One of the tools a novelist uses to tell a story is the reflection character. This person can be a sidekick, mentor, antagonist, companion animal… all of the above. The possibilities are endless. The reflection character’s job (and there’s often more than one reflection character in the cast) is to illuminate the protagonists’ progress as they inch and stumble their way along the arc from a safe, wounded mode of living to a courageous, risky–loving–approach to life.
On a practical level the reflection character is a way to put into dialogue a lot of the musings and fretting that would otherwise take place only inside a protagonist’s head. Dialogue is generally more engaging then straight narrative or description, so that’s a crucial role. The reflection character is also fertile ground for the next book’s protagonist. The character’s asides, anecdotes, and advice all give the reader little hints of coming attractions.
And in the past year, I’ve had less access to my own personal reflection characters. I haven’t hung out with family, and they–being the people who knew me when–often have insights about my upbringing that nobody else can offer. I’m not around other writers at conferences or retreats. I’m not talking to strangers as I travel overseas and gain insights into myself and my home culture. I don’t even get to hang out with my horse or my ridin’ buddies as I used to.
I am at risk for living a less examined life of late, because I have to do all the reflecting on my own, and yet, I’m not completely at sea. In addition to online resources–such as they are–and my own capacity for insight, I’ve also collected a store of wisdom over the years. Some of this advice came from long-ago therapy sessions: If you need it to be happy, you need it.
Another old chestnut from therapy: Anger usually sits on top of another more vulnerable emotion, such as fear, betrayal, or grief.
Some goodies I collected while studying conflict or lawyering: Defining the problem accurately is half the battle of solving it. A non-anxious presence can also be half the battle of solving a sticky problem.
And some gems came to me from friends and family. My dad passed along this insight, which I think goes near the top of the Most Useful Stuff Dad Said: If you face a tough decision, you might not know which choice appeals most strongly, but you can usually tell which option has the least appeal. When in doubt, pay attention to what you know you don’t want.
As a young female adult, I found that guidance particularly useful. I had not been socialized to pay attention to my own needs, wants, or druthers. But I could tune in pretty easily to the things I dreaded or despised. I could gauge future regrets more easily than future joys, and so I backed into some good decisions.
I could go on–learn to spot forced choices and what motivates them. Always pace yourself for the long haul. Don’t waste your fire on people who don’t appreciate you.
I still have reflection characters in my life after all. What about you? What would you say is the best advice you’ve ever been given? The worst advice? To three commenters, I’ll send e-ARCs of the $.99 novella anthology, Shelter and Storm.