For some time I’ve been mulling over the qualities that make fictional characters unforgettable. Among other things, they seem to like themselves and champion themselves unconditionally. They are comfortable in their own skins. Even when they mess up badly, they are in their own corner. We want to be like them, be our own best friends.
Something else came to mind recently in a writing critique group, when a member’s character felt “a sense of shame.” The phrase did not ring true. The characters we love do not experience shame. That goes along with being their own best friends.
The most common definition of “guilt” I have heard is remorse for something I’ve done, while “shame” is remorse for what I am. If I feel guilty about a particular act, I can make amends, vow to change, and eventually move on. Not so when the voices of shame tell me that is how I am. No one growing up in our shame based culture can escape it altogether (at least not without a lot of inner work), but our heroes do.
When Frodo Baggins says, “I will take the ring, but I do not know the way,” he does not then tell himself, “I should know the way. Why don’t I know the way? These people do. What is the matter with me?”
Police detective, Alex Cross, in James Patterson’s Along Came a Spider, is supposed to exchange a ten million dollar ransom for a kidnapped girl. He’s been set up in a complex double-cross and loses both the money and the girl. The national media trumpet his failure. Reporters hound him. His superiors pull him from the case, but he maintains his internal compass:
If I had screwed up the ransom exchange in anyay, I would have taken the criticism. I can take heat okay. But I hadn’t screwed up. I’d put my life on the line in Florida.
Cross, whose character is so well portrayed by Morgan Freeman in the movie, battles politics, FBI secrecy, beaurocratic red tape, and betrayal by the woman he loves to stay on the case for two years to rescue the girl after everyone else has given up. What keeps him going? What allows him to believe in himself in the face of repeated missteps and the worst knd of notoriety? Whatever it is we, the readers, want some!!
One thing our special characters all seem to have is someone who believes in them unconditionally. Frodo has Sam. Alex has his partner, Sampson, and his grandmother, Nana Mama, who lets him know when she thinks he is wrong, but is always his supporter.
Kellen, the heroine of Sharon Shinn’s young adult masterpiece, The Dream-Maker’s Magic was raised by a mother who is convinced that she is truly a boy who was somehow bewitched into the shape of a girl:
…my mother watched me with a famished attention, greedy for clues. I had changed once; might I change again? Into what else might I transform, what other character might I assume…She never did learn to trust me…or accept me for who I was. It was my first lesson in failure, and it stayed with me for the rest of my life.
Even through her painful fumbling for who and what she really is, Kellen somehow keeps her balance, learns to trust her own council, and on the way, finds her ally in Gryffin, a crippled boy:
…he always greeted me with a smile and my name. I did not bewilder or surprise him. He did not think I as trying to be something I was not, as my mother did; he did not think I was trying to break a chrysalis and become something I was meant to be, as Betsy and Sara surely believed. He just thought I was Kellen.
I found this the most comforting thing that had ever happened to me. At times, when I lay awake at night, confused myself about what role I should take and what direction I should try to follow, all that kept me from slipping into tears was knowing that I was not completely lost if Gryffin knew how to find me.
Something in us longs to be brave, longs to be heroic. We want to be true to ourselves, right wrongs, bring down the forces of evil, or simply learn how to live a happy life.
As the Buddha lay dying, his disciple, Ananda, asked who would be the teacher when he was gone. Buddha replied:
…be a lamp unto yourself, be a refuge to yourself. Take yourself to no external refuge. Hold fast to the Truth as a lamp; hold fast to the Truth as a refuge.
Whatever our philosopy, this is the way I think we want to live. The charaters in the stories we love give us hope that it is possible.