What’s Your Character Arc?

Whether you are writing a memoir or examining your life, you can view yourself as the star of your own story. Kim fire-firework-light-5076Schneiderman offers us the opportunity to take a conscious approach to this exercise in her new book, Step Out of Your Story. She offers us a way to look at the character arc of our own lives in this excerpt from her book.

An excerpt from Step Out of Your Story by Kim Schneiderman

Now that you’ve put on your story glasses and changed your perspective to the third person, it’s time to get better acquainted with the star of your story — you. Every human story is also a journey of transformation. We start out in one place, with a particular outlook, and end up in another. Yet rarely do we explore who we are as evolving characters with the same gusto and curiosity that we reserve for foreign travel — that is, until something forces us to take a closer look at the person behind the passport.

While you can’t predict your future, you can take charge of the direction of your character arc if you’re willing to explore your protagonist’s terrain with the same sense of adventure and awe you would bring to a trek through the Himalayas.

Every protagonist has a character arc, a particular way he or she matures and develops in response to the shifting tides of the story. This area of growth is the threshold between the hero’s present self and his or her aspirational self; some call this a person’s “growing edge,” a term I like and use in Step Out of Your Story. At the outset of every narrative, the protagonist possesses certain viewpoints and capabilities that have gotten the character by until now. Inevitably, situations arise that challenge these perspectives or demand other skills the hero doesn’t yet possess, thus creating the main conflict of the narrative. After all, if the character already possessed the necessary skills or a broader perspective, there would be no challenge and no conflict in the story. Ultimately, the protagonist faces an opportunity to change in some way. The degree to which the protagonist embraces this challenge, and his or her growing edge, or tries to avoid the challenge determines who he or she becomes, for better or for worse.

Similarly, you are an ever-evolving protagonist on a journey of self-discovery with choices to make about how to respond to the stuff that happens in your life. As an ever-evolving protagonist, not only do you possess the power to adapt to plot twists, but you can view these unexpected difficulties as opportunities for personal growth and transformation. In fact, you can coauthor your own story by regarding every person and situation that shows up in your narrative as an invitation to further hone a different aspect of your character, or one of your growing edges.

That, of course, includes antagonists — the so-called villains and foils that make life challenging — as well as supporting characters and any life events, welcome and unwelcome. After all, just because your life is a story doesn’t mean it’s supposed to be a fairy tale. In fact, even fairy tales aren’t joy rides. If you study them carefully, you’ll notice that serious difficulties always beset the main characters before they get to their happy ending. Cinderella may meet her prince and become transformed, but she has to sweep a whole bunch of chimneys, and endure much humiliation, before she gets there. Jack has to outrun a homicidally hungry giant to capture his treasure in the sky. We not only expect that the main characters of stories will be challenged in some essential way, but we anticipate it.

In stories, the status quo is not just boring, it’s unacceptable. Whether we consciously recognize it or not, could it be that deep down we understand that something needs to happen to the main character for his or her own good or, dare I say, growth? If so, then why is it that it’s so easy to lose this perspective when it comes to telling the story of our own life, when our own status quo is shaken? As the protagonist of our own heroic narrative, doesn’t it seem silly not to recognize that the things that happen to us are what offer opportunities to actualize our potential, calling forth perhaps dormant aspects of our personality that we need to resolve the situation?

Life constantly presents us with challenges. Should we choose to meet them, these keep us growing and evolving from chapter to chapter. Sure, you may not have a wicked witch chasing you like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, but chances are you’ve had to contend with being lost, dealing with difficult people, and accepting that the authority figures you counted on did not deserve your trust.

Unlike some of the heroes from fairy tales and popular fiction, however, you don’t necessarily need to vanquish your nemesis — you simply need to explore who you are as an evolving character and understand your narrative.

Kim Schneiderman, LCSW, MSW, is the author of Step Out of Your Story. She counsels in private practice and teaches as a professor and guest lecturer at venues including New York University. She also writes a biweekly advice column for Metro Newspapers and blogs for Psychology Today. Visit her online at http://www.stepoutofyourstory.com.

Excerpted from the book Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life ©2015 by Kim Schneiderman.  Published with permission of New World Library http://www.newworldlibrary.com

 

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