Conscious Writing: Is Your Hero Settling for Less? Are You?
In many stories, the protagonist takes a journey from stagnation to fulfillment, whatever that means for the character.
The evidence of your hero’s statis can take many forms. One might keep secrets and reject friendships. Another might suppress her emotions or desires.
One thing they have in common is that they are settling for less. Your hero might realize this or not. Given their back story, your protagonist may have learned that life is a certain way and therefore asking for more or different is not an option. Another character may have tried for more in the past but experienced pain or humiliation that has warned them against trying again in the future.
What is your protagonist settling for? Are they aware that they’re settling? What bad experience or train of thought brought them to this state?
This is another exercise that applies to creatives as well as our characters. Are there areas of your creative life where you’re settling for less than you want or deserve? Have you lowered your expectations to avoid stress or disappointment?
You don’t need to solve this today. It’s enough to consider whether you’re settling without jumping to new habits. However, do take some time to think about whether there are different approaches that would improve your outcomes without compromising your values and desires.
Conscious Writing: Learning from the Gut Check
Yesterday, we talked about the point of no return, the moment in your story when your protagonist has to choose between remaining in place or moving forward. How and when this moment occurs will differ from story to story. There’s no single way for it to happen.
However, these moments share some elements. Most of the time, your protagonist is dealing with negative emotions. During your story, your hero might fail repeatedly because they haven’t learned what they need to know to continue. Or your heroine might be facing down the fear that comes with making the leap to the next stop in the story.
Often, protagonists repeat their failures until they reach the gut check moment. They sing the same song, but a different verse. The words change but the melody remains the same. But at the mirror moment, your hero learns to reframe their fears and failures. They find their courage. They feel a sense of curiosity or optimism they haven’t before.
Your hero has a vision of how his life could improve, if he accepts the challenge to change. Your heroine sees opportunity as something to grab, not something to fear.
At this moment, your protagonists have the choice to hold on to bad patterns or grow into new, better versions of themselves.
When you’re writing the gut check or mirror moment, consider the elements of wonder, learning, and optimism. It’s also a time for reflection. Your protagonist may get a glimpse of the origin of the pain or fear that holds them back. Considering what’s occurred earlier in your story, your protagonist should be able to put their bad thinking into better context and see how it’s hurt them.
The gut check should be difficult but also affirming, in whatever way that means for your character. Your hero might be heartbroken or humiliated by their failures, but also confident about the new path before him. Even the villain can be affirmed that he’s doing the right thing, though the reader may feel he is not.
This also isn’t a bad practice for us creatives. We’re often discouraged or disappointed, and most of us work alone or in some kind of solitude. The blues come easy.
Take a moment to consider what might be causing you pain or disappointment, or what might not be working for you. Do you encounter the same problems or disappointments over and over? If you want, make some time to perform your own gut check. Do you want to fix things badly enough to change your approach or are you going to stay where you are, where it’s safer?
Conscious Writing: Your Mirror Moment
In most fiction, particularly genre fiction, the protagonist comes to a metaphorical fork in the road. At this moment, the hero must decide to turn back or continue, to remain the same or change. This moment is called different things: the gut check, the mirror moment, the point of no return.
If this is a point of change, your protagonist must decide whether a possible future is worth giving up old ways of thinking and living. It’s the moment the romance hero decides to chase after love. It’s the gut check that pushes the coward towards a heroic act. Change or don’t change.
If your character is already on their correct path, the gut check is a moment of affirmation. What lies ahead is potentially – perhaps inevitably – deadly, and the hero must decide if he or she is up to the task and willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, physically or metaphorically. It’s the moment before the Avengers head for the battlefield or Rocky steps into the ring. Fight or don’t fight.
Those moments can arrive in different ways. Your hero might be faced with evidence of how his old ways of thinking have failed him again and again. Your heroine might see the future she desires and decide to risk what she has to gain it. Even a villain has these moments, when faced with revelation or defeat. In a classic murder mystery, the murderer has multiple mirror moments, when they must choose to kill or not, even though these take place out of the reader’s sight.
In a current or recent story you’ve written, consider whether and how your protagonist faced this gut check. Depending on the story, the moment might not be evident, but even in non-genre fiction, characters have moments where they must decide to move forward or stagnate.
What is that moment in your story? If you can’t identify one, consider adding one. Your story might lack tension without it. If the moment feels flat, think of ways to heighten the contrast. Push the evidence of your hero’s failure in his face. Make very clear what your heroine is sacrificing to chase after something she’s not guaranteed to win.
What does your protagonist need to hear at this moment? What lesson needs to hit home? Who says it to them?
Conscious Writing: Is Your Hero Under Lock and Key?
Unless your protagonist is shockingly self-actualized – and probably very boring – he or she is likely to keep secrets, including secrets about how they feel. Unfortunately, swallowing our feelings can be bad for our physical and mental health, but on the other hand – it’s great for fiction!
Science has shown a relationship between stress and physical health. Even if your protagonist is in peak health, the stress of pretending to be what he is not can create negative mental and emotional health outcomes, such as nightmares or outbursts of temper.
What feeling does your protagonist hide? How does she respond to or interpret that emotion and what does she think about it?
What physical sensations occur when your hero suppresses this feeling? What negative mental, physical, or emotional health effects might arise because your character is pretending that everything is ok?
Conscious Writing: The Four Fs
The Four Fs aren’t people who’ve been turned down by the military, but the four ways humans respond to threats and stress: fight, flight, freeze, or faint.* Most of us know the concept of fight ore flight, but freeze and faint are totally legit too!
Which category do your characters fall into? Do their different responses to fear create additional layers of conflict? Does your fighter have contempt for your freezer? Does your fainter cause problems for your character who flee?
You might find that your characters have different responses to different kinds of fear. A hero who has no trouble wading into a fist fight might flee to avoid an emotional confrontation. A character who avoids any kind of danger might freeze in the face of an important life decision.
Play with these concepts and see if any create additional complications in your story? Pick the reaction that would be the absolute worst your character could have and see how that affects your scene and plot.
*There is also the concept of the four primal human evolutionary drives – fight, flee, feed, and fornicate – that helped our development as a species, but that’s a topic for another day.
Conscious Writing: Prioritizing
If you’re making the effort to consciously choose your creative path and remain present in your work, learning how to prioritize your purpose, needs, and goals is a must. With the right priorities, vision becomes reality.
Some of us can do this intuitively. If you’re like me, you need to make lists.
Take a few minutes and write down the most important things you want to accomplish today.
Then reorder the list and put your most-dreaded task at the top. Many people – myself included – will put off the worst task until it takes on a life of its own. Today, tackle the worst task first. The rest of your tasks may feel that much lighter!
This can also work with writing tasks. Do you hate blogging but feel like you must, to create your media presence? Get that post out of the way first so that it’s not nagging you when you sit down to write. Struggling with a scene? Dig into it now, before the dread of it eats up your entire writing session.
Conscious Writing: Treat Day!
Have you been feeling too busy or overburdened lately? Are you stressed out, rather than energized, by the creative work waiting for you at your desk?
Take a day for yourself. Pick one thing you have wanted to do for a few weeks but haven’t, because it seemed unimportant or self-indulgent or because you felt you hadn’t earned it.
Maybe you need a few hours of writing time or maybe you need some time away from your creative project to read, bake, or spend time outside.
Give yourself permission and do it. If you truly don’t have time to indulge yourself today, schedule some time in the next day or two and commit to enjoying yourself.
Conscious Writing: Clarifying Your Purpose
I’ve written before about finding our purpose as creative people, the “why” in why you write. Your purpose might be grand or modest. You might hope to entertain or you might strive to communicate or teach. Maybe you want to be remembered or make a lot money.
Knowing why you write can keep you focused on your goals and outcomes. Writing with purpose creates its own energy, even when you might not be in the right mood for the part where you have to sit down and create.
This is especially true when you feel discouraged or creatively fatigued. We all drift from our moors occasionally, so it’s good to get back in touch with why we do what we do.
Take some time today to reflect on your creative Why. Use that to pick a purpose or goal for your day. Visualize your purpose and your goal happening during your day and get started!
Conscious Writing: Breaking Trust
Returning to the topic of integrity, let’s look at how withholding truth or outright lying breaks trust between your characters.
Often, we feel that revealing the truth will lead to a breakdown in trust. However, the opposite is often what happens: trust is broken when one party doesn’t tell the truth. Many people would rather their friends and loved ones be honest – even if the truth hurts – than lie. Regaining trust can take a herculean effort.
Are there places in your story where a character’s lie causes more harm than the truth could have? That’s a common trope in fiction, the lie that snowballs into a catastrophe.
If you’ve already looked for your hero’s motivation for lying, now consider how those lies – or withheld information – affect his or her relationships. Does your hero feel guilty for lying? Does he avoid the person he’s withheld information from? Does the lie get bigger over time as your protagonist tries to hide both the original truth and the lie? Do your supporting characters suspect something?
Consider how the keeping of the secret – rather than the secret itself – affects these relationships.
Conscious Writing: Creative Integrity
In today’s exercise in A Year of Living Consciously, Gay Hendricks suggests a few rules for living with integrity. Let’s adjust them a bit for our creative journey:
- Don’t deny how you feel – especially when you are discouraged or disappointed – but don’t wallow in it. Acknowledge it, take a moment, and move on!
- Tell the whole truth, especially in your writing. Don’t hold back because you want your hero to be likable or because you are afraid of offending someone.
- Choose your commitments carefully and keep them. Break your commitments to yourself only as a last resort and acknowledge the tradeoff.
- Take responsibility for your time, your work ethic, your output, and any community you join.