“Into the fire with you” – character transformation through crisis vs reframing the narrative

Temple of Fire burns during Burning Man

Recently my critique group and I got down to serious psychologizing about a main character in one of our mss.  It got me thinking about the differences and similarities of character transformation in fiction and human transformation in real life.

Someone smart–who I wonder?–said fiction is real life without the boring parts.  My seven-year-old daughter, well-schooled by her K/1 teacher and her writer mother, says, “I hate books without trouble!”

So true!  In most compelling fiction, we take a flawed but likeable main character and do one bad thing after another to her.  Through this crucible of fire (every once in a while, I love a good cliche), she is transformed.  She learns.  She grows.

Now I’ll be the last person to say there’s no trouble in real life.  Damn, but I’ve had my share of the slap-down by Life. However, I think it is pretty rare for us to experience something difficult, have an epiphany in the moment, and be instantly transformed.  Maybe people who’ve had near-death experiences know this kind of transformation, but that’s got to be rare.

The more common psychological state is that we–often unconsciously–develop a fixed “narrative” for ourselves.  For example, “I failed to attain my dream of becoming a ballet dancer because I’m not talented and special enough.”  That “story” can haunt our psyche for years (or mine, as the case may be).  It requires mental effort and commitment (and therapy) to REFRAME the narrative.  Mine now says something like, “I wasn’t able to reach the level of professional achievement as a dancer that I wanted because I was young and didn’t have proper mentoring from my parents or my ballet instructor.”

Rewriting our own narratives is HARD work!  And it’s boring work.  Maybe that’s why we like fiction and the transformation by fire it offers.  Maybe we’d also like fiction that shows the slow, hard work.  Maybe we need to remember that our own story matters.

“At any given moment you have the power to say this is not how the story is going to end.”

– Christine Mason Miller, Ordinary Sparkling Moments


3 thoughts on ““Into the fire with you” – character transformation through crisis vs reframing the narrative

  1. Timely post (for me as I’m looking at the editor feedback my agent forwarded)! The action->reaction via scene/structure at this level in a character should be more drawn out over the duration of the story. I wonder if part of why we don’t ‘connect’ with certain characters is because we don’t ‘see’ their current narrative and/or the reframing of their narrative as the story progresses?

    Thanks for the good stuff to ponder 🙂

    1. It makes sense that there should be subtle hints at the coming change even if there is still an ah-ha moment for the MC. That would make his/her change more believable. Good luck with revisions!

  2. Great post, Amber! I think in real life an “epiphany” can also come much more “after the fact” as we look back over a crisis in our life and experience the “a hah” moment later. It happens after time and reflection and is not as exciting as books but much more realistic for me anyway. I wish I had more moments like in books!

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