Mystery writer, Rita Mae Brown, once said that character comes down to one thing: "Survival alters ideology." As life buffets your characters they change and grow. Character grows from within, forced from without.
I was reminded of this over the weekend as Tiger Woods won the Memorial Tournament with an amazing shot on the 16th. If you were to look for a living example of how fictional characters develop, look no further than Tiger Woods.
In the first act of the Woods saga we meet a likable character from an unusual background--African America and Asian parents. The hero possesses some unusual talents that people are beginning to recognize. In this case, he can swing a golf club like no one else. At the end of the first act, our hero sets off on a quest to capture the title of greatest golfer of all time. He has to win more tournaments than Jack Nicklaus to do it. The story question is, "Will Tiger Woods capture the golfing crown from Jack Nicklaus?"
In the first half of the second act, our hero wins tournaments, some of them with remarkable shots and spectacular play. This is the learning half of the second act when everything appears to be working according to hero's plan. He encounters obstacles of course, some of which have nothing to do with golf, but with race. He faces many opponents who try to stop his quest, but he defeats them all. He becomes stronger with each obstacle he overcomes. Along the way, he acquires supporters who provide him with the resources he needs to continue.
In the middle of the second act comes a high point and a crisis. He wins his greatest victory, the U.S. Open, while playing with a torn ACL and a broken leg. At this point, he appears unstoppable in pursuit of his goal.
Then comes the second half of the second act. The rug is pulled out from our hero. His fall is spectacular. The catastrophe is the result of his own making. Some of the things he did in the first half of the act, which everybody ignored, now come back to ruin his plan. He loses everything--his wife and children, his allies, his confidence, and his abilities in golf. At the end of the second act, our hero is down, his plan is in total disarray. He himself is in disgrace and the object of jokes by late-night comedians. At that point, when the curtain falls on the second act, the answer to the story question is "No."
All great stories have a third act. Now the hero must pull himself up and fight harder than before with fewer resources. The opponents are tougher because they have been strengthened in the previous fights. He has to relearn his skills and refashion them for the new circumstances. Tiger Woods struggles through some tournaments, coming close in some, not even making the cut in others. He suffers through the worst losing streak of his career. In the third act of a story, the hero must storm the castle to achieve the final victory, so it is highly symbolic that he goes to the Memorial, which is Jack Nicklaus's tournament on Jack Nicklaus's own course, and wins it in stunning fashion to tie Jack Nicklaus for the number of tournament victories.
Life is not art, even though it seems to imitate it in this case. We don't know how Tiger's story will turn out, or whether there will be more acts in his story. I find Tiger's story inspiring, not for how to live my life, but for how to punish my own characters to make them come alive on the page. When I'm struggling with a sagging middle to my story, I ask myself "What would Tiger do?" When I'm pulling the rug out from under my characters, I ask, "How hard would Tiger fall?"
As Rita Mae Brown said, "Survival alters ideology." We writers have to force change on our characters by stressing them out. Tiger's story shows that the more we stress them, the greater the change.
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