Given the title of this post, you may be expecting a rah-rah go you, you’re awesome, you’re the star, so get out there and do it! kind of post. Not from me. Those words terrify me. I’m the hero?
Hear these encouraging words by Lisa Cron about the hero from Wired For Story (substituting hero for protagonist):
…as much as you love your [hero], your goal is to craft a plot that forces her to confront head-on just about everything she’s spent her entire life avoiding. You have to make sure the harder she tries, the harder it gets. Her good deeds will rarely go unpunished. Sure, every now and then it’ll seem like everything’s okay, but that’s only because you’re setting her up for an even bigger fall. You want her to relax and let her guard down a little, the better to wallop her when she least expects it (p.169).
Constantly upping the ante gets the [hero] in shape, which is crucial, since the final hurdle he’ll have to sail over will be impossibly high. The more you put him through before he gets there, the better (p.174).
…it’s your job to dismantle all the places where your [hero] seeks sanctuary and to actively force him out into the cold…a hero only becomes a hero by doing something heroic, which translates to rising to the occasion, against all odds, and confronting one’s own inner demons in the process (p.183).
Leaving aside the issue of whether you believe there is an Author of your life, and whether that idea pisses you off or comforts you, the above sounds like life to me.
Heroes are always in the middle of the action. Bad things happen to them and to people they love. Things feel out of control. Heroes are forced to confront their fears, their deepest assumptions about themselves or others; sometimes these are confirmed, often they’re challenged. Some challenges may be exhilarating, others painful and sad.
In the middle of the situation, heroes are always thinking, “things can’t get any worse,” or “this has got to be the bottom,” and “after this, things will get better,” and that’s rarely the case. In fact, it’s usually the sign that things are about to get way worse. (Kind of like when another character says, “trust me” — always a bad sign.)
Heroes are not alone. There are plenty of people in heroes’ lives who are ready to help and to hinder. But which is which? Is the advice from the hero’s dearest friend good, or is he a gatekeeper, who, out of love (or his own fears), wants the hero to stay the same/safe/like him? Does the comment from someone the hero don’t like contain the truth of her situation, a truth she needs in order to move ahead?
Moreover, heroes don’t correctly interpret their trials. They follow the wrong leads or make bad assumptions or miss the red flags (and the green flags!) in front of them, or they listen to bad advice or keep getting in their own way. No matter what kind of villain heroes are fighting, heroes are often their own worst enemy.
Clarification: heroes don’t correctly interpret their trials when they’re in the middle of them. A particular struggle may take days to resolve, or months, or years. The struggle may even be chronic, and heroes can only change their thoughts and feelings about it. Heroes can only draw the proper connections by looking back over time, sometimes in the middle, but often not until a situation has been resolved.
Isn’t this just like life?
Let’s say you’re an out-of-work hero, and all you want to do is find a job and make a living. In fact, you need to find a job so you and your family have food and shelter. You start out with a plan, and it’s a good one, so you execute that plan. Some heroes will be hired at this point, but if your plan doesn’t land you a job, you cast your net farther afield, maybe you take what you think of as bad jobs, maybe you stop talking about your search, maybe you talk about nothing but your search, maybe you get even more disciplined, maybe you give up and get depressed. Maybe you lose your house and have to live on friends’ couches for as long as they’ll have you. Maybe you have a few close calls, when you’re in the top two or three for a job that you’re sure you’re perfectly suited to, but you don’t get it. Maybe you don’t even get a call-back for jobs you should at least get an interview for. Maybe some job-related, one-time mistake keeps coming back to bite you. Maybe it’s all a series of bad breaks, but maybe there is something wrong with your skill set or your self-presentation. Maybe you need to change careers, or give up on the current dream and exchange it for another. You don’t know and probably can’t recognize the series of events, conversations, connections that land you that job — until you land that right job that allows you to shine.
Looking back, you can trace your story and see how it made sense, how one lesson lead to another which lead to another which lead you to take one action that seemed so tiny at the time, but it was the thing that led to another thing that finally tipped the scales. In the middle, it’s a horrible, confusing, frustrating mess that makes you doubt your value to the world.
* Places where you seek sanctuary dismantled … check — you have no job in a society that highly values paid work. Perhaps you had to swallow your pride and accept help from family, friends, the government, charitable organizations. Perhaps all the above turned their backs on you.
* Actively forced out into the cold … check — you kept looking, kept putting yourself out there, kept trying to figure out what all this might be telling you.
* Rising to the occasion, against all odds … check — you followed every possible lead and personal insight you could.
* Confronting your inner demons in the process … check — your skills, dreams, sense of value and purpose were all in question. You probably had to overcome some assumptions about yourself or others, or how easy things should be “when they’re right,” and work through deep-seated fears.
In other words, you’re the hero of your own life. It may look like a horrible mess, and you might follow some red herrings, but some of those red herrings may give you precisely what you need to resolve your situation. You might hit your “dark moment when all seems to be lost” many times.
But you’re the hero. Your change drives the action. So keep at it.
That’s what I’m saying to myself these days about my writing and publishing struggle. Things were pretty dark last fall and early winter. I put my best work in years out there, a project I was deeply passionate about, and I got nothing. Not one request for a full manuscript. And you know why? Because it wasn’t good enough. My recent reading of Wired For Story reminded me of an off-hand comment my mother made to me about the main hero of my story: David didn’t change. His situation did; his life was very dramatic. But he, himself, remained static. That’s not good.
Lisa Cron states, in no uncertain terms: “Story is about change, which results only from unavoidable conflict” (p.124). And, “the why carries more weight than the what. Think of it as a pecking order: the why comes first, because it drives the what” (p.152).
So I need to tease out David’s character arc. It won’t be hard; I already have it all planned out. The seeds were in the story the whole time. But I needed that dark period to make me keep seeking answers. Will this revision be the one that tips the scales towards publication? I have no idea.
But I’m the hero. My change drives the action. So I’m keeping at it.
You keep at your struggle, too, whatever it is. We’ll form a hero support society. We need all the encouragement we can get.