The Price – A Character Development Exercise

The following is a small piece I wrote in an attempt to give birth to a character for one of my books. I do this kind of thing from time to time to assist with character development. I call pieces like this “mini-stories.” They generally are used to try to flesh out a character I might be considering for a story. Many times, these stories are not part of my larger work’s overall plot. This forces me to think about the character as a person without the confines of my current story. It makes them more real and more three-dimensional for me. Anyway, this character never panned out, but she still haunts me, years after I penned her story. I’ll share it here with the hope that she taps you on the shoulder now and again to remind you that integrity comes at a price. It’s a steep fee. The return on the investment may be fleeting. In the end, you may not find happiness, but knowing you have lived a life true to yourself is reward enough. Right?

She was always caught between doing what was right and what was profitable. There had been many opportunities to get wealthy, obtain power, wield influence, and make the way generally easier, but they had always been at odds with her personal integrity. It was a price she refused to pay. The stress induced by her struggles had accumulated and manifested itself as lines, wrinkles, grey hair, and a fair amount of resentment. Others had prospered at the expense of those around them while she fell behind. In her idealistic youth, she had taken comfort in the fact that she could always say that she had moved ahead on her own merits. She was sure that in the end, she would be on top. Now the end had arrived, and she was not on top. She was actually very near the bottom. 

It was a bright, sunny morning that greeted her one Saturday in October. The autumn chill hung lightly in the air. It should have energized her, but she had not noticed. Nature’s benevolent greeting had gone unheeded. She walked past her bedroom window and went into her small, tidy bathroom. She winced with each stiff step across the cold tile and cursed the ravages of age. On her way to the toilet, she paused at the sink when her reflection cast by the chrome-framed mirror caught her peripheral vision. At least ten percent of the silver had fallen from the back of the glass over the course of countless mornings she had consulted it to arrange her hair or adjust her makeup. As the glittering flakes fell from the mirror, they collected in her ever-graying mane. She didn’t want to, but she turned to face herself in the glass. Who was this woman? Her skin was once creamy and smooth with no noticeable imperfections. Her eyes were once bright and seemed to carry a smile all their own apart from the rest of her face. Plump and full, her lips could catch the attention of any man without even a hint of gloss or lipstick. 

For a long time, she had held age at bay. Her beauty was resilient and the confidence it gave her lasted well into her fifties and to a certain extent her sixties as well. Then it all seemed to catch up.  It was sudden, or so it seemed. She blamed it on the mounting stress of her work. She started her career as a journalist for a newspaper in a large city. Over time, she had become known as a beacon of truth that never shied away from political thin ice. The truth was the truth and would always stand. This was her motto and it made her a trusted source for all things newsworthy. As her popularity among the local population soared, she became increasingly in demand for her insight and opinions regarding people and events that were shaping her community and the world. This led to an opportunity for a radio talk show and eventually the television news anchor desk at the top station in the city. In addition to her anchor duties, she would also be asked to do investigative reporting on local businesses and politicians. This is where the trouble started.

Bribery, threats, slanderous attacks, and personal confrontations with the city’s elite began to take their toll. The mantle of truth-bearer became heavier and heavier. It became harder and harder to maintain integrity in the face of relentless attacks and temptations. She managed to stick to her guns, but the cost was high. Health, both mental and physical, deteriorated to a point of criticality that tore at her appearance. Worry, mental strain, and constantly being in a mode of defense eroded her previously ever-present smile–first into a thin line and finally a grim frown of despair. Her eyes lost their sparkle and took on more of a teary, weeping appearance with prominent crow’s feet and drooping lids. Her once glowing skin became ashen and crisscrossed with bluish veins and cross-hatched lines. 

The almost alien face with all its wear and tear glared back at her from the bathroom mirror. In it, she saw something. It was a spark of life. It was the last vestige of fire from her youth that drove her to stand up for what she believed in now and to count the cost later. Out from under the layers of fatigue, anger, bitterness, and dissatisfaction, it challenged her. It was the dying embers of a life that refused to be snuffed out without a fight. It stirred her. She would not quit now. She finished her trip to the toilet, hastily brushed her teeth and hair, and threw on some clothes. (It didn’t matter which ones.) Stepping into her shoes on the way to the door, she confidently strode across the living room of her apartment. She grabbed the doorknob in her hand and gave it a determined twist. Boldly, almost defiantly, she threw the door open to reveal the outside world to her recharged mind and body. The cool air brushed against her face and swirled around her feet. Her knee began to ache, and she went back to bed.

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