The other day, one of my friends posted a picture on Facebook from a place called Hurricane Ridge, WA.
When I first saw that caption, it scared me for a second.
Remember, I lived in North Carolina for seven years. Anytime hurricane with a capital H comes up around there, it's generally Bad News. Especially after the last few years. For example, 2018's Hurricane Florence was so strong that even though I lived two-hundred-plus miles from the coast, people in my area were gearing up for major flooding and extended power outages. (It didn't end up being nearly that bad in our neck of the woods, but coastal North Carolina and what seemed like the whole state of South Carolina almost got wiped off the map.)
But back to the Facebook photo. Once I figured out my mistake and chuckled at myself, I commented this:
"I got a little freaked out when I saw the word hurricane. #southernhabitsdiehard 😄"
The thing is, habits don't just die hard for real people. They die hard for fictional characters, too. And in a way, that makes sense. One thing I've learned as an abuse survivor is that in traumatic circumstances—or even just to deal with the stresses of everyday life—people develop habits that help them cope with the situation, sometimes even physically or mentally survive it. Hypervigilance is a classic example. But once the danger/stress is over, those habits no longer serve the person. Still, it's often extremely hard for a person to let go of habits, however maladaptive in ordinary life, that have kept them safe in the past. (I'm still working on the habit of jumping into long silences with deescalating words, for example, because even though I know cognitively that I'm not going to get yelled at, at the end of those silences, that habit helped keep me safe from emotional abuse when I was growing up.)
On the other hand, stories are ultimately about people changing. So how do we marry these two truths?
We show our characters trying to change—and messing up. Sometimes catastrophically. That's what happens in real life when we try to change. We fall off our bikes, we slip up and say things we shouldn't, we type in the wrong password for the three hundredth time, and so on. That's life! So it should happen to our characters, too. Wanda at the beginning of Captain America: Civil War, anyone?
This is especially important if you have a villainous character who's trying to become good. We often act as if these characters should behave like knights in shining armor after they switch sides, never even leaning back toward their old ways. But that would never be realistic to expect from a real person. Even addiction-recovery programs assume that participants will have some relapses along the way. That doesn't mean they've failed. It means they're normal!
So cut your characters some slack. Let them mess up and try again. We all have stuff to work on.