As a writer, it’s your job to be understood. At the outset you can point to the act of writing and say “No, that’s my job.”
That’s also true.
It’s up there with entertaining (well, not being boring), a search for truth, and an inordinate amount of time where words are not being put to the page.
An effective writer is understood.
In her lecture On Craft: The Quest, Kathryn Heyman stressed the importance of identifying our insecurities. She asked the audience to write down the words “I’ve always wanted to write a novel, but”, and challenged us to complete the sentence with the conclusion that held most truth. She said that it would be the answer that hit a nerve that we could stop at. The easy explanations, the ones we could say without gut-punch a meaningful truth has, were not enough. We had to get at the root cause. Our real obstacle.
I won’t share mine just now.
It was Bobette Buster’s lecture The Uses of Wonder, which put my mind in the right space for what I had to learn in relationship to my protagonist. The focus of characters identifying what it was that held them back, and letting go of their weighstone is a fundamental part of their development.
The third lecture that is relevant to this particular post, was The Science of Science Fiction. There were a number of science and science fiction presenters there, but it was a statement by Jim Al-Khalili that rang especially relevant. Nature should not be paradoxical, and that if it appears so, there’s an understanding that has been missed.
Where does all this leave me?
I’ve had a grave misunderstand of what my main character’s double-edged vice-virtue has been. The pinnacle moment of her seemingly breaking through her flaw in the first draft did not have the impact it should have, and I’d struggled with why. There was a moment of sacrifice. She overcame a serious flaw. It was emotionally charged. Yet the payoff wasn’t there.
Because I had misunderstood the character. Like we might for the question about what stops us from writing, I’d gone with the surface flaw. It was a convenient thing that did work on the surface, but without something deeper, there could be no strong shift in energy.
The initial plan was clear. Her critical flaw was meant to be known, and the path she would follow was also clear. More importantly, much of what happens between the character and those affected by the flaw could be seen to support that same flaw. The fine line between balancing our responsibilities and our duty, trying not to let our family life affect our working life (or vice versa), it’s a neat little package of “ooh, me too!”
It’s also safe. So blindingly safe that it doesn’t seem clear why I had it to begin with.
She seemed to choose her family over her work, though in the circumstances dictated by the story, I think many of us would struggle not to do the same. The idea was that over time, she’d either find the balance or perhaps be less spontaneous when choosing family, instead carefully considering the ramifications. Her grand moment of success was always meant to be a painful one, but it was the wrong one because I’d identified the obstacle incorrectly.
It was never about work-vs-family. For the character, it has always been about control. She doesn’t choose family over work. She chooses control over stepping back.
If your character development, even in the face of genuine change, paradoxically leaves the narrative flat, the answer might be simple. It is not always about raising the stakes, but sometimes about identifying what the correct stakes are. While characters are not necessarily author-inserts, as Kathryn Heyman also said, their struggles mirror our own.
The answers are often simple. The greatest shifts are the ones that in retrospect seem obvious, and are not a result of us trying to convolute our statements, but in digging beneath the surface issues.
If you want strong characters with meaningful change, find the stakes that nudge you in the gut… or even outright deflate you.