Think of fiction as organized life. In both reality and in novels, 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 a segment from it and organizes events into a plot to make 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. 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 that the change be gradual and well motivated. A sudden change of character will feel contrived and haphazard.
Characters other than the protagonist can have an arc, but the protagonist should have the biggest one of all.
Some genres, particularly mystery and high action series, tend to have a character arc in their personal lives but not in their public lives. Lucas Davenport in John Sanford’s “Prey” novels marries and has children but remains the steely maverick detective throughout the series. Jack Reacher in Lee Child’s novels is still the same restless drifter at the end than he is 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 P.D. James’ mystery series, Adam Dalgliesh, the cerebral and sensitive detective inspector, shows small important signs of personal growth. He rises to the rank of commander in the Metropolitan Police Service at New Scotland Yard in London. A widower, he’s reluctant to commit to another woman, but in the last book of the series he marries.
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 friend Gus, who is dying, 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 publically. 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.”
McCall gives his son his horse, his gun and his father’s watch but he can’t—or won’t give him his name.
At the end of the novel, he 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.
Another novel in which the protagonist chooses duty over love is Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Mr. Stevens, an English butler who is so devoted to his profession that he won't accept the love of a woman he admires, realizes in the last few pages of the novel he made a choice that led him to loneliness when he could have had happiness. He journeys across England to find the woman he loves and take her back to Darlington Hall, but when he meets her, she tells him it’s too late.
Mr. Stevens admits her rejection provokes “a certain degree of sorrow within me. Indeed—why should I not admit it?—at that moment, my heart was breaking.” Mr. Stevens fails to achieve what he desires but he acquires something that’s just as important: wisdom. He has learned one of “life’s great lessons.”
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.
If the protagonist is like Captain McCall, we admire him for his accomplishments but pity him for his personal choices. Although he saves the lives of several people, he can’t manage to save his own life.
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 self-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. They should slowly contribute to his character arc. If they don’t, it’s time to return to the computer.