“The most important writing has a philosophical dimension. Consider the fundamental philosophical questions: What is real? What is good or important? How should I live? Aren’t these the questions behind truly great writing?”
Roger S. Gottlieb
Not surprisingly, our boy Roger is a philosophy professor as well as the author of some 17 books. In an article called “The Big Questions” in recent issue of The Writer magazine (July 2014), he challenged us as writers to “up the ante” in our stories — to think big and give both our characters and readers some tough and absorbing moments by compelling them to confront moral dilemmas with some real bite to them.
Think about some of the timeless classics and I think you’ll see that big questions make for big stories. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway, Madame Bovary by Flaubert, and Anna Karenina by Tolstoy — each of these incredible books is memorable not just for its characters and world building, but also for the questions about life and values. But as Roger points out, the philosophical questions they raise aren’t posed in a vacuum; they arise organically from that all-important trio: setting, character, and plot.
As you ponder adding a philosophical dimension to your own work, here are a few guidelines from “The Big Questions” that may prove helpful:
Know thyself: “As the author, you need to be clear about the philosophical questions central to your story and what you believe about them.” You and your main character may share this view or you may hold different views, but either way you must communicate your character’s sense of moral obligation and values through his or her experience.
Know your character: “Your task is to show how the particular philosophical position the character has, whether it’s an explicit belief or a value that is lived without being thought about very much, is rooted in the character’s reality.”
Know the link between thought and feeling: “…it is important to remember that our feelings are intimately tied to what we think….As you develop your characters, show us what they are thinking that contributes to their intense emotions. What makes something valuable or hateful to them? What do they think they and others deserve in life?” One of the challenges in writing is to reveal these “intimate connections” so that readers experience both your characters’ passions and their thoughts. Write on!