Character Development: The Heart of Any Story Worth Living

A friend of mine who’s had a disproportionate number of struggles in her 45 years on earth, bristles whenever I try to comfort her by espousing the virtues of character development. “Great, another f-ing personal growth experience,” she says.

While I completely empathize, I sometimes wonder whether we can ever really know how much character-building is too much. From Friedrich Nietzsche to Carl Jung, to the Vilna Goan, many philosophical and spiritual luminaries have subscribed to the belief that adversity cultivates character, challenging the forces of  inertia so that we may face a fear, strengthen emotional muscle, eradicate self-defeating thoughts, or break an unhealthy relationship pattern.

Personally speaking, character development is why I became a psychotherapist. It is also one of the reasons I go to the movies or pick up a book – I want to witness personal transformation, and be transformed in the process. I want to help the chronically timid woman discover previously untapped reserves of strength and courage. I want to read about the political refugee who finds salvation in friendship and small, meaningful acts of humanity.

Unfortunately, character development doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Life typically presents us with circumstances that bump up against our rougher edges. These circumstances, which we might call conflicts, present us with opportunities to refine these growth edges or run the risk of becoming, well…even edgier.

Of course, no one ever consciously desires conflicts. Most of us will go out of our way to avoid them, the fight-or-flight response being hard-wired into our DNA. However, in the world of novels and film, not ony do we expect conflicts, but also we recognize, consciously or not, that they are an important part of any story worth telling.

As many of us recall from high school English class, conflict is a basic element of a story that results from the interaction between the protagonist (the main character) and the antagonist, typically a person (boss), group of people (government), situation (hurricane) or personal shortcoming (addiction).

Conflicts in novels and films shape the plot and move the story forward, presenting the main character with opportunities to overcome inner obstacles, potentially leading to epiphanies, life lessons, and psychological rebirth.

Just like in novels, the chapters of our lives often present us with opportunities to strengthen areas within ourselves that haven’t been fully developed. In my Writing from a Novel Perspective workshops, I ask participants to explore through writing character traits that might be cultivated through a conflictual encounter with an antagonist in a recent episode of their personal narrative.

I tell participants that “conflict” can be interpreted literally as a person who is giving them grief, or as loosely as ambivalence about making an important decision. Once they have identified their antagonist, I encourage them to imagine how the conflict with their antagonist might help them develop personal strengths in areas where they haven’t historically felt so strong.

For example, a successful executive with a history of being judgemental about the less fortunate may, upon losing his job, find himself developing a greater degree of compassion for himself and for others. Similarly, a newly divorced woman who took a passive role in her relationship with an alcoholic spouse may need to become assertive to move forward in life and secure the welfare of her children.

And here is the beauty of this process:  once we accept that our antagonist has something valuable to teach us, we can begin to mine the gems of of the situation whether or not our story unfolds to our liking. Suddenly responding to conflict with anger and resentment or, alternatively, with  introspection and empowerment, becomes a conscious choice. This new awareness can transform our personal narratives into paeans to the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, reminding us that character development is not only the heart of any story worth reading, but also worth living.

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5 Responses to “Character Development: The Heart of Any Story Worth Living”


  1. 1 Kalila Borghini February 23, 2010 at 11:51 am

    Thanks for the article. It’s refreshing to read something about the importance of character development. As a Yoruba Priest (and Psychotherapist), I think a great deal about the notion of character. It is one of the most important tenets of the Yoruba faith. We call it “Iwa Pele” (good and gentle character.) It is an attribute we are strongly encouraged to cultivate, particularly as Priests. If we don’t live a life with Iwa Pele, we can experience painful consequences, in this life and the next. Iwa Pele in the Yoruba tradition involves respect for others, honoring the ancestors, making a positive contribution to society, among other traits. Often in my work as a therapist, there is so much emphasis on crisis management and repair and recovery from past trauma, that it can be difficult to incorporate developing good character into the work. I suppose on one level that is necessary. However, unfortunately, many patients leave treatment once the crisis is past and the healing is underway. They may not stick around for, in my opinion, the really really important stuff. When they do, it is rewarding for both of us.

  2. 2 Les Schachter February 24, 2010 at 5:57 pm

    As a fellow reader, the protagonist we relate to serves best in any story of conflict. If you find you hate the hero in the movie, you will find yourself walking out of the theater. Yet, in “real” life, most of the time the protagonist and antagonist share their living quarters within. Inner conflict and discovering its resolution are really what life is all about. Its easy enough to fight or flee when the antagonist is external, but when its internal, it has the annoying habit of following you where ever you go. Its the work of coming to terms with this conflict that truly develops character.

    There are very few people in the world who can say they live a truly peaceful and tranquil life both within and without. For the rest of us, its about learning to develop an awareness of our antagonists and finding a way to channel and work with the energy they really bring to our lives.

  3. 3 Bruce Fukuji February 24, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    finding hope in the face of adversity is the salvation of faith, the otherside of character development. When hopeless there is no perspective that can illuminate character development, it is irrelevant, however it is the opening of faith that has the enduring possibility of perservering through adversity and arriving at a deeper relationship with one’s self, faith, inner resources, and the reflection of one’s reality outside themselves — and hopefully, a return to love as the eternal source of all hope.

  4. 4 rob February 25, 2010 at 6:33 am

    Character development is possibly a seriously neglected part of our oft too busy, too commercially-oriented lives these days.
    LIFE has always thrown daunting challenges which with hindsight are somewhat comprehensible.
    And yes, life is a test, with both easy days and seasons and also very difficult, overwhelming ones…As you so wisely suggest Kim, the most beautiful and heroic aspects of our lives occur when we both not just survive adversity,but actually learn, stretch,risk,grow, and flourish…
    Namaste-Rob.

  5. 5 Jacki Dilley March 4, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    I enjoyed reading your essay. Your wisdom, and hard work crafting your own character, shine through. Your thoughts gave me a smile this morning as I think about the conflicts I’m currently engaged with, how they really are gifts.

    I’m reminded by something Ram Dass said — I wish I could remember his exact words. He was speaking to a young woman whose lover had just been killed by terrorists opposed to the community-building he was doing in South America. As he listened to her pain, he responded from his heart about how it is suffering that brings us close to the Divine. There was no whiff of “platitude” in his words; yours speak in the same way. It’s clear that you write these words out of your own experience.

    Your clients are fortunate. I look forward to your future posts.

    Be well — Jacki Dilley (also a therapist in Ann Arbor, Michigan)


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