A few years ago, I was out on the town with my best friend and a couple of coworkers. The youngest of us, a woman in her late twenties, was bemoaning the state of her love life. Though the source of her problems was obvious us, she was blind to it. Gently suggesting what she needed to change wasn't working. Finally, hoping to prove a point, I looked at my friend and asked, "Who's your own worst enemy?" Without hesitation, she answered. "I am." "Yeah, me, too," I said. The third woman agreed.
This little fact had taken each of us years to fully grasp, but our war stories bore witness to the truth. Time and again, we'd each managed to torpedo our quest to find love, success, happiness. Whatever dream we were chasing at the time. And sometimes in spectacular fashion.
I have another friend, a writer buddy, whose current story involves a group of three college women. These friends have very different personalities. The heroine leans toward passivity. To counter that, one of her friends is aggressively controlling. To the point where she raises my hackles. It's a strong reaction, and even though it's negative, a strong reaction to a character is an indicator of strong writing. (Weak writing rarely spark strong emotions.)
But I've been thinking about these characters a lot, and what I've decided is that the annoying friend is necessary because the heroine is so passive. After all, someone has to throw the monkey wrench into the story. Someone has to take things from bad to worse.
Except it shouldn't be a supporting character. It should be the heroine herself.
I'm not saying secondary characters can't create complications. That is one of their functions after all. But the best friend shouldn't be the heroine's worst nightmare. That role belongs to the heroine. Overcoming that tendency to self-sabotage should be part of the heroine's character arc.
I'm a big fan of the late Joseph Campbell, professor of mythology at Sarah Lawrence college. One of my favorite quotes of his (paraphrased) is that mythology is what teaches us how to live our lives. (The reason, I believe, that ancient mythology no longer serves this purpose is that the oral tradition died when printing came along and those myths became "fixed". Like cured concrete, they hardened into inflexible stories. No longer able to evolve with the changing world, they stopped being relevant to our lives.)
Fiction has become our new mythology. From the time we start to read, we look to it, not just a means of entertainment, but as a way to make sense of our world. This is true almost from the cradle. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, "Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed."
So when we look for sympathetic characters, we're not just looking for people who are like us, but for people like us who can show us how to kill the dragons. Since we're our own worse enemy (if there's anyone here who that doesn't apply to, please raise your hand), it only makes sense that the heroine must be, too. Is it then any surprise that the reason a good character arc satisfies is because it shows us how to overcome our worst enemy?
As Pogo once said: We have met the enemy and he is us.