Children today already have enough to deal with. News about devastating hurricanes, school shootings, and political turmoil weighs on everyone, but especially on our youth. They’re in the process of figuring out who they are, who they want to become, and what life is all about. Even simple life challenges can be overwhelming. And many kids face problems that are not simple by any stretch. Shouldn’t reading provide an outlet where they can be stimulated by entertaining tales delivered in a safe, nonthreatening way?
The answer is a resounding NO.
Suffering and tragedy are part of life. When children read about the challenges their favorite characters face, they contemplate how to handle problems in their own lives. Fictional characters can model how to face tough situations and recover from painful mistakes. They can inspire readers to cultivate similar traits.
Recently I read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl. I’d heard of it before and had read excerpts highlighting the courageous choices of many prisoners amid horrible circumstances. I’m not recommending this as a book for Middle Grade readers. But it is definitely a must-read for adults and an illuminating text for writers.
You’ve probably heard of character arc. That’s basically a summary of your main character’s growth. For instance, a character might move from fear to strength or from jealousy to self-confidence or anger to forgiveness. But your characters need to go through something for this transformation to happen.
It’s true, change and growth can happen without major challenges, if we are seeking to change and grow. But there’s nothing more sharply and quickly transformative than serious life problems, if we allow them to change us.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl describes his years in the Jewish concentration camps during World War II. As a psychiatrist, he sought meaning in the suffering around him, recognizing that if there wasn’t meaning to be found in suffering, especially when the suffering was arbitrary and beyond his control, life could hold no meaning at all. He wrote that suffering can be ennobling, if we let it, and that it can change our perspective, that every choice to be positive and kind can be a triumph as well as an exercise in self-discipline.
Most people will never find themselves in such dire circumstances as Viktor Frankl and the other victims and survivors of the Holocaust. However, we all will find ourselves, at some point, facing challenges we did not choose and cannot easily escape, if at all. Sometimes the only was is through. Sometimes all we can control is our attitude.
When writing stories, there is tremendous value in putting our characters through extremely tough situations. It’s not just because it makes for an exciting plot, although it does. Or because major obstacles can yield major changes in character arc.
It’s because this is what real life is about, facing challenges that seem insurmountable and triumphing anyways. The external triumphs – reaching the castle, defeating the dragon, saving the princess – are exciting and vital to your plot.
But what matters even more are the inner triumphs that happen along the way when your characters face their own flaws, correct their own faulty thinking, and rise above themselves to become stronger and more complete.
The images included here are of some of my favorite MG novels whose characters triumph over terrible opposition. Sometimes the challenge is removed once the triumph occurs. Sometimes it isn’t. Either way, there is triumph over self, the most meaningful triumph of all.