There’s a trend in modern authors and books that greatly alarms me.

Authors and characters alike are in danger of bottoming-out as growth is cast aside in favor of the dangerous alternative: affirmation.

Let me show you what I mean.

Let’s start with how this trend appears in fiction.

The main characters in fiction rarely grow anymore.

The “arc” for these characters (typically female) never extends beyond realizing by the end of the book just how powerful she is.

She doesn’t eradicate a vice; she doesn’t recognize her weakness: it’s simply 300 pages of affirmation assuaging the tiny inkling of self-doubt that she suffers from.

But, of course, by the end, society will recognize her for the goddess that she is and she will realize that she had all of the power and strength that she always needed—all she needed was affirmation that she is “perfect just the way she is.”

These days, characters are so strong, so self-sufficient, so capable, that they are never in danger, never flummoxed, and never, ever, defeated.

From killing cave trolls to rocking a ball-gown, to exchanging witty repartees with the lead, to impaling the villain—our heroine has it covered.

And it’s the most unexciting thing you could possibly write about.

When your character doesn’t need to learn anything, there’s no drama, no tension, no expectation, and, ultimately, no pay-off.

When all your heroine accomplishes at the end of the book is becoming slightly more powerful than she was in chapter one, the end result is a dull story.

Affirming your character “as is” instead of making them grow – results in the death of a story. And, if this trend continues, it will result in the death of fiction, for this scenario above contains no tension, and a story without tension fails the most basic demands of storytelling.

Consequently, we have fiction where all of the growth, all of the struggle, all of the new discoveries—are stripped away from the character resulting in soulless, boring, cookie-cutter placeholders.

Heroines are no longer inspiring us to be greater human beings, they are motivational speakers reminding us we are fine just the way we are.

They are no longer flawed, multi-faceted humans with vices and weaknesses to overcome, they are mere icons for a pre-decided and overly-flogged agenda: you are perfect already. All you have to do is believe in yourself.

Fiction no longer encourages us; it affirms and validates us.

And here we come to the crux of the problem: the key difference between two simple words.

Can you see the difference?

Affirming, in and of itself, has no moral compass. Affirmation can be used to encourage moral or evil behavior. It is simply a way of declaring something to be valid, true, or good. Encouragement is a guiding light for how weakness, sin, doubt, and fear can be overcome.

For example, affirmation is telling someone: you’re fine just as you are. Encouragement is telling someone: It’s hard, but I know you have it in you!

Affirmation is, naturally, self-focused, whereas encouragement lends itself to outward focus because it forces us either give help or to seek it from others or God.

Encouragement requires a change of some kind, at the very least in attitude. Affirmation requires no change at all, merely the far more passive acceptance.

It is affirmation that overruns our bookshelves these days. Affirmation has become a form of vice for modern day America, and this empty pep-talk cancels out growth in both character and reader.

We are no longer inspired, we are simply told that characters (and we ourselves) are perfect.

We have traded the beautiful gardens of well-developed characters for empty plots, full of dormant seeds that never see the light of day.

And perhaps certain readers prefer it that way: for gardening requires hard work. Perhaps people don’t want to see their characters sweat and weep and lose and suffer and struggle and strain to produce a harvest, because it suggests that we ourselves ought to put in the same amount of work on ourselves.

An empty lot is far less work than a garden. But it is also far less beautiful, and it is outright resistance to God’s design.

Humans (and the characters that ought to represent our humanness) were designed to be cultivated, not allowed to run wild. Cultivation is the representation of God’s order, and when we force our characters to grow, we represent God’s plan for our own lives and our own growth.

And, that, ultimately, is perhaps why authors no longer wish their characters to grow—because growth (the very idea that we are not perfect just as we are) is a reflection of the True Gardener.

Now let’s take a look at how this trend appears in authors.

I sometimes worry that authors have embraced a kind of cowardice when it comes to being critiqued or rejected. It is practically poison to us. The prevailing trend seems to be that we are owed affirmation. We “did our best, therefore no one should criticize.” We outright rebel at the thought that our writing is less than perfect “as is.”

Authors recruiting beta readers, allegedly seeking feedback, but really only seeking affirmation.

Writers hiring editors and then going into hysterics when their book is actually edited.

Authors confessing that they were furious with friends over feedback—to the point of almost losing friendships because of it.

The end result is that the people who give valuable feedback stop giving it. They’re afraid of offending or hurting the oversensitive author, they grow weary of trying to help the author that refuses to grow, and so they dole out the affirmation demanded of them and the author skips away: happy, but with neither themself, or their book, changed for the better.

Believe me, I understand the agony. It is hard to describe the incredible vulnerability of handing over part of our soul and imagination to someone to pull apart, and it is hard to describe the pain that comes from having that bit of our heart critiqued. Of course it hurts.

But we need to grow up.

Rejection and criticism are not optional for writers, they are prerequisites.  

Once I learned to think of rejection and criticism as “earning my stripes” and accepted that I would need to earn my stripes all over again with everything I write, I trained myself to look for, appreciate, and even eagerly anticipate, constructive criticism. I have adjusted my mindset and learned to seek out growth as a writer.

But, sadly, the trope of the misunderstood and oversensitive author who is the unappreciated genius whose writing is perfect “just as it is” and who is owed her affirmation simply gains more power with each year.

There were many scenes in the 2019 version of Little Women that made me cringe, but one in particular was Jo’s infantile reaction to the professor criticizing her writing.

Jo is standing by, ready for affirmation, only to have her expectations dashed when the professor confesses that he doesn’t like her stories.

“People have always said that I was talented,” Jo protests, aghast that she is not receiving her due praise.  

The professor assures her that he does think she’s talented, and tactfully adds. “Your reaction indicates there is some truth in what I’m saying.”

Jo blows a gasket at this and in her subsequent tirade belittles his entire existence, casts doubt upon his legacy, and finally says she “doesn’t want his opinion” (even though she just sought it out) and that they are categorically not friends.

Jo’s response to Baer in the 2019 film is in stark contrast to the novel.

When Jo’s first novel is published and she gets a dismaying array of feedback, she welcomes the critiques of those she trusts most. She is not at all offended when her father urges her to push herself beyond this simple beginning. It is merely the beginning of one of the most painful and beautiful hero’s journeys full of failures and triumphs, deserts and mountaintops, all of which Jo learns to embrace with grace and a teachable heart.

How times have changed. In the course of approximately 150 years, Jo March has been reduced from the pinnacle of character development to simply another feminist icon who doesn’t have to explain herself to anybody.

Jo March, the quintessential (fictional) author, has become boring—because she is not allowed to grow.

And writers who embrace this modern take on authorhood become boring themselves.

If we do not allow ourselves to grow as authors, if we do not seek out growth, our work (and we ourselves) will become stagnant, lifeless, and even, dare I say it, un-human.

From babies to seeds, our world is designed with growth as the endgame.

Often painful, sometimes inexplicable, occasionally unwanted, but always miraculous. This is the paradox of growth and the thing that God is bent upon for the crown of His creation.

I’ve talked before about how authors, in the act of creating life on paper, mirror the creative nature of God and also carry a responsibility to represent God accurately.

And here are the facts: God is perfect, and He did create a world that was perfect, but we humans have chosen sin and, consequently, imperfection.

And choosing to affirm ourselves and our work as being perfect “just the way it is” is to reenact the Fall of Man all over again. We were once perfect, but we are no more.

And even when we were perfect, the requirement of growth still remained! Adam and Eve were designed to walk deeper with God for every passing day. The Garden was designed to keep on produced food. Adam and Eve’s children were going to growth up.

Perfect world and imperfect world have this in common: everything was designed to grow.

So we authors are expected to grow as well. And just as God requires us to grow, so we ought to require our characters to grow and learn, because we have an obligation to give readers an accurate reflection of God’s design for humanity.

We authors have to stop rebelling against it. We have to stop being afraid of it. We’re not perfect, and we’ll fail, but we can at least try.

There’s a scene in the 2018 version of Little Women (a version that beautifully captures painful and beautiful growth of Jo March) that has always stuck with me.

Jo is in a passion of depression and grief over the death of her sister and a life and career that feel stalled. Marmee counters with the thought-provoking question:

“You’re a writer. Don’t you want your story to be unexpected?”

And this is the real question, isn’t it? Don’t you want to grow along with your characters?

This is the debt that authors owe to God, to the world, and ourselves.

Our readers deserve to TRULY see themselves in our books: flawed human beings who are beautiful and pathetic, strong and weak, miraculous and mundane, funny and tragic.

All stories require a beating heart: a character that collides with conflict and experiences the grief and joy of evolution. We authors require refinement so that we can experience our own main character moments and transform day by day, from something weak or ugly, into something powerful and lovely

And this can only come, not through affirmation, but through painful, glorious, miraculous, growth.

I’m not going to affirm you or myself: we both need to develop. We both need to improve. We are not as good as we ought to be.

But be encouraged because . . . you could be.

Get to know Allison!


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