Who are we, and what do we stand for?
As a writer, this is an important question to answer about your characters before writing a single word—the “who” and “what” is the central basis of why our characters do anything. If you don’t know the answers–you’re going to have an uphill battle in the piece you’re writing.
This is a conversation I recently had with my twelve-year-old son. At school, he’s learning about “The Hero’s Journey,” which is, by far, the most epic of all plot journeys. But my child is unimpressed. He has no urge to watch Frodo and Sam hike across Middle Earth to Mount Doom. He has even less interest in knowing the story of Katniss Everdeen. His one passion and love are comic strips–and character arc is the enemy of a good comic strip. Can you imagine Garfield deciding it is time to treat John and Odie with love and respect? Or if he went on a diet and gave up lasagna? This would mark the end of Garfield’s antics and laughter because no one tunes in to see him change. They keep reading to watch him mess up. This deep love of comic strips or slapstick driven stories makes it difficult to explain what a character arc is and why it’s crucial to story craft. So I did what I know he’ll understand the best–and I made it about him.
As in writing, so is in life. While Garfield had better never changed, I know for sure, my son will. It’s a natural character arc. He will grow up and move out, etc. But that’s too far off, so I picked something much closer: the Covid pandemic and 2020 in general.
My son and I have witnessed much in the decade+ years of his life, but there has been nothing like Covid before now. This is true for all of humankind.
We’ve been hit with an event so large, we’re simultaneously being forced through the grinder of life. In short, we have to learn, adapt, and grow to archive and survive. Early this month, LA Magazine published an article stating that “According to 28 American and British historians surveyed by virtual therapy company Bloom, 2020 was one of the most stressful years in history. The historians ranked this year among the top ten most stressful both in U.S. and world history, just below years marred by tragedies such as the American Civil War, the Black Death, the Holocaust, and the sack of Rome.” After each of these events, came great change.
This extraordinary time has forced us to twist, bend, mold, and shove ourselves into new versions of our old lives. Our jobs have changed. Our schools have gone online. How we socialize is entirely different, from staying connected with friends and family to meet that “special someone” it’s not like it used to be–even a little. At the same time, divorce is on the rise, “For some couples, pandemic friction has involved a few more fights about the laundry or the savings account. For others, the lockdown has exposed issues that run deeper and offered ample time for reflection, leaving them to wonder about their options for pursuing separation during the pandemic.” We’ve seen those we love get sick and die. We’ve seen chaos. We’ve been abandoned. We’ve been picked back up. It’s been a nonstop roller coaster for going on a year here in America–and the rest of the world.
So, of all the things we may never have in common–we have this. We have Covid-19, and we have how Covid-19 has changed us. We have grown as people. In great depths, we have learned if our relationships with ourselves, our partners, our friends, our families are the real deal. Will they last? Are the bonds we’ve cultivated strong enough to keep us together? And we have learned if it’s time to sever ties and move on.
I am barely scratching the surface with my examples. But no matter who you are, I’m certain you have had a major character arc in your life story. I can say this with certainty: We are not now, nor will we ever be who we were before 2020 and Covid-19. Even if you thought your life was fine how it was, you have grown, you have changed, and you are no You 2.0.
After speaking with my son, I asked this question on Facebook, “What has been your Covid-19 story arc?” and only received one reply–so I’ll accept that maybe we aren’t ready to divulge such a personal answer publicly. Or, maybe you haven’t thought about it, but I’m telling you, you should.
What is your arc? How have you changed? How has the Covid pandemic touched you? As I used this example with my son, I saw a light bulb flip on. From something as simple as, “I’m a foot taller than I was before Covid,” to something more emotional, “I’ve learned it’s hard to be so isolated,” we all have a story to tell.
If you’re a writer, self-examination is a fantastic way to learn who you are as a writer and who your characters are. Yes, you should read, read, read, and you should write, write, write–but taking a moment to be introspective about who you are, what your journey has been, how you have changed–and what emotions were involved will also help you grow in your craft.
If there is one positive thing you can take from 2020, Covid-19, and what it has done to us as a global society, it’s using this time to know who you are, what you want, and why you want it. These things can unite us and help us grow stronger, and if you nail a perfect Character Arc in the process, good job you.
And if you don’t want to–Garfield hasn’t changed much since 1978. It’s okay if you haven’t either.