As writers, we can sometimes be complicit in A. failing to help our characters work towards self-actualization or B. having them magically self-actualize. We often deny our characters’ negative feelings for them, which can lead to characters feeling flat. We want our heroes and heroines to be golden children, mirroring a perfect savior in their progression towards their goal, but this is not reality and our readers know it. Our readers want to see characters with some dirt on them, and in spite of the dirt can polish themselves up enough to be successful. Some of the ways that our characters may experience negative emotions that they suppress:
- Fear of failure
- Fear of ulterior motives in themselves
- Recognizing aspects of the antagonist in themselves
- Experiencing typical negative emotions anger, sadness, frustration
I like to think of people, and by proxy characters, like glasses containing water where the water is emotional energy. Each character has a limit to how much negative emotions s/he can manage and suppress internally before their holding glass overflows and these emotions begin manifesting externally. By confronting and addressing their own negative emotions our characters are able to balance out the water in the glass and keep from overflowing.
This emotional processing also helps keep our characters (and the writer) in the here-and-now. The character moves away from either past failures or fear of future failure to focus on the immediate task; the hero has to conquer what is before them before moving forward. It is by having the energy and focus to confront the immediate task that helps our characters keep moving forward from challenge to challenge until the ultimate climax. So to recap, to help characters progress towards self-actualization they need to:
- Accept both positive and negative aspects of her/his self
- Be present in the here-and-now
- Trust her/his feelings and make choices that are congruent between the character’s ideal self and actual behavior
- Demonstrate creativity in taking risks and overcoming them
- Seeking out new challenges and experiences
Through walking through this process, we allow readers to connect with our hero when s/he is struggling with the same doubts as the reader and show the reader a path that in spite of personal challenges there is a path that leads to personal growth and success.