In a bout of organizing, I finally squeezed my summer reading back into bookshelves this afternoon. Most of the books I read this summer were young-adult fiction as part of research for a current project (and, heck, just for fun), so the act of pressing their wrinkled spines into place reminded me of the sense of accomplishment that used to come from finishing all the assigned summer reading in elementary school.
I vividly recall the way novels served as an escape back then and how the rush to finish them before Labor Day always left me determined to be a more organized, procrastination-free little student. In the midst of reading books, such as Lois Lowry’s “Anastasia Krupnik” and Judy Blume’s “Just as Long as We’re Together,” I also imagined how I could take what I learned from the books’ characters and use it to reinvent myself in the new school year. Something about immersing myself in the orderly lives of young-adult characters whose problems had such clear beginnings, middles and ends made me feel that if I could just do homework as soon as school let out or curtail gossiping, everything in life would be good. This was highly fanciful thinking, but don’t we all buy into these fantasies of changing our lives even as adults?
Perhaps a good character lesson to take from our all-too-human patterns of wishful thinking is the fact that our mere perception of what is and is not life-altering says a lot about us. Sometimes we think simple changes will fix complex problems and vice versa; thus, the same applies to fictional characters. As you populate a story with new characters, ask yourself this: if they could do one thing to improve life, what would it be? Would this really improve things, or do your characters falsely perceive this act as life-altering?