Isolation as a Theme & a Conflict

I reread some of my own short stories this summer, and noticed that one of the running themes in my writing is isolation – which isn’t unusual.  Isolation is addressed in tons of literature, art, and music.  It’s an interesting concept to play around with, since it’s both universal and highly subjective, and it allows a writer to interweave internal and external conflicts with one fell swoop.

I say it’s highly subjective as well as universal because we all feel isolated by different situations from one another.  Most of us feel isolated when we’re in an awkward social situation (alone in a crowd, as it were), but some people are comfortable with that feeling and others aren’t.  Some people feel isolated when they’re alone, others feel more in tune with and connected to the world.  Some people enjoy isolation.  Others hate it.  One person might feel terror and sadness at the idea of spending a night alone in the woods, away from civilization – someone else might feel pleasure at the idea of such an escape and revel in such isolation – someone else might not even feel isolated out in the woods by themselves.  For some people, isolation and loneliness are the same thing, and for others, they’re two wholly different experiences of aloneness.

In terms of character dynamics, there’s a lot of emotion and depth to be mined and explored through these different takes on solitude.  When does your character feel truly alone, and does he/she like that feeling, or dread it?  Does he/she usually love being alone, but some specific situation triggers a completely opposite reaction from him/her – a reaction even he/she didn’t expect?  A writer can get a lot of mileage out of that interplay between internal factors and external factors contributing to a character’s emotional state and reaction to his/her environment.  We all need a sense of belonging, but we all also need a sense of freedom and individuality, and we all have to pit those needs against one another and balance them.  Everyone does it a little differently, and that’s a pretty intense conflict to explore with your characters – it affects how they behave toward other characters and events, and how those characters and events, in turn, affect one another.  And boy, can you really mess a character up by unbalancing their sense of belonging and their sense of freedom.  Writing is a little sadistic, it’s true.  Mess your characters up.  Toy with their minds.  Play on their weaknesses.  Challenge them every chance you get.

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