By Meg Myers Morgan
In this three-part series, Dr. Meg Myers Morgan, best-selling author and professor at University of Oklahoma, shares three rules every woman should remember as she lives her life story. Meg shares these excerpts from her upcoming book, Counter Offer: Negotiating the Life You Want, “a work and life guide for women.”
To read about the FIRST rule, click here.
The second rule: Don’t Put Plot Before Character
The most interesting and compelling stories are made up of characters you can relate to, fall in love with, and root for. The stuff that happens to them is just plot. And it only matters because of who the character is. If you ask someone about Harry Potter, they don’t say, “Oh, I love all that stuff that happens to Harry Potter.” No, they say, “I love Harry Potter.” At that point, it’s best to walk away because they are about to tell you all the many reasons why they do, and you do not have that kind of time.
I find that people—especially women—focus on the plot way more than the character.
I met with a prospective student one summer. I knew her only by her sterling reputation, so I was beyond excited when she reached out to me about the graduate program. She started our meeting with a disclaimer—she was going to have a baby. I was thrilled for this stranger, congratulating her for the good news, and, of course, reminding her not to give her narrative away to the baby or her husband. She promptly corrected me by saying she wasn’t actually pregnant yet, but she wanted me to know her frame of mind to give our conversation context.
Now, this isn’t unusual. Many of the women I talk to mention this right up front. I think it’s great to voice our desires. And, as their potential advisor, it helps me know what kind of life they are striving for—which is helpful when it comes to career counseling and course selection.
But the reason for mentioning her interest in having a child was because she couldn’t decide if she wanted to take the program I administer—which is a traditional in-person program—or one offered at another university online.
Again, that isn’t an unusual conflict, and I’ve heard many potential students express it. She thought that an online degree would offer more flexibility, which would be helpful whenever a child arrived. Now, there’s a lot of data that suggests online programs are actually more time consuming, but I could tell that wasn’t really the direction our conversation needed to go, or the real root of her dilemma. So, I asked her, “Which one do you want to do?”
She laughed and said she would much rather take the program in person. She loved having conversations with her classmates, getting to interact with the professors, the camaraderie of school, etc.
So, her conflict wasn’t between an online program and a traditional one. Her conflict was between plot and character. She clearly had a preference. And the reality was, her preference wasn’t detrimental to her other plot points—her future kid won’t know the difference. But women continually jump to the plot point before they’ve thought about the character.
One of the biggest fallacies women believe is that plot governs character. And they believe that the major plot point of parenting is immediate sacrifice. So, they start sacrificing before they are ever asked to. I’m not saying parenting doesn’t come with some sacrifice; it does. And you never know what issues or challenges will come with each child. But by and large, my kids aren’t the ones asking me to sacrifice. The sacrifice my daughters ask me to make is to get off the couch and get them goldfish crackers, not to give up on my hopes and dreams.
Yet when women are ready for motherhood, they start clearing their lives of all the things they really want in preparation for all the sacrificing.
If we think about character first, then logical plot lines flow from there. The prospective student can choose to do the program she wants and make the arrangements with the baby around that. But if she jumps to plot first, picking a program she is less excited about just because she thinks the plot dictates that, then she is not only putting plot before character, but she’s handing over her narrative to a person who does not even exist yet.
So, if you’ve got a hold of your narrative, and you’re writing yourself as the hero, then accept the plot points that make sense from the point of view of your main character. Which is you. Remember? The hero.
Dr. Meg Myers Morgan is an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma and is the author of Harebrained: It seemed like a good idea at the time. Her upcoming book Counter Offer: How to Negotiate for the Life You Want—a work and life guide for women—comes out 2018 from Seal Press. Meg may be contacted at megmyersmorgan.com.