A stranger comes to town. Someone goes on a journey. The old adage claims every story is either one or the other. But where are these characters going? Who’s directing the traffic? Does anyone have an itinerary?
These questions are vital to character development, a stodgy term that belies the dynamic nature of character. For insight, I turn to an unlikely source: the monks of New Skete. I’m not Catholic, nor am I Orthodox, as these monks are. My initial acquaintance with them had nothing to do with writing or spiritual thinking. My puppy was sweet but stubborn and often one step ahead of me. The monks raise and train German Shepherds, and they wrote a great book on bringing the best out in dogs.
If only characters were so easy to train. But training is hardly the point. We can all agree with Flannery O’Connor that the story form is organic. “The only way, I think, to learn to write short stories is to write them, and then to try to discover what you have done,” O’Connor says. “In most good stories it is the character’s personality that creates the action of the story. “If you start with a real personality, a real character, then something is bound to happen; and you don’t have to know what before you begin. In fact it may be better if you don’t know what before you begin.”
Fair enough. The writer is not a travel agent, mapping itineraries her characters. Technique becomes useful only when you’ve traveled a ways with them already, and you’ve got a story – at least a rough one – before you. But while there’s no surefire, step-by-step, 100% guaranteed process for discovering your characters on the page, there are useful perspectives. The journey is one, and that’s where the monks of New Skete come in.
In another book (not the manual on dog training), the monks address the inner work that leads to greater depth and breadth of happiness, which in one form or another is the desire of every character, even if some of them are determined to twist it into something else. Borrowing from the monks, we could say that the itineraries of our characters involve growing in consciousness, facing what reality demands of them, living more authentically and universally, and moving even incrementally toward self-knowledge. Along the way, they encounter a common roadblock: the impulse to save themselves even if the cost is their own full humanity.
You may infuse your characters with all sorts of emotions and launch them on a wild roller-coaster ride, but in the end emotion is only reactive. Your characters need spirit, or soul, or whatever other term you prefer if those sound too religious.
It’s on journeys that our characters become real, journeys in which they grow in consciousness despite the impulse to save themselves, journeys in which they seek happiness, whether they know it or not, and where they encounter authenticity, whether they mean to or not. How they get there is up to them, and to you. How they get there is story.