Storycraft: How to Build Barriers Between Characters in a Novel

Woman in dress and straw hat with back to camera stares at tall concrete wall. Orange traffic cones and fencing nearby.

Walls built to keep out undesirables are as old as the first circled heap of stones. From stone walls to thwart invading hordes to security key pads and passwords, we humans devote vast resources to devising foolproof ways to separate us from them.

As I reach the three-quarter mark of the first cohesive draft of the novel I’m writing, it’s time to make a decision about the barrier surrounding the country in which the story takes place. What type of wall will be most effective?

This fictional country is a chunk of the Deep South in the United States (though it’s not called that in the book). The country’s inhabitants have been insulated long enough to develop societal norms different from and at odds with neighboring countries. How did that happen?

For weeks (okay, months), I researched options and pored over articles, photos, drawings, and historical accounts of barriers like the Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall in northern England, and the Berlin Wall (a close friend grew up in West Berlin during the Wall era and tells riveting stories of his experiences). But for a wall surrounding an area as big as the fictional country I’m writing about, construction timelines and distances are prohibitive (as an extreme example, the Great Wall of China was built and rebuilt in sections for 2300 years).

Since the enormous Mississippi River runs near this fictional country, maybe a moat could work. But I run into the same problem — for such a large border, a moat would be too costly and take too long to construct.

Passport control at road blocks can only do so much, especially for a country too big to make even barbed wire barricades a viable option. What about more modern restrictions, like electronic controls or body implants? Problems exist with those as well, like how to create and maintain an uninterrupted electronic border — and even though this is an alternate-universe story, I don’t want to include sci-fi elements like restrictive body implants.

As I continued to brainstorm and rule out options, my thoughts turned devious, opening my awareness wider. My all-time favorite book about France (discovered during a long-term relationship with a German man, during which I read a lot about understanding Europeans), Sixty Million Frenchman Can’t Be Wrong: Why We Love France But Not the French, by Jen-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow, includes a section about France’s Minitel system, a hybrid telecommunication and digital service used in France from 1980 to 2012. Something like Minitel seemed promising for my novel. If I used technological hardware to limit contact with the world outside the country, and extended that to restrict internet access, might that cause enough isolation for a culture to develop in a radically divergent direction?

A book about France’s Minitel system sat on a shelf in the University of Oregon science library here in Eugene, but I’m not affiliated with the U of O. Because I’m a massive book nerd and wanted to read the entire book at home, I dug around until I discovered a legit way to check out books from U of O libraries as an Oregon resident. The book is Minitel: Welcome to the Internet, by Julien Mailland and Kevin Driscoll, which, yeah, is pretty niche. But I found it fascinating and learned a lot about the history of France’s technology relative to the development of online services pre–World Wide Web, including the promising possibilities for my story in this passage:

“In practice, Minitel censorship meant only that services could not come online without prior administrative authorization. Typically, the types of services that were blocked were those likely to circulate content that could offend the political sensibilities of the government elite or upset social consensus.”

With that solution in hand, as appropriate as it was, I balked. When I considered using a Minitel-like technological wall in my novel and explored those ramifications, I concluded it could work but I really wasn’t feeling it. By then, I’d realized something else was trying to push into my awareness around this issue.

I took a break from research and lapsed into mulling. I went for long walks. I lay awake in bed at night and stared into the darkness. I wrote in my journal, trying to tease out the underlying issue, and finally reached the crux of the matter.

There’s only one wall strong enough to decisively keep unwanted others at bay: the human brain. History and our struggles in current society provide more than enough examples. Just observe any person with a determined prejudice. The only thing getting through that barrier is a change of mind, and good luck if the mind in question doesn’t want to be changed.

However, there is a foolproof (using that term with intention) method for drilling through the false dividers humans construct between each other: storytelling. Because our brains are wired to treat stories as felt experience, stories that evoke emotion can change minds. Storytelling has the power to create and to dismantle untrue divisions between self and other. This applies to the culture and characters I’m creating in my novel, in the form of the stories they’ve been told about their culture and the surrounding cultures, and to the readers who eventually read my novel.

“Story was the key to our survival, and every savvy storyteller knew that — how else could they have convinced their tribe that it’s better to harness fire than to run from it? That’s why when it comes to convincing your audience of anything, the story you create has to tap into their story, so they feel why the fact, the product, the cause matters to them. Do that and you can change more than minds; you can change lives.” — Lisa Cron, Story or Die

A creative endeavor (such as writing a novel) is a series of decisions made to take this path instead of that path, until the unlimited options of the blank space have narrowed into a very specific piece of art. If I make a decision to use human minds as the wall isolating the inhabitants of my fictional country, instead of using a physical wall, the story will have to shift at the core. I’ll need to bring in additional layers of motivations, behaviors, interpersonal dynamics, complexities, and depth to do a job I’d initially allocated to simple, implacable stone or uncrossable water. I’ll need to tell a story about the stories we tell ourselves that keep us limited.

That’s okay. I’m willing. I accept the path of deeper every time, even when I’m daunted. As I continue to write this story I’m scared to write, of my own family’s history and fears and change, every decision feels bigger than me, the whole reflected in the parts, the conflicted dynamics of resistance and healing informing the words I choose.

This is why novels take me years to write. Deeper takes time. Change takes time. Barriers take time to deconstruct. And my mind craves the story that changes me first.

Alice Archer is the author of Everyday History and The Infinite Onion, thought-provoking romance novels for strong hearts. You can subscribe to her newsletter to receive a free story, notification of new articles and books, and more.

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