W. Somerset Maugham once said, “When wealth is lost, nothing is lost; when health is lost, something is lost; when character is lost, all is lost.” For a writer, few truths could be more profound.
Maugham was of course referring to a person’s reputation. Honor, virtue, credibility are vital qualities for a writer, because writers wield tremendous power.
I personally believe, and my many years of higher education support my belief, that language is humanity’s most significant development. It is that which allows us to be civilized, to live in peace with one another, to sustain a society with an economy and an infrastructure. And any blight on our language erodes that ability and endangers our continued existence.
This is not hyperbole for the sake of rhetoric. Clear, accurate communication matters.
So we all need to be cautious in the way that we use language, but especially when we write. Because here our words live on in their nobility or in their infamy. That means we should fact check our data, grammar check our syntax, and soul check our opinions.
Character refers to our credibility as a writer, a quality we should guard far more closely than the set of government- and corporate- issued numbers that society regards as our “identity.” For character is an identity that cannot be stolen, only given away. And once it is lost, it can never be recovered, no matter how much insurance we purchase.
But there’s another type of character that writers should keep careful track of, and that’s the main character of our document. Some refer to this as the main focus or topic, but Joseph Williams in Style: 10 Lessons in Clarity and Grace calls it character. And that helps me to see it as a single word, to give it a name if you will, and to put it in a prominent place within each sentence.
Reference to the main character gives our document consistency. It keeps our paragraphs focused. And it dictates the direction of each sentence, which keeps both us and our readers headed in the right direction.
Finally, by thinking about the topics in our document as a series of characters, we can both break through writer’s block and organize our ideas more clearly. You see, characters in a story tend to fall into certain fairly traditional groups. Typically these include heroes and villains, damsels in distress, and sidekicks. There are also wise old sages, witches, magicians, trolls, and—you get the picture.
By grouping your ideas into these archetypal sets, you can see things from a new perspective, glimpse new relationships between concepts, and gain new momentum. You can also use traditional storytelling motifs to set up a clear organizational pattern that’s easy for you to write and your reader to follow.
So maybe that’s not what Maugham had in mind when he gave us his sage advice. But that’s precisely the beauty of language—the many different ways we can interpret it. And that’s all the more reason we should write wisely and with an honorable character (and perhaps with a few villains as well!).