Ice Skating and Character Arcs

Sometimes in the sturm und drang of the internet, something flutters to the surface of the cesspit, untarnished and beautiful. Something like Jonathan Van Ness’ progress videos as he learns to ice skate.

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Jonathan is a charming fifth of the cast on Netflix’s “Queer Eye” and host of the podcast “Getting Curious.” While he is an expert in many things, he is bravely choosing to share his process of learning something completely new. What he is sharing isn’t flawless, but it is real. It is so refreshing to see behind the curtain of social media perfection to see a capable person striving to learn something new.

In my sheer joy I texted my BFF Amanda:

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I think we don’t see adults learning something new more often because as a society we somehow think of it as shameful. Surely adults should know everything already? Children are the only ones we force to learn. I think if respected people shared what they are learning more openly it would make children less resentful and adults less ashamed.

Have you ever met an adult who refused to learn how to use their cell phone? It isn’t a generation gap to blame, it is a willingness to learn that is missing. Because an important element of learning is failing, looking silly, and being publicly embarrassed. And as we get older we seem less willing to make ourselves as vulnerable as we need to be to learn something new.

I’ve just finished reading the book “Grit” by Angela Duckworth where she compares the difference between ‘growth mindset’ and ‘fixed mindset’. Those with a fixed mindset have a tendency to think of the world in black and white terms. An individual is either intelligent or they are stupid. They are talented or hopeless. Those with a growth mindset have the perspective that effort can change intelligence. That practice can develop talent. Unsurprisingly, those who believe that they can change their circumstances often are the same ones who put in the tremendous effort necessary to learn, grow and ultimately …change their circumstances.

Now, of course, I am going to bring this all back around to writing. Because I am, after all, me.

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A growth mindset ties in perfectly to discussing character arcs. A story works best when a character learns a lesson and leaves the story different than they began it. (Ideally, the reader/viewer leaves changed too, but that part is out of the artist’s control.)

For example in my work in progress, my two protagonists begin the story with fixed mindsets. Though their worldviews are very different from each other they are both unwilling to question, let alone shift, their personal philosophy. The plot works on my characters, as their point of view is challenged again and again, until finally, they break. The breaking point for me is about the midpoint of the story. Then comes the second half as they practice and test their new point of view.

On the other hand, my villain is confronted by as many, if not more, challenges to his fixed mindset. Unlike my heroes, he refuses to change his mind. Instead, he doubles down on his worldview to disastrous consequences.

I love reading because I get to see characters go through the hard work of growing and changing. It helps to inspire me to follow in the footsteps of protagonists and not my villains.

Optional writing homework: Think about what core beliefs your character has at the start of your story, then think about how they will change at the end. Consider what kind of events or strife will challenge them enough to change this deeply held belief. Do exercise with your protagonist, a side character, and your villain.