Core Strength

Redwood2_AdjA character’s quest lies at the heart of any story, with their journey of change driving the plot as they face obstacles to achieving their ultimate desire. One thing that will undermine any character we write is a lack of consistency and a lack of believability. But ever since a recent family holiday in the ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’, there’s something else I’ve been considering relating to character development.

I think most of us are aware that people don’t behave in the way they do for no reason. We all have a history that predisposes us to certain behavioural patterns, deeply embedded in our thought processes and emotions. For example, children who’ve experienced trauma often, in turn, behave in ways that are unhealthy. Trauma makes as much of a wound on the brain as a physical injury. Even experiences that, to an adult, might seem inconsequential, can profoundly affected a child’s (and ultimately adult’s) behaviour and way of perceiving life. It stands to reason that these types of pain-based behaviours can be difficult to manage, but once identified, the brain can be ‘rewired’ over time by making different choices. Each positive choice makes a small change in the brain. And small changes, over time, make big ones.

Something I find frustrating as a reader is when a character whose entire life has been dictated by negative behaviours, suddenly changes, and then the story is resolved. Now, I’m not denying people can experience profound shifts in thinking over short periods of time, or even significant emotional healing, but more often than not, there’s a dogged grappling with pain-based patterns over time, before the positive choices outweigh the negative wiring of the past.

Just as a child can be damaged emotionally or mentally by being forced to grow up too fast, whether that be through exposure to adult concepts too early or, as mentioned above, through trauma, so our characters can come across as weak and untrustworthy if they change too fast, or without appropriate context and conditions justifying that change.Redwood

But how does this relate to our holiday in NZ? While touring, we visited a Redwood forest. The redwood seed had been brought over from America to grow trees to produce wood for use in construction and other such applications. Unfortunately, the NZ climate wasn’t the same as that from which the trees were brought. The trees grew too fast, leaving the inner core soft and unusable for the purpose it was intended.

Like those magnificent redwood trees, a character can be fleshed out to look every bit the part they’ve been developed to play in a story, but if they don’t go through challenge- or condition-appropriate growth, a reader won’t buy it. I think you’ll agree, there’s something about a character’s inner struggle that builds convincing inner strength, developing rapport with a reader. I do love stories where characters rise above overwhelming odds, but let’s ensure we give our literary heroes opportunity to develop sufficient core strength to make the distance.

10 thoughts on “Core Strength

  1. Wonderful insight Adele, so true. It takes years for people to grow. Great analogy, I agree with Nola. It’s great as a writer, because following real-life behaviour, there is less need for ‘padding’ in a story, I would imagine.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Rachel. Good point about story development. If a story is developed in a way that feels right to a reader, it certainly allows it to advance with greater ease. I think sudden changes can work if there are appropriate ‘conditions’ underpinning that change, but many of us are slow-growers, I think. 🙂

  2. some good comments here.
    I think there can be some dramatic changes (like Paul on the road to Damascus) but it is God that produces that sort of change. He did have 3 days of blindness to realign his thoughts and then 3 years in the desert afterwards.

    • Good thoughts, Christine. Even in dramatic change, there can be a period of learning to live out that new life. Always so inspiring to read those stories though. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Enjoyed your post, Adele. Yes, when reading or writing, I do like to journey with characters as they grapple to change when necessary. Loved your image of the redwood trees and their soft cores.

    • Thanks for commenting, Jeanette. It can be a heartrending read when characters struggle, but inspiring to share their victories as they overcome challenges. The redwoods were amazing. Incredible to parallel the importance of providing change-appropriate conditions for their growth.

  4. Hi Adele. Great analogy and I agree that character change generally takes time and struggle. Even ‘and they lived happily ever after’ endings strain credibility. Though I do think that fiction often demands a higher standard than real life. I can remember my lecturer in psychiatry telling a case history of a chain-smoking, heavy drinking, foul mouthed, man being committed to the psych hospital by his concerned family because he had had a conversion experience and over night had stopped smoking, drinking, swearing and was reading the bible and praying. He wasn’t mentally ill, but he was changed. I’ve also experienced radical turning points – sudden about turns of attitudes, thoughts, moods and behaviours through strong encounters with God. I do agree that there is still an ongoing process as those changes filter into ones life.. In one case there were some influences leading up to the change but both really did come out of the blue, completely unexpected. Truth can be stranger than fiction, perhaps because it’s not trying so hard to be believed. 😊

    • Indeed, truth can be stranger than fiction. I acknowledge such examples and love hearing of these kind of dramatic transformations. Just wonderful. But even with your example of the chain smoking, drinking swearing man, I found it interesting that there was still the disbelief of his family ‘post-change’, which in a way provides a reasonable response from an observer’s perspective. Sometimes even this is lacking in stories of sudden change. What I find particularly valuable is the unpacking of issues that have been underlying such harmful behaviours, for we all grapple with challenges and can be encouraged by the journey of others towards wholeness and change – whether suddenly or over time. Thanks for your valuable insights, Jeanette.

  5. Great blog, Adele. I really like that analogy about the redwood trees. I’ve read a few books where character change happens too quickly. For example, the hero and heroine can’t stand each other on p. 51 and are then madly in love by p. 54. Even when an event happens that would lead to more rapid change (e.g. a natural disaster means the protagonist has to rise above her fear to save someone), it still takes a while for those changes in character to become stable or second-nature. Spending time to get to know the characters takes time and effort on the part of the author, but is so worth it in terms of reader satisfaction. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Thanks, Nola. I appreciate you taking time to comment. I was quite struck by this information when we were there. As visible in the images with the post, the redwoods are magnificent trees, but a great demonstration of how growth factors can change so much. You’ve provided the perfect example of changes that don’t ring true with a reader. I’m like any other reader when it comes to non-fiction biographies, where dramatic life changes are incredible to read about, but even then, there’s often a period of learning to live in a new identity or pattern of ‘doing’ life. I think if dramatic change is involved, we writers need to work really hard to lay the appropriate foundations for such a change.

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