Life has rules. In this game, achieving something comes at a tradeoff. Sure you can move away from home to broaden your horizons, but realize that every time you come back to visit, your parents will seem to have aged quicker without you catching the daily nuances. You can take that shiny new job, but know that your new colleagues will have different dynamics with you, and there will be new things to learn—some of them being challenging in ways you might not have expected. You can dedicate your time to learning a new language, but there is only so much time in a day. Maybe it comes at the cost of being able to read for pleasure. Whatever it is, whatever happens to you during the pursuit of your goals is your life. It’s what defines you. I guess a better word for all of this would be sacrifice. In the process of getting what we want, our sacrifices define us. When writers show readers the way a character’s life falls in place around their sacrifices, they will carve out more distinct, meaningful people.
I think back to my college memories of trying to juggle my work, academic and social schedules. I survived, but there was definitely a little more emphasis on the latter. But that was a vital part of my collegiate experience. I figured out who I was while tossing back obscene amounts of shots, cheap beer, or mixed drinks sporting combinations of 3-4 different rail liquors. During the binge drinking, I usually did something silly or stupid, and I would share the stories the next day with my friends as we tried to piece together our collective craziness during brunch. The shenanigans were badges of honor and bonded us together over a blur of good times.
However, the primary goal of college was to dedicate ourselves to learning something for four years and obtain a degree. We had fun along the way, but eventually we all graduated. Things changed. We got jobs, spread ourselves across the country, and entered in serious relationships. We matured, and we traded some measure of our reckless freedom for responsibility. Life lessons from our mistakes forced us to live healthier lives, one where chugging a case of Coors and spending the night groping the toilet with alcohol poisoning became few and far in between. That’s the problem with growing up. The drunken mistakes and the stories stop being as comical and cute. And the people who haven’t figured it out just aren’t fun anymore. Hello, destructive. Now, don’t get me wrong…I still enjoy drinking, and I still have a great deal of fun. In fact, brunch continues to be a vital, weekly Saturday experience. I just can’t allow myself to steal bottles of booze from the bar when the bartender isn’t looking. I can afford to buy them now. And I don’t have to experiment with drugs with a curiosity of trying everything once so I won’t die with regrets. I have a grip on my personality, and I know those things aren’t apart of me.
Those thrilling mistakes were once carried out in the interest of trying new things to see what I liked and what I didn’t. But after coming to define myself, gone were the days of thinking I’m okay to drive home from the bar when clearly I’m not. I sacrificed self-sabotage in my schedule because I have a dog or boyfriend or rent relying on me to show up. In my pursuit of graduating college and growing up, my life changed. The kamikaze experimentation ended as I came to understand myself and confirm first hand that many of the bad decisions really were pieces of shrapnel designed to bleed out a person’s life. As writers, we have to document those changes so that readers can have some level of understanding for our characters’ actions. Some would like to think that stories are grounded in fantasy when they’re actually grounded in reality. I would argue that stories have to be more real than reality in some cases. In reality, you don’t have to know someone’s past or sacrifices when they do something. In a story, if you want to justify most characters’ arcs, readers need to know certain things about each character so that they can make sense of them. Thus preventing another book from being chucked across the room. Show readers a character’s circumstances and sacrifices, and you’ll have added that much more depth to them.
Some questions to get the creativity flowing:
How do they navigate around unplanned sacrifices?
For the goals they purposefully pursued, did they regret achieving their goal after they got it? Would they do it again?
How can you pit you characters ideals against their sacrifices? Try to put them in situations that force them to choose what’s more important.