Emotional Growth Is a Skill

It can be practiced, honed and improved, like any other skill

Anna Mercury


Photo by Jordan Sanchez on Unsplash

One of the main storytelling tips any writer will get is to ensure the main character has something they need as well as something they want. Their want is the action they need to take, the desire that drives the plot forward. Their need is the personal growth they need, the inner journey that runs parallel to the plot and gives the story its emotional resonance, its message, its point.

It’s there in every story we hold dear. Shrek wants to save Princess Fiona and get the fairytale creatures out of his swamp, but he needs to learn to accept the care and friendship of others. Marlin wants to find Nemo, but he needs to overcome his fear of loss and learn to trust the world. Aragorn wants to help Frodo destroy the Ring, but he needs to stop avoiding the responsibility of his destiny to become the king of Gondor.

The need is what keeps us relating to characters in far-flung or fantastical settings. It’s likely none of us will ever have to rescue a princess with a donkey, chase our missing child across an ocean to a dentist’s office or defeat Sauron, but the emotional arc of the characters is eminently relatable. We’ve likely all had times when we learned to open up to others, let go of our fears and trust, or step into a responsibility we’d previously avoided.

In short: we relate to these characters’ emotional growth because we, too, have grown emotionally. We know that journey, even if the plot is fantastical. We’ve had experiences in our own, real-life plots that nudged or forced us to grow emotionally. We had to heal past trauma and the harmful beliefs and habits it gave us. We had learn new skills of accountability, communication or emotional regulation. We had to release fear and learn to trust.

Yet there’s a kind of implicit assumption among many people (not just storytellers) that internal journey comes from the external journey. Our emotional growth happens as a result of external experiences, our personal plot, impacting and shaping us. The meeting of the need is incidental to the pursuit of the want.

What I mean is, Shrek didn’t sit down and think, “Hmm, my avoidance of friendship and community might not be serving me well. After all, I’m…