IT’S ALL ABOUT ATTITUDE.
Career field doesn’t matter, the type of challenge doesn’t matter, and the difficulty level doesn’t matter. For no matter what job you hold, whether the challenge is personal or professional, whether it’s a small challenge or a large challenge, it’s your challenge and that makes it significant to you.
No one escapes challenges. Not in their professional life or in their personal life. Even the person we look at and admire from afar who seems to have the perfect life, the perfect job, the perfect children, the perfect home, the perfect everything, doesn’t. That person, for all his or her blessings, still goes through hard times and struggles.
Some people seem to naturally handle challenges better than others. Some are deemed melodramatic because they overreact to the slightest small problem. What we must remember is that what we deem a small problem may be a very large problem to that person at that time. Because you see, challenges don’t happen isolated from the rest of a person’s life. They happen in concert with the rest of what’s going on in a person’s life. This no outsider can know. Think about it. Who knows what else is going on with that individual who seems melodramatic? Who knows what trauma, medical difficulty, family member challenges, or other drama(s) are playing out in that person’s life?
This is but one reason we shouldn’t isolate our characters in their challenges (or judge others and their reactions to problems that we see they are having). We only know what they tell us. And if they do tell us, quite often more is left untold than shared. True for people, therefore it should be true for characters in our books.
That not sharing all happens for a variety of reasons. One, sharing makes the person feel extremely vulnerable, or ashamed, or embarrassed, or overwhelmed. That person might also be in denial. And before you judge that—denial—understand that sometimes things happen that are so painful and hard to wrap our minds around (thus characters’ minds) we have to deal with them in degrees. Dealing with the weight of all at once is more than we can bear, and so we cope with a little bit at the time.
Remember, challenges and obstacles often have tentacles. They cause chain reactions. Other dominos to fall.
A woman contacted me who recently lost a loved one and wasn’t notified until after the loved one had been dead for over a week. For days, the woman refused to speak of the death, to acknowledge it, or to in any way express knowledge that her loved one had passed away. Some would say that was an odd reaction—and even one who didn’t say it, thought it… until the specific circumstances became clear. When they had, her reaction made perfect sense. Other tragedies were occurring at the same time in her life: fear for the life of another loved one, which raised a host of past challenges regarding loss that she’d not addressed and dealt with in a constructive way. All these things were dragged out and into the forefront of her mind, and each chewed on her while the others were strumming her emotions and making hash of her heart. She couldn’t handle it all, so she denied it all. And while her denial reaction might have seemed on the surface to be strange, it was her body’s way of coping at that moment.
The news cut so deep, and all the old tapes in her mind and unresolved issues, combined and body-slammed her. The impact created pain so intense she couldn’t handle it. Not at that time and not all at once. But in the days that followed, she absorbed, bit by bit, and she began addressing the smaller issues until finally she was able to handle the big one—that death.
People are complex. Memorable characters are too.
On a smaller scale, but significant to me since it was my issue, was something that happened to me recently. One of my publishers sent me galleys to review on an upcoming book. While they work in electronic form up to the galley stage, it is their company policy that galleys be done only in print. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem. But with my eyes and the challenges I have with the muscles, is a huge problem for me. So it took a little over a week to review the pages. By the time I finished, I couldn’t read a single line of text without the words jumping from line to line. I couldn’t control the muscles. It is now two days later, and the muscles are still swollen, my eyes are still swollen and aching, and while I can read on the computer again, I don’t dare try reading a page. So naturally, I received a second set of galleys on another upcoming project to review. I wanted to weep. But this is a project with another publisher, and fortunately their company policy doesn’t prohibit electronic galleys. So I was spared.
Let’s be real about this. I am extremely grateful I am not blind. I am extremely grateful I can see the faces of those I love and to function in daily life. I’ve had enough surgeries where I couldn’t see a thing for a week afterward that I got a healthy taste of suddenly losing your vision and it’s an experience I’m not eager to repeat. My vision is great. I don’t need glasses for anything and yet I do have limitations due to the muscles. That’s a fact.
So all this said, I have to admit that a part of me is very sad that I can no longer read words on the page without paying a heavy price for doing so. Maybe if I were not a writer, and I didn’t love books as much as I do, it wouldn’t impact me emotionally as much as it does. But I am, and I do, and it does. (Here’s where we take characters to memorable characters… in their reaction to their limitations…)
I’m impacted. And that brings me to a fork in the road, so to speak. I have to choose whether to be sad or to look at the bigger picture. (Neither is right or wrong, only different, and this gives the writer flexibility needed for diverse character roles.)
I choose to look at the bigger picture. While I can’t read physical pages without paying a high pain price for it any more, I can read to my heart’s content on the computer, on my Kindle, even on my phone. The print is sharper, bolder, and the size of the font can be adjusted to whatever size is most comfortable for my eyes at the time, and all require less muscle movement, which means less swelling and less tiring quickly. (Remember, everybody in the business suffers eyestrain!) How fast my challenges arise varies, depending on how tired my eyes are (tired muscles don’t work as well) and sometimes I have no choice but to just stop and rest them a while and then go on. That pause used to irritate me. Now I see the blessing in it. I work through story problems, deepen characterization; add new layers to plot, setting or new complications or resolutions. Pauses have proven to be beneficial things.
And that is the point of this post. Whatever your challenge is, you can focus on it and let it define you, your actions, maybe even your life, or you can focus on a solution to the problem, or an alternative that enables you to work within your limitations and surmount an obstacle. You can discover hidden benefits or waste your time cursing the interruptions. It’s your call to make.
You know, southern women are notoriously determined. Some say stubborn. I say practical. We accept that we’re going to get popped with problems. We’re taught from the cradle that you can rule it or let it rule you—it’s a choice. You make it.
My choice is to see that a problem is often an opportunity in disguise. If not for my particular eye-muscle obstacles, I would have been far more reluctant to accept the new technology of e-books, reading or watching movies on a computer, and certainly reading on a phone, which includes text messaging. I love the feeling of a book in my hands, knowing one is in my handbag—it’s always been an essential accessory! But because I had this opportunity/obstacle, I had a choice: Give up reading or embrace new technology. That the technology was there to embrace is such a gift. Imagine, the world of books being closed to you! Of course, I embraced the technology. Of course, I’m grateful. The world of books that I love is as available to me now as it ever was. And being the writer and reader that I am, how can I not see the blessing in that? (Note the significance is up close and personal to the individual. That’s essential in strong characterization that evokes empathy. If the loss/absence/denial isn’t core to your character, it can’t carry that kind of weight.)
So my question to you is this: will you see your challenges, in whatever form they might take, as insurmountable obstacles or as opportunities? Will your characters?
How you see them and your reaction to them will determine whether you consider them a bane or a blessing. The same holds true for your characters. Because whether it’s about them or you, in the end, it truly is all about your attitude.
© 2011, Vicki Hinze