Lately, I've been tutoring a high schooler named "Q" in English. The more I work with him, the more I realize that English is one of the worst subjects to have to learn remotely. Grammar is hard enough, but it's a real bear to try to learn foundational skills like critical thinking, literary analysis, and so on when you can't get the immediate feedback and support you'd get in the classroom with a teacher. But "Q" has worked his tail off and has brought his grade up dramatically in the time we've worked together. I'm really impressed with him.
As I've worked with "Q" and the other students I tutor, I've frequently found myself telling them, "I'm proud of you." It's true, but my phrasing surprised me because I have few, if any, memories of being praised that way myself. I certainly wanted to make my parents and teachers proud, but I don't remember many times when they told me they were.
Even if they insist otherwise, I believe all people and all characters have someone whom they desperately want to make proud or whose approval they want more than anything:
some other VIA (Very Important Approver)
a particular group
the person's fans (if the person is famous or trying to become so)
society in general
a deity or other supernatural being
the person's own inner critic
However, that approval can be hard to come by for various reasons. Here are a few:
The VIA is indeed proud of the approval-wanter but is bad at showing/expressing it.
The VIA is manipulative and gives or withdraws their approval/affection to get others to do what the VIA wants.
The VIA has (impossibly) high standards.
The VIA's approval isn't actually worth having, but the approval-wanter has yet to realize it.
The approval-wanter has depression or another mental illness that makes it extremely difficult to feel the VIA's approval even when it's expressed.
In my experience, the inner critic is never satisfied! This is even more true for people who struggle with mental illness.
This struggle is one of the most relatable ones we can give our characters. I'd bet that all readers have felt the sting of letting a VIA down and/or the thrill of seeing a VIA's proud smile. The approval of people who are important to us is a primal human need. It's part of the internal battle we all fight daily as we consciously or subconsciously ask ourselves, "Am I good enough?"
This struggle also can bring an additional layer of complexity to the situations our characters face. Failing a test is bad enough, but having to tell your dad about it after he spent hours helping you study? Not just losing your job but having to break the news to the stay-at-home-spouse and children who look up to and depend on you? Alternatively, falling during a track meet would be incredibly embarrassing and discouraging, but hearing your best friend yelling, "Don't give up! You've got this!" might just give you the boost you need to get up and keep running. And while holding your firstborn child is priceless, so is seeing your mother's eyes light up as she cuddles the grandchild she's waited so long to have.
Of course, I've been talking about all this in the context of our writing. But this part is even more important. See, I may not know you well (or at all), but I know a few things about you:
You are amazing.
You are loved.
You deserve the best life has to offer.
You are talented.
You are worthy.
You are enough.
And I'm so proud of you. 💗
(Thanks to Sebastián León Prado for sharing their work on Unsplash.)