This week we’ll focus in on the penultimate of the “Six Human Needs” I introduced a few weeks ago: growth.

Going back to Tony Robbins and some of his admittedly flawed and simplistic platitudes like “anything that doesn’t grow dies,” or “we steer in the direction we’re looking,” or “we walk through doors that are open to us,” and so on… is there actually some truth in all that?

Though I, personally, wouldn’t go so far as to say that “anything that doesn’t grow dies,” we aren’t necessarily looking for self-help here but character help. I’ve written about all sorts of imaginary people that bear little or no resemblance to myself in terms of goals, philosophy, ethics, etc. So how would the idea of growth, or the desire for or perceived need for growth manifest in different characters?

Villains certainly might see “growth” as steps up the ladder of wealth and power—I grow richer, grow stronger, grow in my influence over others. The hollow nature of that “growth” is what makes them villains.

A hero might see growth as building courage, especially reluctant heroes like, say, Frodo Baggins, who begins his own story really not wanting to be a part of it but grows into quite the hero by the end of the third book.

Some heroes, like Robert E. Howard’s Conan, don’t seem at all interested in personal growth. Though every once in a while Conan expresses an interest in material growth, in general, personal growth not a part of his motivational portfolio. If anything, Conan steers in the direction he’s looking, which is more or less away from people and trouble, but then people and trouble find him anyway.

Reactive heroes—heroes who are trying to get things back to normal after the villain does whatever he or she has done to get the story started—may not see much in terms of personal growth, at least not at the outset. A detective assigned to the murder case at the beginning of a mystery might just be walking through a door that was opened for her, even if she has no expectations of finding anything inside it but another work day.

But some version of personal growth is essential for a good hero—and, again, when I say “hero” please feel free to sub in “protagonist” or “anti-hero,” etc., as your story demands. A book that starts with the hero at a sort of psychological/spiritual Point A and ends with that hero still at Point A is going to fall flat. The detective who solves the crime but is in no way affected by it is just not as satisfying a story as the detective who solves the crime only through significant personal sacrifice and with life-altering consequences.

The concept of personal growth is a big part of the self-help universe—and for, I think, the same reasons I just went through above. We want to be the heroes of our own stories, don’t we? We want to move through various challenges and be able to say we’re better for it, that we’ve learned something, that we no longer take things for granted, or that in some way we’ve achieved some goal. And as such, a lot of us spend at least some time examining our own weaknesses.

In his book The Flip Side, Flip Flippen put it this way:

“Our personal constraints can define us only if we let them. When we ignore our constraints, we allow them to limit us; but when we identify and seek to overcome them, we dramatically improve our chances of success.”

This goes to the idea of intentional growth. This is a character who starts off the story thinking, “I’m just a kid—a farm boy—I can’t defeat the whole Galactic Empire!” but then he reaches into his untapped resources and manages to do just that.

Mark Manson, in his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, got (a little) deeper into the causes of a reluctance to grow:

“We can be truly successful only at something we’re willing to fail at. If we’re unwilling to fail, then we’re unwilling to succeed.”

This mind-set is definitely worth considering when it comes to heroes, who, like Frodo Baggins and Luke Skywalker, may start as reluctant participants in their own stories but eventually find the hero in themselves. This would prevent what I, at least, found immensely unsatisfying in The Da Vinci Code, in which our hero begins with all the knowledge and experience necessary to solve the string of puzzles presented to him, and with a (very) few complications tossed in, runs through them one at a time to the only conclusion allowed him. He’s no smarter or more capable in the end, maybe just a bit tired.

So think about growth in all of your characters—at least you principal protagonist and antagonist. Are they actively looking for some form of personal or professional growth? Do they begin reasonably content in their situations? Is that growth to some degree or another forced on them—they have no choice but to rise to the occasion? Or does the story allow them “outs”—places in the narrative where they could, if they still just want to be left alone, simply walk away—but then they dig down deeper and realize they are, as Mark Manson said, willing to fail for a goal they now realize is worth the effort? Or as Flip Flippen said, they identify their own limitations—however late in the game—and make the fundamental decision to improve in some way?

Either way, whatever your characters’ Point A, and whatever they might think their Point B is as they set off into the story, if they only end up, psychologically, spiritually, politically, etc., back at the same Point A… have you really told a story?


—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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