understand the tension when those characters don’t have it.
Now, this is not a post to say that every story should start with the classic “loss of a home and family” hero’s journey beginning. Or to say that any of the other examples are the “proper” way to utilize a home.
They’re all just different ways to use that tool. A home is a tool in the writer’s hands. You can use it to pull in a reader. To drive a plot. To increase or decrease tension. Or, like many other tools, in even more clever ways that one will find through experimentation.
So experiment. Keep the “home” in your writer’s toolbox, or look at where you may have already used it in your plot, and think of other ways that it can be used with your characters and your world.
Good luck. Now get writing!
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