I’ve written before about the importance of an inner journey (or inner arc or character change), and it’s one of my favorite topics to study. Imagine my joy when I discovered this month’s Writer’s Digest contains an article by David Corbett called “The Science of Character Change.” It’s worth the price to subscribe to the magazine, but if you’re on a strict budget like me, head to your local library and read the entire article. It would be unethical for me to share all the good stuff from the article here, but I want to hit a few things that stood out to me as The Best Stuff.
About a third of the way through the article, Corbett wrote something I had to re-read several times to fully digest. “Human beings are inherently divided by conflicting, irreconcilable desires: the desire to avoid pain, and the desire to be healthy and whole. To avoid pain, however, we must avoid risk, and some risk is required to attain most of the rewarding challenges and adventures of life.”
When I first read it, I wasn’t sure I agreed with it. Only two desires? Avoid pain and seek health? What about wanting a spouse? I guess that falls under the “healthy” column. What about wanting healthy children? That contains the answer within the question. What about avoiding evil? Is that pain avoidance? Or does that, also, fall into the “healthy” category? (Quick example: I don’t steal a car because I don’t want to go to jail. Being in jail would not be healthy for me, therefore my car-stealing days never begin because of my desire to stay healthy–either spiritually or physically. Simplistic, but it works.)
Corbett goes on: “In particular, wounds we (and our characters) have suffered in the past–physical injury, humiliation, abandonment, betrayal–misshape our personalities, forcing us to avoid relationships (or seek out only “safe” ones), hide our secrets, disguise our vulnerabilities, suppress or wants, and otherwise “act normal.” But beneath all this emotional scar tissue and fakery, the human spirit retains its inclination toward openness, trust, generosity, commitment–love, courage, and truth–and an understanding that without these qualities our lives are lacking.”
I agree with the basics of these things. I think he left out people who are outside the norm (sociopaths, people who’ve let evil rein in their lives, etc), but for most people (and characters), this assessment is spot-on. He sums up his point with this: “At heart, it’s a conflict between a protective mask and a deeper, more honest, more loving, more courageous self.”
“Your character unknowingly begins the story in a state of ignorance or deceit, believing the bargain he’s made with life will see him through. No matter how successful or even happy the character’s circumstances may seem on the surface, the compromises he’s made with his more truthful, more caring, more daring self have created an untenable state of lack that is “ruining his life,” even if that ruin has beautiful women, a casino, a bar, and live music” (think Casablanca).
Try this exercise: what are your protagonist’s circumstances at the beginning of the story? Are they in conflict/opposition to the way he needs to be in order to face the final conflict? In other words, is he thoroughly equipped and ready to handle that final conflict/ If so, they your character has no need of an inner journey. There’s a fix to this problem. Re-do your beginning so that his is NOT capable of winning that final climax. Then put him on a path that will challenge his beliefs, his abilities, his preconceived notions of himself, then give him a moment of clarity, of epiphany, right before the final climax of the story where he will recognize his true longing and respond. It should be such a huge moment that he can’t help but respond, then realize the foolishness of ever going back to his old ways.
There’s more in this article I’d like to discuss, so I’ll sign off for now and continue in my next post.