Friday, May 18, 2012


Creativity: The Resilient Character

In this month's column on organizing, I describe the
differences between the optimist and the pessimist and
explain why optimists get more done.

I have a strong suspicion that optimists make better
characters. The reason is that optimism makes a person
far more resilient, and resilience is something your
character is going to need in order to survive the hell
you're planning to put her through.

If you've got a character in your novel who doesn't
seem to be going anywhere, or who can't bounce back
from the setbacks you throw at her, chances are she
needs a healthy dose of optimism.

Let's do a reality check on that and see if it makes

One of the most compelling characters of 20th century
fiction is Scarlett O'Hara, the irrepressible heroine
of GONE WITH THE WIND, by Margaret Mitchell. Truth to
tell, I've never liked Scarlett. She's rude and
thoughtless and narcissistic.

But she's not dull. Why? The main reason is that you
can knock her down, but the woman simply won't stay

One of the main hallmarks of the optimist is that they
believe good things will go on and on whereas bad
things will pass. Now remember one of Scarlett's
favorite sayings whenever things go horribly wrong:
"Tomorrow is another day." That philosophy (right or
wrong) gives Scarlett incredible resilience.

Another indicator of optimism is an unwillingness to
personalize failure. When things go wrong, there's
always the possibility that it's the other guy's fault.
When Scarlett overhears the other girls gossiping about
her, it never occurs to her that they might be right.
Instead, they're just jealous. Rightly or wrongly (in
this case, wrongly), this attitude gives Scarlett a
Teflon hide. Criticism simply doesn't stick to her. As
a result, she can bounce back from scandals that would
sink most people.

Why is this resilience of a character so important?
Because in your novel, bad things are going to happen
to your lead character. You're going to make them
happen. You're going to thrash your character terribly.
And she needs to be able to keep coming back, keep
trying, keep looking for a way to find happiness.

Your character has a much stronger chance of doing that
if she's an optimist. That's the way optimists behave.

Pessimists, on the other hand, wallow in their misery.
Having a character feeling the pain is fine, up to a
point. Having a character who thrives on it is
another thing though. Unless you're extremely careful,
a pessimistic character is a boring character.

Let's take another well-known example: Luke Skywalker
in the original STAR WARS movie. When we meet Luke,
he's a bit pessimistic. He's stuck on a planet he
hates, doing a job he hates, denied the opportunity to
fight the Empire he hates. And he's doing nothing about
it. So far as he can see, he's going nowhere and he's
never going to go anywhere.

Then Luke meets Obi-wan Kenobi. Kenobi is an optimist.
Anybody who can face death with a cheery "I'll become
more powerful than you can possibly imagine" is

General Kenobi starts training Luke in the ways of the
Force. If you think about it, the Force is about
getting things done. Making the impossible possible. A
Jedi is an optimist.

After Kenobi is killed, Luke wallows a bit in misery.
But not for long. Tie fighters come screaming after
Luke and his comrades, and he rouses himself from his
dejection to go fight. This is a powerful method of
fighting discouragement -- distraction. Luke finds
something to do, and afterward he feels better.

By the end of the movie, Luke has become much more
proactive. He goes into a hopeless battle, daring to
hope. Those hopes are rewarded, as hopes sometimes are.
Luke is learning that optimism is more than just its
own reward -- it can lead to other rewards.

By the third movie in the series, THE RETURN OF THE
JEDI, Luke is confident and incredibly optimistic. He
goes to rescue Han Solo, apparently unarmed. When Jabba
the Hutt sentences him to death, Luke warns him to
surrender or be killed. Luke's optimism pays off. He
escapes with his life, rescues his friends, and
destroys Jabba.

Luke is now fit to face the final battle -- with the
evil Emperor. This is a battle he can't hope to win.
He's not strong enough. But he's willing to go into it
because he believes that he can turn Darth Vader to the
good. Only an insanely optimistic person could believe

Luke's story is compelling because of his now unlimited
optimism, which makes him willing to dare great things.
It's impossible to achieve great things unless you dare

Unlike Scarlett, Luke didn't start out as an optimist.
He became one by working at it -- by learning the ways
of the Force. As I pointed out in the article on
organizing, this is realistic. You can change your
thinking. You can change your life.

Are Scarlett and Luke the rule or the exception? Let's
look at a few other examples from modern fiction:

* THE GODFATHER, by Mario Puzo, is dominated by Don
Corleone, a man who came to America as an impoverished
immigrant and rose to power by refusing ever to accept
the status quo. Yes, things were bad in the early days,
but Corleone refused to believe that the bad times were
forever. A local thug threatened Corleone and his
comrades and demanded protection money. Corleone
promised to pay him promptly -- and then boldly
murdered him, keeping his money and the payment that
his friends would have paid the racketeer. Corleone
believed that bad things need not continue forever.
That's an optimist working.

* ENDER'S GAME, by Orson Scott Card, features a young
boy, Ender Wiggins, who is being trained to save the
human race from the next expected invasion of alien
"Buggers." Ender faces constant brutality from the
other child warriors, all older, larger, and stronger
than he is. He could blame himself for being weak.
Instead, he recognizes that he's smarter than the
others and finds ways to turn their strengths against
them. Ender never blames himself. Instead, he
externalizes his problems. That's an optimist.

a powerfully compelling supporting character, Lisbeth
Salander. After being brutally raped by the lawyer
appointed to serve as her guardian, Lisbeth bounces
back, refusing to accept the situation as permanent.
Soon enough, the lawyer learns that's it's an Xtremely
bad idea to mess with the girl with the dragon tattoo.
Lisbeth simply can't be beat, even if she's a mere 90
pounds of antisocial nothing. Her extraordinary
resilience comes from a deep-seated optimism that she
can beat anybody -- anybody.

* THE HUNGER GAMES, by Suzanne Collins, stars Katniss
Everdeen, a young girl in a dystopic future in which
large parts of the former United States are held in
thrall to a despotic central regime. As the story
begins, Katniss believes that running away is no
solution. It's horrible everywhere, she thinks, so
there's no point. But as the series progresses, Katniss
learns that she is powerful, that the scattered
Districts are ripe for revolt, and that she can be a
catalyst for change. Fans of this series are eagerly
awaiting the third book in the series, which we hope
will bring freedom to all the Districts. Despite the
dystopia, Katniss is a beacon of hope -- she's becoming
an optimist by changing the way she thinks.

What about your novel? Is your lead character
optimistic and proactive? Or does she wallow in
despair, doing nothing? Which behavior pattern is more
likely to lead to change? Which makes your character
more interesting?

How can you change your lead character to be more
resilient? Can she learn to treat defeats as temporary,
not permanent? Can she discover that bad luck in one
part of life doesn't mean bad luck in all areas? Can
she stop blaming herself and start looking for ways to
fix things?

Those are crucial questions. The answers can make your
characters far more resilient -- and far more interesting.
This article is reprinted by permission of the author.

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the
Snowflake Guy," publishes the free monthly Advanced
Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 31,000 readers.
If you want to learn the craft and marketing of
fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to
editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit

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