On daring our characters to bloom
It is often laziness and timidity that keep us within our duty while virtue gets all the credit.”
–François de la Rochefoucauld, French writer
This concept struck me as worth exploring from a writer’s perspective. If it’s true, our characters may hide facets we haven’t considered. What if Loyal Lambert, the tenacious teacher of many a yearning youth, left behind his own dream of succeeding in the world of sculpture . . . or watercolor painting . . . or writing, because he was too timid to try?
What if he actually hates teaching, yet plasters on a pensive brow each morning, ready for whatever inquiries his students aim his way? What if his heart’s deep desire is to let his thoughts, emotions, and longings flow onto the page/canvas, or through the clay? But he’s too chicken.
What if courage, for Loyal, would be chucking it all and entering the fiercely competitive artistic “real” world? What if the world he’s chosen isn’t the one he was created to inhabit? And when he locks his classroom door each night and slinks homeward, he knows it—oh, he’s shoved the knowledge way, way, down, but it pops up like a prairie dog every once in a while.
Nobody knows how much courage such a move requires. You sit (or stand) daily with your teeming ambition, creating, creating, creating . . . with no guarantee of publication, a showing, or whatever form success takes in your chosen field.
You can’t be lazy, because you pour all you’ve got into your life’s work. The satisfaction that comes with writing that exquisite paragraph, exactly what your characters would do or say if they peopled your living room, is all the payment you get right now—and maybe ever. But you can’t stop, because those characters live and breathe. So does their story.
It took you so long to get to this point, where you’re willing to take the risk, putting your creation out there before an editor, art judge, whatever. And you’ve learned to take rejection in stride—you’ve certainly received plenty. But it’s a nebulous world you’ve entered. They say the perfect connoisseur waits out there somewhere for your masterpiece, the exact editor your manuscript cries for . . . you must keep on trusting, though your larder runs low.
You’re tempted to go rogue—self publish or stage your own show somewhere, somehow. How long must you wait for that golden moment when your creation becomes a conduit for truth to just the right audience? Did you hear wrong when that truth tiptoed into your heart?
Self-doubt stalks you. You do feel timid, but it’s more than that. You’re downright scared that all this effort, all your trials and tears, all your hopes and dreams, will come to nothing. It’s a scary feeling, a limbo-like place to dwell. But you pick yourself up from the dew of despond and soldier on.
And then you think, “Ahhh . . . this is why my character, Loyal Lambert, stays in his stultifying job. Not because it’s a virtuous vocation, although for many called to be teachers, it is.”
Loyal hears rumors of his virtue from parents, fellow instructors, maybe even his principal. They praise his perseverance, his never-ending patience. But he knows better. It’s not virtue that drives him on, day after day after day in an endless cycle. It’s timidity. It’s laziness. And he hates himself for shutting down his creativity, for the mockery that has become his daily reality.
Now, if you can get this cautious character, Loyal, to somehow hear his soul’s suppressed supplications and make the impossible decision to “do” his art, you’ve got a story! If you can revolve the facets of that common word, courage, to show that what seems like courage isn’t necessarily so, and what seems foolhardy and/or selfish may indeed be courageous, you’re on your way. Ole!
Have any of your characters needed a little push to connect them with their creativity or move them into their creative rhythm?
If so, how did you accomplish that feat?