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Character Building

New Years are all about character growth. So are stories.

          Real life and stories don't parallel each other exactly. The most flawed characters in real life may be the most interesting in a story. We find villains, victims, and flawed heroes far more interesting than the straight-laced, perfect people who never say, think, or feel the complex emotions of fear, shame, guilt, or doubt. We can empathize with them, sympathize with them, and genuinely feel for them when they're in a bind within the bindings of the page.

          But our emotions aren't confined to the page when we're done reading. Because when the stories end, the characters stick with us. Especially the reading I did as a teen influenced the way I think about myself and how I saw the world. I internalized what I read in books, saw in movies, and heard in school. (Thank goodness social media didn't really exist back then.) And then, I did that terrible thing we all do: I compared myself to an ideal self I created in my mind.

            Only, something was lost in translation, because the characters on the page were not perfect. But the woman in my mind that I wanted to become one day (hopefully sooner rather than later), she was perfect.

             She was thin with an hourglass figure. Her face glowed with flawless skin. She would never get angry, or frustrated, or sulky. She was an intellectual, an academic, and a visionary making the world better for everyone.

        So, I've been looking for her within myself for years. That hourglass figure and flawless skin? Yeah, I don't have that. I try to eat right, up until I come across fresh-baked cookies or a pizza commercial. The control of my emotions? I meditate and work on keeping a calm and collected mental state, up until I see a sad story on the news or, quite frankly, until I step on a scale and see the result of the pizza and cookies from the day before. The intellectual ability? I tried for a PhD in Psychology, though I didn't follow through on that for several reasons.

        I'm in my thirties now, and still, every year I make some new year's resolution to get closer to finding this ideal self. And every year she feels farther away from me. But this isn't a bad thing, if we take a lesson from the books we love.

          One of the first things writers learn is that characters without flaws are boring. if the characters in our stories were perfect on day one, we wouldn't follow them through their struggles. And, much like us, the struggle they face is often about character growth. Sometimes, they have to overcome their flaws to get to their goals. Sometimes, they have to embrace them. Sometimes they have to change their goals. But always, it's the struggle itself that drives the story forward.

          In my search for my ideal self, I've changed my definition of perfection to one that is healthy rather than ultra-thin, happy rather than having a perfect control of emotions, wise rather than intelligent. I have become a better person, a different person, a wiser person than I was before because I'm striving to improve. I still see my imperfections, and have plenty of them, so my struggles aren't over yet. But, that's exactly what's driving me forward in my life. The best stories are all about character growth, and so, I think, are the best-lived lives.

         So, I'll pour myself another cup of coffee, roll up my sleeves, and keep working on myself. And yes, I know that coffee is a drug that I rely on too much. It's a flaw, but it's a flaw that I've learned to embrace.

Thanks for reading!

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