What would you risk in order to get the one thing you truly desire? Seriously, what would you risk? (I’ll post my personal answer to this at the end of this series.) Today, let’s talk about it in terms of your character.

life shrinks or expands according to one's courage

life shrinks or expands according to one's courage

According to story expert Michael Hauge, the inner conflict is the struggle between identity and essence. (See yesterday’s post.) The character arc is the character’s departure from her identity and her journey to live in her essence.

Clinging to her identity–who she thinks she is, the way she wants the word to see her–keeps her emotionally safe. She believes her identity is who she is. Scarlett O’Hara is a great example of this. She believes she’s a Southern belle, destined to have a society marriage and a conventional life. You don’t need to read too far into the book to realize she’s deceiving herself.

Pencils out! Complete this KEY STATEMENT for your character. Imagine her speaking the words–how would she fill in the blank?:

“I’ll do whatever it takes to achieve my goal.
Just don’t ask me to __________________,
because that’s just not me.”
As the writer in charge of her destiny, you need to reply, “You can achieve your goal, but in order to do it, you’re going to have to kill your identity and live in your essence.” Each scene you write should address this transformation, even in a small way.
(Example–in Lakeshore Christmas, Maureen, the town librarian, is surrounded by books, so when I show her at work, I can have fun with the books she handles. While shelving a book, she comes across this statement from Anais Nin:

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”

…which is pretty on-the-nose, but librarians notice things like that.)

Your character has a choice–she can be safe and unfulfilled or she can be fulfilled, her true unvarnished self, but scared and vulnerable.

The inner journey is structured the same as the outer journey (see earlier post):

  • In Stage1, the character is living fully in her identity, hiding her essence.
  • In Stage 2, she is still fully in her identity but she gets a glimpse of what living in her essence might be like. (In Lakeshore Christmas, Maureen sees Eddie, the love interest, flirting with women, and imagines what it might be like to be in love.)
  • In Stage 3, turning point #2, the hero moves into her essence but it gets so scary that she retreats into her identity. This can happen repeatedly, until she reaches the Point of No Return. She retreats in an attempt to go back to her identity, but discovers she cannot retreat.
  • In Stage 4, she finally leaves her identity behind and is fully in her essence. The outside world starts closing in. This tests her commitment to her essence. Here, some characters might go back even if it means she’ll die trying.
  • In Stage 5, she defends her right to be in her essence, probably facing resistance from friends, family and enemies alike. The arc is completed right before the climax. The hero has earned the right to attain her goal.
  • In Stage 6, she gets her resolution–maybe she’s rewarded for embracing her essence. Maybe it’s a failed journey and she dies, leaving the reader with a larger appreciation. Or maybe she abandons what she thought she wanted. Just make sure the aftermath is true to the story you’ve told.

The aftermath (Stage 6) is a glimpse of what it’s like, living in her essence. Stories rarely fall apart due to a flawed aftermath, but you still want the reader to say, ahhhh….

Sometimes the hero doesn’t achieve the goal. He might find the courage to attain it, but is fulfilled on a different level. In Stand by Me, the hero finds the body, which he set out to do so his parents will notice him, but he chooses to report it anonymously rather than grabbing all the glory. This is one reason both the movie and novella (“The Body” by Stephen King) are so terrific–that arc of learning what’s really important, the character becoming the person he’s meant to be, is powerful.

  • In a sad story (like Titanic), the goal is achieved (Rose gets her life of passion and freedom) but at a huge cost (Jack).
  • In a happily-ever-after, the goal is achieved and all the hard work of growth pays off. (Pretty Woman, Beauty and the Beast, etc.)
  • In a tragedy, the hero lacks the courage to stay in his essence. (Brokeback Mountain)
  • In a love story, there is a shared goal–the characters want to win each other’s love.
  • In a buddy story, characters might be on 2 journeys but they share a common goal.
  • In a group or ensemble story, characters are on different journeys but they are together for a common purpose (funeral, reunion, knitting class, book club…)

What kind of story are you writing? How does the plot mesh with the struggle between the character’s identity and essence?

Tomorrow, there will be a brief rundown of other characters and story elements.