Discovering who we are is a primary preoccupation of early adulthood. Life review, the exploration of what our lives have meant, is a critical task of old age. In between is a journey in which our self-understanding grows insight by insight, day by day.
In our search for self-understanding we look for guides. Everything from Oprah to self-help books take advantage of this need. We talk to therapists. We confide in friends. We argue with God. Vacations, meditation, yoga, retreats, the Dali Lama and Deepak Chopra give us opportunities to reflect. The best insights we get into ourselves may come from a chance remark by a friend, a reflection in a window, or the sudden realization of what matters most as we’re wheeled into surgery.
The British fascination with royals and the American obsession with celebrities is driven, I believe, by the need to have others against whom we can measure our conduct, our values and our progress.
The protagonists in fiction serve a similar purpose. We look to them as models. What we want from them is not just entertaining stories but examples of how we can feel, see the world, conduct ourselves, grow and change. We admire them, learn from them, celebrate them and return to them over and over for inspiration.
They’re not termed heroes and heroines for nothing. So, an important aspect of your protagonist is their own self-understanding, its progress and growth. It can be looked at in ways big and small. Here are some approaches to try in your current manuscript:
- At the beginning of your novel, how does your protagonist understand himself? What defines him? What rules or code guide him? What assumptions are givens? What’s home base? Who’s on his side? In whose love is he secure? Whom else knows him as well as he knows himself?
- At the end of your novel, how has the answer changed to any of the questions above? What can you do to shake any of those foundations along the way? What happens to rebuild them?
- What’s your protagonist’s snapshot take on money, prayer, pop music, abstract art, minivans, modern dance, fourth down passes, bespoke suits, raw food, blended whiskey or anything else that demands an opinion?
- At the end of your novel, how has the answer changed to any of the questions above? What happens to change that opinion? Add it. Part of self-understanding is establishing one’s relationship to everything else in the world.
Self-understanding is a powerful character dimension to portray. Even more effective is changing that self-perception. Enact that change and your protagonist will not only be honoring Apollo but giving us all a chance to do so too.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s striatic