Psychological Writing Series: Honor

Once upon a time, I provided child care as my day job.  It allowed to me to stay home and raise my family in the way I wanted to.  After all, I had a lifetime ahead of me to work.

When my oldest kids were about four and two, I had taken my little crew of daycare children on a field trip to the store.  After purchasing our items, we prepared to leave.  Just before we walked out, the dismal sky opened up in a torrential downpour.  While I debated whether to wait it out or drag six kids into the rain, the tornado sirens went off.

We hustled back inside and gathered with the other patrons in the home goods’ section.  We cuddled pillows and prepared to pull sleeping bags over our heads to protect us from the impending disaster.

The news reported the path of the tornado over the loudspeakers. 

“…sighting four miles from town…”

“…touched down…”

“…two miles and moving fast…”

All the while, I sat on the floor with six kids in the circle of my outstretched legs.  On the outside, I talked with them, sang to them and laughed with them.  But inside, I wrestled with the greatest question of my life.

If the tornado hit the store, which children would I hold onto the tightest?  Would I hug my two babies to my chest and pray that the other four wouldn’t get swept away?  Or, would I cling to the four children in my care who didn’t have their own parents to protect them and ask God to save my own when I didn’t have the ability to do it myself?

And where is the honor in any of those answers?

Honor = integrity, respect and adherence to ethical standards.

Honor can be a huge motivator for the characters we love.  And yet, it often feels stilted, as if the writer tried too hard to make his character too noble, too good, too perfect. 

Readers often scream, “No way.  She’d never do that.” 

What we really mean is, “No way.  I’d never do that.”

You see, people are inherently flawed.  We are selfish and proprietary where our wants and needs are concerned.  It is very hard for us to set aside what we desire to do something honorable.  It’s counter-intuitive to be a loving parent and hold onto someone else’s children.  Yet, it’s unethical to vow to protect another’s child and fail to do the absolute most you can when danger swoops down from the sky.

But people do make hard choices in life and honor often leads the way.  We have firemen who walk into burning buildings.  We have police officers who take a bullet and we have everyday citizens who step forward to rescue others at grave danger to themselves. 

Honor is making a name for yourself and adhering to the standard you set out to achieve.  Sometimes we do this unintentionally and don’t even realize that living up to that name is nearly impossible.  Whose children do we hold onto, indeed?

The more integrity a character has, the more she has to lose.  This makes for great conflict in a novel.  Likewise, the realization that a seemingly average character has honor can drive a novel forward and create a satisfying climax…but only if done well.

I think too often, we have honorable characters without other flaws.  Nobody loves a goody-two-shoes in real life, and having a perfect MC will do nothing but incite a riot in our readers.  On the other hand, suddenly allowing our MCs to jump through burning hoops and plow through blizzards in a t-shirt without laying the groundwork will ring false and have readers tossing our novels in disgust.   

Readers: who is the most honorable character you’ve ever read and why do you think so?  Is it possible to have a fabulous novel with an outstanding and lovable Main Character who is not honorable?

Writers: what tips do you have for balancing a character’s personality to include a strong sense of honor?  How can we create believable honor in an unexpected hero?

All: Whose children would have gotten the tightest grip from you?  (You don’t really need to answer this.)  Is honor even possible in a situation where no matter what you choose the consequences will lead to heartache?

Curious minds want to know.

7 responses to “Psychological Writing Series: Honor

  1. Fantastic post.

    The most honorable character I can think of… that will take some time to ponder.

    Your story reminded me of another I heard about immediately after the Christmas tsunami (in 2004, I think?) A mother was swept out to sea with both her children, one of them only a baby, the other was 5 or 6 if I’m remembering correctly. She couldn’t hold on to both and stay afloat, she knew that the baby would drown. So she let go of the toddler and made her way to the shore. Amazingly – he was able to keep his head up and the tide brought him in.

    I remember thinking about this “Sophie’s Choice” real-life story, and being struck by how horrible a decision that would have been to make. In a movie, or a novel, she would’ve “dug deep” and found the strength to swim with both of them, or been saved at the last minute by an attractive man.

    But real life isn’t that way.

  2. So very true, BBC.

    Maybe we need to take more cues from real life and not make our novels so predictable. Sometimes the choice is simultaneously right and wrong and there are no handsome men to save us from our ultimate decisions.

    Of course, those novels then feel too sad or too unsatisfactory for the average reader (me included).

  3. I hope I never have to make such a horrific choice.

    I think one of the most honorable characters is Sam Gamgee from LotR – loyal, true, kind – yet lacking in confidence and of a lower class at the beginning of the books.

    Great post Cat!

    • Will you hate me if I say I’ve never read LotR? I know I must be missing something as this is one of the most referenced series for many literary questions.

      Hmmmm, putting it on my TBR list.

      Honor is an amazing concept to me. It’s largely self-made and yet that is the very reason we can lose our honor so easily–when we are pushed to the limits of what we practice and believe.

      Thanks for the comment–and the push to add a few reads to my growing pile!

  4. Hi Cat, what an excellent post. I can picture you huddled there with six little ones. I don’t know how you did it… And your questions are so thought provoking. I agree that an MC has to have a good balance of both honor and real life flaws, otherwise the reader couldn’t relate. Makes me think of my own characters, and how they can be more ‘real’.

    • Tracy,

      I don’t believe for a second that your characters are not real and relatable. In fact I know they are.

      Finding that balance between too perfect or too unbelievable can be hard, though.


  5. Pingback: Blog Treasures « Gene Lempp's Blog

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