The Invisible Quality of Character Growth

When my oldest son was younger, I fretted about his ability to focus on his work. During his afternoon chore, whatever that might be, he’d often stop in the middle of it to play.

I’d pass by his room and see him re-building a broken Lego space ship instead of putting away clothes. Or I’d glance into the backyard where he was supposed to be raking only to find him swinging the rake like a light saber. A job intended to take 20 minutes would last an hour.

On occasion I would say things like, “I want you to learn to complete all your work first before you play” or “When you train yourself to work diligently now as a child, you’re preparing yourself to be a hard worker when you’re a grown-up.”

Now my son is on the cusp of becoming a teenager. He’ll turn 13 in about a month. Of course he’s grown physically which is easy to tell when he puts on his jeans and they’re an inch above his ankles. But lately I’ve noticed some signs that he’s also growing in character.

Last week, when I watched him mowing the back yard, he pushed hard and stuck to the task until it was done. Then I thought of other areas, like vacuuming, or shoveling snow, or even folding laundry—and I realized I rarely have to reprimand him to stay focused on the work.

Over the years, he’d grown in character—in diligence. The process was so slow and gradual, that I might have missed it if I hadn’t compared where he’s at now to where he used to be.

Isn’t that how most growth is? The process is invisible to the beholder. Usually we don’t notice the changes until much later, after it’s become more significant.

His growth gives me hope that if I continue to intentionally train my children in specific character traits, they’ll make progress forward. I may not see it while it’s happening and they won’t be perfect, but they’ll grow. Hopefully the same is true of the growth in my own life.

As I thought about how our characters should grow in our stories, I realized it involves a process similar to what I’m doing with my children.

*Narrow down our focus. My children need to grow in many areas. But if I focus on just a few things (or even one) for a time, then I can help them understand that specific weakness and how they can grow in it, instead of discouraging them with everything all at once. Same with our characters. We should pinpoint their main weakness (see this post). Too many issues can overwhelm or confuse our readers.

*Be intentional. I look for ways to encourage my children in their growth. I provide opportunities for them to practice what they need to work on. In our stories, we should be showing our characters failing and making mistakes. But along the way, we can give them opportunities to see their weaknesses and begin moving in the right direction.

*Don’t expect overnight success. The character growth in my children happens in tiny, invisible steps forward. It’s unrealistic to think they’ll change in a day or week or month. It takes time for real and lasting change. And the same is true of our characters. If we wait until the last chapter to suddenly give our characters a change of heart, it will feel contrived and unrealistic. Instead, they should be growing all along in self-awareness and we should gradually walk them up out of dark cavern of their Black Moments.

*Realize they won’t ever be perfect. My son might be growing in diligence, but he’s not perfect in it, and there are certainly other areas he needs to work on. By the end of our stories, our characters shouldn’t be perfect either. They should have their epiphany--that ah-ha moment when they realize their weakness and have begun to change. But they still have a long way to go, just like we all do.

When our readers come to the last page, they should come away with the feeling that our characters have grown in some way, even if it's nothing earth-shattering. Maybe readers won’t notice it along the way, but in hindsight hopefully they’ll see that the pants are an inch above the ankles.

How do you help your children grow in character? Are you intentional? And what about the characters in your stories? Are you intentional enough with their growth?

P.S. If you need a character worksheet, I've posted mine in a tab at the top of my blog. You're welcome to print it out and use it.

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