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  How Do You Relate To Life?
Copyright © 1998,
Dorian Scott Cole
Fifth in a series about adding 
meaning to characterization

Introduction | Moving from roles to basic attitudes and expression | A date with our own destiny | Life roles | Avoid the trap, or be a character | Reference Shelf


To some extent, I relate to life through writing. I kid around that I was born with a pencil in my hand, taking notes. Writing is what I do, full-time... much more than full-time. I often write in the evening as well as my day job. I don't have to write - I have done other things for long periods of time. It isn't the only way I communicate - I do training, have been a DJ and a minister, business manager, seminar speaker, took a lot of acting - all of which require auditory communication. I write stage and movie scripts which are meant to convey ideas visually, and I have trained in video editing. Don't turn me loose in a video studio, I go nuts. I splice together old films of the first paratroopers being dropped from biplane wings, with films of old railroad steam engine train wrecks to make it look like trains were being bombed with paratroopers. 

But even though I don't "have" to write, and I do a lot of other things well, and I rarely sit and laugh as much as I laughed at dropping people bombs on trains, writing has always been there and it is my choice of "professions." 

I have analyzed my writing choice from a dozen different directions and I will spare you the details. At 40, I was still wondering what I wanted to do when I grew up. I decided not to grow up - I'm a Toys-R-Us... Maybe it's my wife's fault... 

I have always been tantalized by so many different things... and usually forced to do something I had little interest in. It's a general rule of thumb, the more mind-numbing, uninteresting, unrewarding, time-consuming, responsible, and difficult a job is, the more industry pays. The amount of money required to support a family at a reasonable level usually puts you in a job that's just barely bearable. Many of us get bored and restless even in interesting jobs... But I have already covered careers - no need to plow that ground again. 

For most of my life I found it very difficult to answer that question, "What do you want to do when you grow up?" because I really didn't know. I didn't know probably because I expected that I would find fulfillment in a job of doing "some thing." Some task. Some skill level. Some profession. Yet many of the things that I found challenging, did exceptionally well, and was praised and rewarded for, I cared less about. 

Do others know? One of the problems suffered by college students is meaninglessness and lack of purpose. Students have to pick a major in their Sophomore year, and it's a crap shoot. Many graduate with a degree that they have no idea whether it will be rewarding, or even satisfying... or even be a field in which they can be employed. When I was in school, all I could see was more school. With very little experience and preoccupied with studies, and nothing but courses for as far as the eye can see, how can you see beyond the tedium of schooling? 

I enjoyed engineering, for a little bit. It was a nice hobby. It wasn't something I wanted to do full-time and I quickly grew to hate it. I still like it, still take my oscilloscope and fix my own amplifier. But I don't want to do it all day, every day. 

Moving from roles to basic attitudes and expression

This is not career counseling. Career counselors exist for that purpose. And life doesn't always follow good advice anyway - some people take terrible jobs so they can afford to do things for their family and so they can have the time or money to do other things they enjoy. That's a choice. This really isn't about jobs. This is about characterization in stories. Characters tend to reflect what their creators think even if their creators try hard not to make them that way. This is about how to change your own perspective from thinking that "we are our jobs," or chasing after the illusory symbols of success, possessions, position, money, power, and other enticements that some positions hold, to understanding how we relate to life and how we express ourselves. 

Who are you? I'm a tax attorney. Who are you? I'm an electrician. Who are you? I'm a nurse. What do you do? I'm a tax attorney. What do you do? I'm a nurse. What do you do? I'm an electrician. We have become so permanently displaced in our thinking, that we can't answer either question correctly. These things are defined roles.

What do you really do? I prepare taxes for people. What do you do? I wire homes for people. What do you do? I take care of sick and injured people. But this is just scratching the surface of who we are.

Who are you? I'm Scott, Sherry, Bill, Debby... This is a better answer - our names at least symbolize who we are. When people get to know us, our names speak volumes. 

What are our personal characteristics? We like to: nurture things, be creative, take care of people, fix things for people, make numbers balance, be wise and advise, help people heal, keep people secure and free from fear, lead groups, make money grow, listen to others, make peace, help people grow, show people new things, organize things, educate, organize people, make things run smoothly. 

Personal characteristics are much closer to who and what we are. They begin to touch the essence of "us." These are the ways we relate to life. I write in order to do some of the things in the previous paragraph. There are many life pursuits (jobs) that allow people to express themselves in many ways, and it doesn't all have to be through a job. These pursuits express our most basic values, such as giving us a place, a community, a sense of self-esteem, and of identification. 

Many of our characteristics are born simply of our basic nature, such as a liking for orderliness, or a liking for disorder and mayhem. Two people born in the same family and raised the same often have very different basic natures. For whatever reason, we seem to enter life having certain characteristics. We react to them one way or another and they shape our personalities. For example, I don't like noise. Sometimes in the past I would react to noise by shirking from it or avoiding it. But after working in high noise areas, and after raising three noisy children, I don't even notice noise that really bothers other people. I've been deconditioned. Each of us are different and are shaped by our environments differently. My sensitivity to noise has created a strength. I can work effectively with many distractions present.

It is very difficult to unravel people and determine what has shaped them. For example, we all need love, and all need to give love, but some need more than others. We can know of events in people's lives, but we really don't know what those events have done. Have they harmed the person, or created a strength? We can usually only guess. But in creating characters, we can look at some of the basic values and events that help shape us, and create complex and interesting characters. 

When creating a character, you can think of them in terms of, "What are their personal characteristics - what do they like to do to express who they are?" The same question can be asked of their personal lives. What do they do outside of the workplace to express who they are?

A date with our own destiny

I think it is very easy for everyone, including our characters, to get wrapped up in the more visible rewards and ignore what is really important to us. We have to work to earn a living - it's a short step to habitually running after money, position, success - things that eat our time so that we have no time and energy left for pursuing our most basic values. These things can be illusions of fulfillment - symbols. You gain them and find they don't really fulfill, so you still have a hunger and you chase even harder for the same things, and it's a vicious cycle. 

Around age 40, many have a "mid-life crisis." Their daily activities become totally meaningless, they don't know why, they get depressed and "burned out," they quit jobs and leave families who seem to be obstacles, and do all kinds of crazy things trying to express some inner need that they can't identify. This is what commonly happens to those who are trapped with illusions for a goal and who can't see what their real values are. After a few weeks or years they "find themselves," and go in a new and fulfilling direction. What they were rejecting or running from wasn't their poor wife and kids, or their job, but a humungous load of unfulfillment. They created troubles for everyone, all caused by ignoring their real values. Unfortunately some remain trapped, unable to recognize their real values or unable to change, disheartened, and bitter, unable to work effectively or maintain good relationships. This is the way real life goes for a lot of people, and it can create very motivated and reckless characters.

Life roles

Life happens. To each of us, life brings certain things. Life has an agenda of its own: becoming aware of our world, education, birthing and raising children, earning a living, growing up, living with others, taking part in society, getting old, dying. Life is about many things that come with age, with families, with participation in a community, with religion or social organizations. These aren't always things that are basic to us - we acquire them. These are roles, and some fit more than others. But they shape us and our motivation. Life brings us many roles.

People in their late teens and early twenties have two basic preoccupations: finding the right person to travel through life with, and getting the education they feel they need. Or getting on with earning a living. It's usually an idealistic time - they either expect the world to be ideal, or to become ideal - and if not they are angered. Most of the things people during this age are motivated by those roles, either to accept them or to rebel..

People in their twenties and early thirties are usually concerned with making a living and starting a family. This soon transitions into selecting and building a career that they want, and gaining financial stability in a community that is safe and supportive of their needs and desires. This is a building time. This is a role that most people wear easily, but a few have difficulty accepting the responsibility of it all, or have difficulty feeling accepted. People at this age are trying hard to find a career and mates that fit - trying hard to make it all work - trying to be seen as a success. Most of the things people do during this age are motivated by those roles.

People in their thirties and forties are a grinding mill. They just keep producing and taking on responsibility. They continue raising kids and sending them to school and working in their communities. They continue climbing in their careers, and every two to four years they change job responsibilities or acquire more. Their knowledge of the world and human nature grows. Their motivations encompass these roles. 

But as the forties fade and fifties dawn, the kids are about raised and gone, they now have a world of experience, and they wonder more about what life is about. They have grown enormously by participating in life with others - family, community, work - and not even noticed. Now it's time to pause, reflect, integrate, and find out who they are again and set a new course - maybe the same course if it is still satisfying. This is a time when new interests bloom, people do new things, and without the pressure to be such-and-such that they have always had to be, they are free to be something else. It can be a time of renewal of life. People in their fifties can be trapped in the roles of their forties, not knowing how to make the transition, or too fearful to make it. Or they can be people who are ready to experience life in a much diverse way, or explore life more fully. It depends on what they can know about their basic characteristics - their core values, and how open they are to new experiences and change. These people can make some very interesting characters. 

Avoid the trap, or be a character

What we really need to do is understand what is important to us. Is it moving up in management and becoming powerful and admired for power, or is it being part of a community of people? Or both? Moving into powerful positions isn't necessarily bad - that is the correct path for some. But if your character is allowing lust for power to prevent him from becoming a real person and part of a community, then you have strong motivation, conflict, and the makings of a story. He could become a hatchetman, be touched by the kindness of another employee, and finally realize where he belongs. He could then become a kinder manager, and possibly express himself in some kind of community service. It isn't a "right vs wrong" issue, but one of stopping the illusion, understanding your own values, and finding ways to express them. Of course, it's more dramatic when the hatchetman casts his old life aside and throws himself into full-time work with the homeless.

The illusion is that we really do want the symbols of success - things that make us look or feel good for a moment, but can only give us the illusion of fulfilling our values. When the moment passes, whatever gave us the thrill has to be done all over again. Instead of fulfilling us, it simply leaves us craving more. After a while it just doesn't work anymore and we have to reach for something more potent. It's a habit that controls us like drugs, but can never give us what we really want. Money, fame, power, appearing benevolent when we really aren't, infamy, perks and high living - none of these things are inherently bad, but neither are they inherently satisfying. Create a character trying to find satisfaction in these things and you really create a character with very warped motivation. 

I have created a "values chart" that shows some typical core values that most of us have and the ways that we express these, both the good and the bad ways. Besides becoming misled by illusions, we also pervert our basic values for one reason or another. Attitude, which influences how we express our values, is a major factor in the chart. The chart is a way to help create characters which are difficult to draw and understand. 

Future articles in this series will talk more about transitions, understanding the frameworks and "myths" that we use in our lives or subscribe to, and moving to other frameworks, myths, and subscriptions, meaning-making, creating new life stories, and the dangers which should be emphasized in the stories we write, because the things we believe and shape our lives around should not be taken lightly or cast in disbelief just because we can change. 

Reference Shelf:

I highly recommend the following books related to the subjects in this article.

Andreas, Connirae. Core Transformation, Reaching The Wellspring Within, Utah: Real People Press, 1994. (Note: Ten steps facilitating personal change related to relationships, anger, illness and abuse.) 

Sheehy, Gail. Passages, NewYork: Bantam, 1984. (Note: Explores the typical drives of people at various stages of life.) 

Other books:

Gail Sheehy has a second, more recent, book on life stages that I haven't read.

The following book may appeal to those wishing to remain in a strictly religious (Christian) environment: 
Morley, Patrick. The Seven Seasons Of A Man's Life, Zondervan Publishing, 1995. 

Other distribution restrictions: None

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