I sat down and thought about this notion of belonging in creative writing and this is the table I came up with to explain it.
Stage 1. The real (or common) sense of belonging
Stage 2. The real (or common) sense of not belonging
Stage 3. The perception of belonging vs the perception of not belonging
Stage 4. The perception of not belonging vs the perception of belonging
Stage 5. The act of belonging
Stage 6. The act of not belonging
What does the above table really mean?
It means that the sense of "belonging" or "not belonging" dictates how a character or characters behave.These behaviours are typical of all characters whether they are human, alien, or animal. Fiction is based on a character overcoming an obstacle or challenge; therefore the character/s must change their perception somewhere in the story and move from one box to another. Happy ending stories will spend more time in the box they start in and shift to the opposite box by the end of the story. Tragic ending stories should move quickly out of the box they begin in, spend more time in another box, and then (possibly) move back to the beginning box by the end of the story.
Here are some explanations of the six stages:
Stage 1. The real (or common) sense of belongingExample: a cop walks into a crime scene. The cop and the people at the crime scene agree that each character belongs at the setting. Therefore they act as we’d expect them to.
Typical behaviours of the cop: empathetic, driven, analytical, inquiring, efficient.Typical behaviours of the other characters: cordial, efficient, helpful, compassionate.
This is generally where a lot of stories end up. If all the characters are acting as if they belong at the beginning of the story, it should be changed quickly otherwise there is no obstacle/challenge.
Stage 2. The real (or common) sense of not belongingExample: a clown walks into a crime scene. The clown and the people at the crime scene all agree that the clown doesn’t belong. Suddenly nobody acts as they do in the first setting.
Typical behaviours of the clown: wary, frightened, on edge, defensive.Typical behaviours of the other characters: suspicious, offensive, angry.
In The Hunger Games, the main characters and the readers know they don’t belong in the arena. Some characters fall into other sections as they have different perspectives. Eg. the Career Tributes believe they belong there and the people of the Capital believe the kids belong there for their entertainment. The main character refuses to conform by helping another Tribute. This helps the lead character change other’s perceptions. A satisfying ending.
Stage 3. The perception of belonging vs the perception of not belongingExample: a cop walks into a crime scene however the cop perceives that he belongs but the people at the crime scene don’t. Maybe the cop’s partner was killed on duty due to suspicious circumstances and the other characters believe his partner’s death is his fault.
Typical behaviours of the cop: confident, arrogant, bossy.Typical behaviours of the other characters: resentful, reluctant to help, insubordinate, derisive, challenging, spiteful.
In Interview With The Vampire, the main character wants to die therefore he believes that he belongs to death. A vampire disagrees and instead gives him a second life. He attempts to change his sorrowful view that he should be dead and attempts to be a typical vampire, but in the end all he ends up doing is convincing a mortal that his vampiric life is to be coveted so he returns to believing that he belongs to death. This is a tragic ending in that he didn’t convert everyone into believing he didn’t belong to death.
Stage 4. The perception of not belonging vs the perception of belongingExample: a cop walks into a crime scene however the cop perceives that he doesn’t belong but the people at the crime scene don’t agree. Maybe the cop’s partner was killed on duty while they rescue 50 people from a hostage situation. Everyone thinks he’s a hero and only he knows that he was drunk at the time so his partner’s death is his fault.
Typical behaviours of the cop: sloppy, dishevelled, moody, depressed, guilt-riddenTypical behaviours of the other characters: helpful, encouraging, grateful, in awe, inspired
In One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, the main character enters a mental asylum for a break from hard labour. Throughout the book he is adamant that he doesn’t belong there. In fact he is adamant that none of the inmates belong there. The head nurse disagrees. He causes trouble and does everything he can to get the inmates to revolt. His actions get a few inmates to realise they’re better off away from the head nurse’s iron rule, but his actions also get another inmate killed. In the end, the sense of belonging is forced upon him when he is given a lobotomy by the head nurse. A tragic ending.In Harry Potter, his relatives make it clear he doesn’t belong, at Hogwartz many other characters make it clear he doesn’t belong. His friends disagree. Harry remains neutral through most of the book because if Harry was to spend too much time believing that he didn’t belong, it would be the end of the story.
Stage 5. The act of belonging
Typical behaviours of the kid behind closed doors: nervous, sweaty, fidgety, stressed, out of characterIn Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less, the main characters have to steal money from a man who swindled them. They disguise themselves and create fake situations to rob this man. The characters must act as if they belong in the environment they’ve created, but this places pressure on them. They manage to keep it together long enough to get their money, but one character is bordering on breaking. They get the money so it’s a happy ending.
Stage 6. The act of not belongingExample: a kid at school acts tough or apathetic, as though he doesn’t belong or care about school and the teachers and other kids agree, however behind closed doors his true character is revealed because what he really wants is to be accepted. This is suitable for novels and movies as it has many sub levels. Short stories rarely have time to get to this depth.
Typical behaviours of the kid behind closed doors: caring, industrious, helpful, out of characterIn Stormbreaker (Alex Rider series), the main character is 14 years old and reluctantly recruited to the spy world when his uncle dies. The other spies at training resent his presence and make it known. This changes when he helps one of the spies at a training exercise. As with Harry Potter, if the character also becomes convinced that he doesn’t belong, then the story is over. He can briefly experience this sensation, but he must move quickly into proving that he does belong.
Putting this into practice
If you're writing a story, or even if you've got a great idea but you're stuck on how to start it, one trick you can do is place your character in one of the boxes and move them within the first few pages into another box.
Remember that many stories will move around the boxes and that's perfectly normal, too. Just think about a normal day in the life of a normal person who wakes up thinking they belong in one place and then a set of circumstances shifts them into a place where they don't belong. What do they do? Do they act like everything is normal, do they act like they've been treated unfairly, do they act like everyone else is right and they're wrong. Whatever they do, you can now see how behaviours are dictated by a character's notion of belonging.
I'd love to hear some other examples of where you've identified a character's notion of belonging and how that dictated their behaviour. Drop me a line in the comment box.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
D L Richardson is the author of speculative fiction. She has three teen novels and one short story anthology published. Her first novel reached number 2 at OmniLit and number 38 at Kobo Books. Her second reached number 1 at OmniLit. Little Red Gem is her third novel and recently won 2nd place Best Books of 2013 Paranormal Cravings. She lives in Australia on the NSW south coast with her husband and dog.