As I prepare to head back into my classroom full of students tomorrow, I’ve been thinking a lot about the natural way that our lives go through cycles, many of them pairing with the seasons of the year. Families are getting through the back to school phase of the fall, the weather is going to be changing to cooler days soon (crossing fingers for ASAP here in California), and business owners are probably looking at the holiday season and making plans.
One of the things that it made me realize was that although we are still the same person, even going through the same daily tasks and heading to the same job, we may be looking at it much differently than we had before simply because we’re in a different cycle of our life. Even thinking about 30-somethings like myself I can see that some of us are getting into relationships, others getting married, some divorced, others expecting, and still others who are experiencing loss. We all go through these cycles.
This doesn’t just apply to us, though. It can apply to your fictional characters as well. In fact, I’m of the notion that it should apply to some of the characters in whatever it is that you write.
One difficulty that I’ve seen writers try to overcome is the sense that all of their characters come across the same (and sometimes the problem is that the author doesn’t even notice it!). Sometimes, this can be fixed by really reevaluating where your character is in the cycles of their life.
For example, your main character in a YA or even NA might be experiencing things for the first time, excited or even anxious about what that means. But there are probably a ton of people who are in that same place/situation who are completely jaded or unfazed by whatever is happening. Even at a beautiful and elegant parade of the finest warriors and champions of the land, there are bound to be those in the crowd who snicker under their breaths, call those people “fakes” or “try-hards” or whatever.
It can be as simple as that, but it can also be so much more complex. Imagine stories where the young, excited newbie goes through the hardships that everyone else already knows about, only to have to find themselves in a new and difficult place in his/her life. That’s a pretty generic and classic storyline. Either that character settles into the scene and accepts that new, un-shiny, life, or they rise above.
Think of movies like The Devil Wears Prada or a book like Divergent. Both of the MCs in those books find themselves in foreign and exciting territory, only to find that it wasn’t everything they expected. And they must rise above. But there are a LOT of people around them who are drinking the kool-aid and deciding that this is just how it will always be. They’re at a different cycle of their life, one that can’t even see how messed up everything is.
Whenever I read books that don’t include characters at these different cycles of life, like everyone thinks everything is super fun and shiny, even if they’ve been there seeing it for 10 years, it comes off as phony.
One simple tip is to look around your workplace, or even go to a restaurant or cafe. I bet you can dissect which servers or coworkers are at different cycles of their own lives.
Try asking these questions about the people you see:
What about their demeanor and appearance clue you in?
How does their body language differ from others?
Listen to how they speak, what makes it unique or different from the other people around them?
Hopefully, by paying attention to this simple notion, you can add in the tidbits that show the differences between your character and the ones that around him/her. This will help create a more diverse and realistic world, but also to show your readers why your character and the characters around are experiencing things the way that they are.