(Re-post of an item written in May 2008)

Writing is hard.  More specifically, character development is hard because at the start of the book you need to assume that the character does not have all of the experience and knowledge that the writer has now.  The writer must write about a character that is young, rash, and still learning about the harsher side of life and love.

This is difficult, for some writers, because in order to write about this you have to think of the world different than you do now.  You have to imagine what you (or your character) would do if you were rash, stubborn, and unwilling to compromise.  I’m not saying we are all perfect in our ways, but you have to imagine someone who is so stubborn they let an argument turn into a fight that turns into a divorce.  They have to be so stubborn they hit rock bottom before they realize their life needs to change.  Some writers can draw upon experience, but most of us humans live in some form of middle ground.  Our lives are not too soft or hard, not too joyful or brutish.  We live in a state of balance that we manicure until we are content.  To write a good character requires us to unsettle the balance and unweave the fabric of life we try so hard to keep in check.

To assist the main character a writer can either take the path of a “sage guide” or let the character bumble along and learn life’s lessons the hard way, through experience.  Yoda was the sage guide in Star Wars.  Although Luke Skywalker had to learn life’s lessons on his own he always had the sage advice of Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi ringing in his ears.  Many writers take this path and many blockbusters were born out of this very theme.  Splinter was the sage guide to four brash, young, and inexperienced Ninja Turtles.  He taught them lessons they later learned to be true.  This approach towards writing seems to be a guaranteed winner in all media forms.  Perhaps this is because people want to believe in a hero – one that can be both mortal like them and then turn into a better person or being.  They want to believe that if this can happen to a turtle then certainly it can happen to them as well.  As a culture we are drawn towards heros who start from humble beginnings.  We want to imagine a magical path to enlightenment.  But reality proves otherwise.

I believe that punctuated equilibrium of personal development is the alternative to the sage guide.  These are stories usually written as memoirs or tales of personal development through hard learned experience.  They could just as easily become blockbusters but more often take the form of independent films.  These are stories of people, human like us, with all their faults who gain it all and then loose it all just as as quickly.  These characters go on with their lives until they are forced to change out of necessity.  They do not always change for the better, as one would under the sage guide approach.  Instead they usually change one aspect of their personality or interactions and then another.  Each time a change in their character is punctuated by a life experience that says to them, “this path you have been taking is no longer acceptable or working out – we need another option or path.”

I think this is why I prefer memoirs, because it is easier for me to relate to small punctuated changes than it is to imagine a life changing event that shakes and alters the core of my being.  Cynics will say that I have simply not experienced a potentially deadly car accident or the warm embrace of religion, but I have and both were short lived.  Perhaps they did not leave the mark on me that they do on others.  But I have found that for most people who live the middle ground of life, it is only those critical events that cause them to alter one aspect of their being.  Perhaps they become safer drivers, or more open to spirituality.  Perhaps they become more willing to accept other alternatives and become more patient people.

We all experience these things to one degree or another and do not need writers to document them.  Also, books are finite and thus we need to skip the in between parts.  The sitcom Friends (or Coupling if you live in the UK) would not be interesting if it was a reality show.  What excites us is the careful stringing together of these inflection points in a way that suspends our sense of disbelief and also draws us in to think, “that could be me” or “I could do that.”

That’s the hard part.  The careful craft of skipping the in between in a way that enables us to experience the deep sadness and then joy of life.  To think it could be us.  To think we still have hope.