Monday, July 19, 2010

Character Growth and Personal Journeys

For me, one of the most satisfying parts of a book is often the character’s transformative growth. All of my favorite writers strike me as exceptional students of the human condition, and it shows in their writing. However, sometimes stuff that we know intuitively, escapes us when it comes to wrestling with the nitty gritty logistics of arcing out a character’s internal journey. We know a character must change or grow, attain some new level of awareness. But unless we have a child development or psychology degree, the nuts and bolts of that process might be unfamiliar to us or cloaked in mystery. It is probably not surprising then, that half my favorite internal growth references for characterization are actually psychology books.

I am very fond of The Hero’s Journey and think it is particularly well suited to middle grade and YA stories because it so mirrors the coming of age process. Many of you have probably read The Writer’s Journey by Chris Vogler, but if it’s been a while, take the book off your shelf and look at it again. If you have a firm grip on the basics of the journey, try re-reading his section on archetypes and how they can serve as different facets of the hero.

Another book I enjoy browsing through but don’t seem to have used yet is 45 MASTER CHARACTERS. What I like about this book is that it breaks down personality characteristics into mythical archetypes, which can be helpful when you’re trying to navigate your protagonist’s internal landscape. For example, there is Artemis (The Amazon) and Athena (The Father’s Daughter) and Isis (Female Messiah), as well as the Dionysus, the Lady’s Man and the Ares The Protector and Apollo the Businessman. (Okay, now I see why I haven’t used this part yet—a lot of those archetypes only minimally apply to kid protagonists!)

She also discusses the difference between a masculine and feminine archetypal journey. I tend to think of them as either character-centric stories or more externally driven stories, and both work for either male or female characters. The main difference is the focus of the journeys.

The masculine is the one we are familiar with:
Challenge (Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, Mentor)
Obstacles (Tests, Allies, Enemies, Ordeal, Reward)
Transformation (Resurrection, Return with the Elixir.)

The Feminine Journey is:
Containment (Illusion of a Perfect World, Betrayal of Realization, The Awakening) Transformation (The Descent, Eye of the Storm, Death—all is lost)
Emergence (Support, Rebirth/Moment of Truth, Full Circle)

Interesting that the transformation in one comes in the middle and the act of true victory is maintaining that transformation when one returns, rather than having the transformation be the end of the story.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s WOMEN WHO RUN WITH WOLVES provides an absolute wealth of internal journey scenarios. Most of her chapters, in fact, are the equivalent of an internal growth arc. For example, the one I’ve been using as I shape the Theodosia series is The Retrieval of Intuition. I think it works really well for character’s who are discovering their inner powers. It breaks down something like this:

Allowing the Too Good Mother to Die
Exposing the Crude Shadow
Navigating in the Dark
Facing the Wild Hag
Serving the Non Rational
Separating This From That
Asking the Mysteries
Standing on all Fours
Recasting the Shadow

She also has a great arc for love relationships (Facing the Life/Death/Life Nature of Love) and Finding One’s Pack, which works really well for stories where someone is trying to find their tribe.

My newest discovery isn’t new at all, but an old classic, it’s only new to me. The Hero Within is being very insightful in helping me see nuance in how different characters need to grow. She has six major archetypes she discusses, Innocent, Orphan, Martyr, Wanderer, Warrior, and Magician. But of course, they’re really stages we all go through on our life’s journeys. What’s particularly helpful with this book is that she breaks down different tasks and points of views that accompany each archetype. For example, what each archetypes greatest fear is, or what they are looking for in relationships, or how they move through the material world. There’s tons of rich material in there for character development.

Do any of you have any books you’ve used for character development? I know some people use the Meyers Briggs typing and other swear by the Enneagram. I’ve never used either of those for characters, although I have had fun taking the tests myself. ☺


Story Weaver said...

I've haven't yet read any of these books (I'm still saving up for Strunk and White's ELEMENTS OF STYLE) but I'm definitely going to need to check out The Hero Within. If you haven't read THE ART OF WAR FOR WRITERS by James Scott Bell, you absolutely must. It's witty and contains many of those "Duh!" moments.

Melanie said...

Yes, I too have these books on my shelf. I found Vogler's book the best for mapping my work. I love Joseph Campbell 's hero with a 1,000 faces and I agree with Story Weaver that the Elements of Style is a great book, which I discovered after reading On Writing (loved it!). Bird by Bird by Lamont is a great read largely due to it's veracity.
The funny thing is, is that I explored all these books years before I got my MA in psychology. I honestly feel that the knowledge I gleaned helped inform my career as a therapist in ways that my MA program could not. I think that reading these books help create an understanding of the big picture, a kind of existential journey with hope.

Anonymous said...

This sounds like a wonderful book to check out : )

Robin L said...

Wow, I totally missed getting back here! Sorry. I am deep in the throes of the current book.

Story Weaver I am putting THE ART OF WAR FOR WRITERS on my list right now!

Melanie, I am fascinated by how your exploration of writing books informed your work as a therapist! And boy, that's exactly the kind of therapist I'd want--one who favored an existential journey with hope. LOVE that.

Bekah, it was wonderful. I've learned so much about myself and characterization! A twofer one!