A novel is organized life. In both reality and fiction, we’re on a journey filled with highs, lows, good choices, bad choices, safe passages and roadblocks. We’re not the same at the end as we were at the beginning. Our experiences transform us. No one goes through life and stays the same—nor should the characters in your novel.
In fiction, that transformation is known as the character arc, and if you want to write a meaningful book, one that rises to the level of literature, your protagonist must have one.
As Robert McKee states in his book on the writing craft, Story, the real meaning of a story is to learn “life’s great lessons.”
Life is chaotic but a novelist plucks segments from it and organizes events into a plot that makes a point. She chooses events that challenge and change the protagonist. She gives him a problem or a goal that isn’t easy to solve or achieve, and then she puts pressure on him.
Why? Because it is through struggle that a person, whether real or invented, reveals his true nature.
So, how do you go about developing those difficulties for your story people?
1. You create a sympathetic character. If we don’t care about your protagonist, we won’t care whether or not she gets what she wants. If she isn’t sympathetic, she should at least be someone we want to know more about.
2. Next, you put her in trouble—not just a misfortune or two—but horrible, inescapable trouble she can’t easily walk away from. The worst trouble, of course, is death, especially of a loved one. That’s why so many stories put the protagonist’s child or significant other in peril. We watch with anxiety and tension until the situation is resolved and then with relief when our favorite characters are safe.
3. Consider putting your character into a crucible, a place or situation that has no apparent escape. It can be physical entrapment or it can be circumstances in which the character has a strong emotional or moral investment, such as the relationship between parent and child.
Books and movies often make use of crucibles. Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s World War II novel, Das Boot, is the story of the crew in a German submarine that goes deeper and deeper to avoid the enemy, to the point where water pressure is crushing the hull. The boat sustains heavy damage and the weary sailors barely survive. The disabled vessel is a metaphor for a crucible, a container subjected to increasing heat, sizzling with tension, dread and hopelessness. A place that seems to have no escape. As you plot your story, consider how you might put your protagonist in a similar place or situation.
In Sophie’s Choice, a young mother is consigned to two excruciating crucibles: a horrific World War II death camp and an unbearable moral dilemma. Sophie recounts the night she arrived at Auschwitz with her young daughter and son. A Nazi officer tells her she may keep only one child. The other must die in the gas chamber. When Sophie begs him for the lives of her children, he starts to take both of them away to their death. In a sobbing frenzy, Sophie chooses her son to stay with her and spends the rest of her life suffering from guilt and despair.
The conflict and emotion are woven into the story. Styron never tells the reader how to feel. He doesn’t need to.
4. Your protagonist must struggle, often to the point of death. The hero must struggle so hard and be so beaten down that the reader believes he won’t make it. The death doesn’t have to be literal. It can be the loss of a dream, a relationship, a contest, even a boxing match—anything that’s so important the hero is willing to risk his life for it.
It is the crisis in the story that provides the most tension. He fights for what he wants. He faces failure head on. He may be beaten down, physically and mentally, and believe all is lost. But then he calls upon strengths he didn’t know he had to get what he wants, and through that process he emerges as a different person. It’s important the character has strong motivation for his choices and his transformation is gradual. A sudden change of character will feel contrived and haphazard.
The event mirrors real life, as exemplified by Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous phrase, "That which does not kill us makes us stronger." If the hero has struggled enough, he will survive and be reborn and permanently changed. Your novel is more compelling if characters other than the protagonist also have an arc, but the protagonist should have the most significant one of all.
In some genres, particularly mystery and high action series, the protagonist has a character arc in his personal life but not in his public life. Lucas Davenport in John Stanford’s Prey novels marries and has children but remains the steely maverick detective throughout the series. Jack Reacher in Lee Child’s novels is the same restless drifter at the end that he was at the beginning.
James Bond doesn’t change much in Ian Fleming’s novels. Readers expect him to be the same clever, urbane British intelligence agent and playboy in the twelfth book as he was in the first. Ironically, each of the eight actors who play him in the movies gives his own spin to the character. Viewers are not looking for a character arc. They jam the theaters to see what new cars, gadgets, girlfriends and explosions Bond will come up with.
In some novels, the protagonist grows by recognizing and overcoming his flaws. Perhaps he’s ignored them for years. Maybe he drinks too much. Maybe he and his parents are estranged and he’s too stubborn to heal the relationship. As the story progresses, he doesn’t completely change but he resolves his own problems, allowing him to become stronger and more effective in achieving his external goals.
Even if the protagonist recognizes his weaknesses but still refuses to change, we expect him to have learned one of “life’s great lessons” or some universal truth. In Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Lonesome Dove, Captain Woodrow McCall, a proud, stubborn and unyielding former Texas Ranger, promises his dying friend Gus that he will take him back to Texas to bury him. The novel’s main theme is mortality. Several men die during the cattle drive to Montana but their comrades accept it and push on, trying to find meaning in a life filled with death. Captain McCall values duty over love and he suffers for it.
Near the end of the novel, McCall realizes his mistakes have robbed him of happiness, but he’s too rigid to change. Although McCall knows that one of the young men on the cattle drive is his son, he won’t acknowledge him publicly. McCall wants to speak to the boy about their relationship but at the mere thought, “a tightness came into his throat, as if a hand had seized it. Anyway, what could a few words change? They couldn’t change the years.”
He gives his son his horse, his gun and his father’s watch but he can’t—or won’t—give him his name. We admire Captain McCall for his accomplishments but pity him for his choices. Although he saves the lives of several people, he can’t manage to save his own.
At the end of the novel, McCall realizes he has lost everything—his son, his closest friends, his meaning in life and the town of Lonesome Dove itself. Nothing is left for him there.
Most novels have a less tragic ending. Usually, the protagonist gets what he wants or, even more importantly, what he needs. Sometimes he moves from one end of the spectrum to the other. The change may be positive or negative, but in fiction as in real life, a journey of any significance is transformative.
A classic story of complete transformation is Charles Dickens’ novella, A Christmas Carol. In the beginning, Ebenezer Scrooge is despicable. In typical over-the-top Dickensian fashion, the author tells us, "The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue, and he spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice...”
Scrooge exploits the poor, hoards his money and cares only about himself. On Christmas Eve, four ghosts take him through a retrospective of his life and its possible future. Scrooge learns he will die alone, despondent and remorseful if he doesn’t change his selfish, miserly ways. This epiphany totally transforms Scrooge into a kinder, more generous man.
The character arc is the heart of a novel. The real significance lies in the protagonist’s self-discovery—that moment when his emotions break through the surface and he must face the truth—and hopefully make life changes based on his new knowledge.
If you are nearing the end and you don’t see your protagonist evolve or at least face his flaws, look at the events in your story.
* Is serious trouble for your protagonist embedded in the story concept?
* Do you give your characters significant moral dilemmas?
* Do you put enough pressure on them so they'll reveal their true natures?
* Are they strong enough to survive the physical and emotional tests that you (the author) will put them through?
* At the end of the story, will they be reborn because of their struggles? Readers worry about characters they like and are fascinated by characters who must fight to achieve something important. They admire heroic and noble acts. They respect the underdog who triumphs over seemingly impossible odds. A skilled fiction writer knows that a novel without conflict, emotion, a crisis that tests the protagonist and a satisfying character arc is a blank page.