Every writing conference I attend hammers the same key writing slogans. “Show, Don’t Tell” is the favorite, followed closely by “Characters must grow and change.” But do they really choose to grow? Or do relationships with those around them force change?
S.L. Saboviec explored that second question in this blog post. Characters themselves don’t just grow – their relationships with everyone around them grow. She suggests writers use a matrix to study the character relationships if your story is lacking character growth.
Her idea has been in the back of my mind, not just while I write, but also in life. This week especially, the first week of school, I’m observing a lot of growth and change in my daughter as our family shifts from our summer schedule to a new third grade school year. Some of the changes excite her. Others, such as her first standardized test, loom before her like demons poised and ready to attack. This school year will change her, whether she wants it to or not. Children have no choice but to grow.
In the adult world it’s feasible to remain the same forever. But you’d have to become a hermit and avoid others. Personal growth spawns from changes in our circumstances, often in our relationships.
In my own life I can pinpoint ten key circumstances that redirected my life into uncharted terrain. It’s no coincidence these items are also key themes in fiction. They’re universal life experiences most people can relate to.
1) First best friend: A girl named Katy who sat next to me in Kindergarten. Loved her giggle and her mischief. No idea where she is now, but I remember her sixth birthday party (and walking into the sliding glass door while holding my piece of cake) as if it were yesterday.
2) Switching Schools: I went from a school district with a swimming pool to a school district without a swimming pool. That’s an epic ordeal in first grade. Combine that with leaving Katy behind, and my world was turned upside down. Plus I never really learned how to swim.
3) First Bully: In the course of one school year I got both glasses and acne. Double whammy. Don’t think I need to illustrate the level of teasing that brought on. Not a school year I recall fondly or care to write about.
4) First boyfriend (and every one after): New people expose you to new life experiences. That’s a great thing. New boyfriends become the epicenter of a teenage girl’s life and change her. Not always a positive impact. Yet I can think of many life experiences, such as fishing, cow tipping, rock climbing, and skiing, I wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to.
5) First breakup (and every one after): New hurts teach you how to protect yourself in the future. They also show you what you’re made of when it’s time to pick yourself up and start again. That said, they’re not fun to reminisce about or easy to write about.
6) First job (and every one after): The first day of work hammers a new idea into a teenager’s brain: you are not the center of the universe. Mine was spent drilling 3,500 tiny screws into ice fishing tip-ups, sitting next to loud machinery. Working for someone, and the way you’re treated, shapes who you become. And what career you choose. There are no tip-ups or drills in my work office.
7) Marriage: Love. Romance. Celebration. Followed closely by the realities of having to pay that whopping party bill and merge your lives together. All the thought and preparation goes into the first part, which can make the second part a rude awakening for many people. I’ve had two marriages (and weddings), which were complete opposites. Because I was a very different person by the second time. Because of all the change and growth forced upon me in between.
8) Motherhood: Words cannot describe how this one event changes every fiber of who you are. The physical changes to your body are less than ideal. Yet the love you have for that little person could carry you over any mountain. Priorities shift. Schedules change. Then you spend years trying to outsmart a younger version of yourself while at the same time sculpting her into a better version of yourself.
9) Divorce: It’s compared to death for a reason. Yet after someone dies they don’t show up on your door step every other weekend to pick up the kids. With that parenting link, it’s not easy to mourn and move on. I’ve come out the other side of a divorce, and found the middle ground for co-parenting. Still, I don’t think I’d ever choose this life experience to write about. Not sure if the story would be a dark comedy or a tragedy.
10) Death of a Family Member: This goes without saying. We never forget our first funeral. Mine was my great-grandmother, who passed away the week my Kindergarten class was scheduled to make an awesome Valentine’s Day craft project. I begged to go to school instead, and still have that craft. The rare “happy” funeral memory only a child could have.
If the fictional character you love grew and changed, it probably wasn’t her choice.