The Heroic Journey 9: Heroes Change
This article is another guest post from author and former WriteAtHome writing coach, David Sims. The series discusses the common characteristics of great stories. Links to the rest of the series are below.
A word about the Hero in the beginning.
In a novel there are obstacles — tangible ones such as icebergs, aliens, a powerful lost Ark, fairy tale creatures invading Shrek’s swamp, or the Mafia. But there are also inner conflicts within the Hero which affect the outer conflict.
It’s a common device used in novels and movies that in order to accomplish his Journey, his goal, his mission, the Hero must first win some battle within himself.
In The Firm, for example, to accomplish his outer goal of bringing down the evil law firm, Mitch must overcome his dread of poverty and the loss status. To win the princess, Shrek must overcome his fear of showing his true ogre-self to her.
Inner conflict is whatever prevents the Hero from becoming all she can be. It’s not what keeps the Hero from getting what she wants (or thinks she wants). The Hero may be pursuing the wrong path to that. To figure out the inner conflict of a Hero, listen to her dialogue and ask yourself, “What terrifies this character emotionally?” “What does she not want to face?” “What must the character do to avoid experiencing that fear?”
That’s her inner conflict.
Sometimes the same journey is expressed in the term “pole to pole growth.” It’s the idea that the Hero starts the novel one way, and ends up different. If he was stingy and mean at the beginning, he’s generous and kind at the end. If he was object-fixated before, he’s able to value people at the end. Closed and withdrawn before, open and willing to enjoy life after.
Think Scrooge and you’ve got the idea.
That’s the basis of the positive character arc, the gradual transformation of the Hero from Identity to Essence, the tug-of-war inside him being gradually won by Essence. A negative character arc, of course, would be the inverse progression.
It’s not always necessary — James Bond is exactly the same at the end of every movie as he is at the beginning, and that’s just fine. But most characters experience some growth.
So, here’s how to dramatize the character arc:
Look for an initial error the Hero’s making when the novel opens. He’s not a team player; he shuts people out of his life; even though he’s a success in something, there’s a mistake he’s making that’s hurting him. During the novel the Hero gradually comes to see the error of his ways. It’s dramatized and shown to him, and little by little he experiments with change.
It’s a tiny lesson in some action-comedy novels, more significant in others. But it’s done incrementally, in stages. Maybe he repeats an experience along the way, and the reader sees incremental changes leading to great changes at the end – think Groundhog Day.
Maybe the protagonist doesn’t change, and that’s the tragedy. No matter what, he won’t open up or deviate from his beliefs, and ends up suffering some kind of consequence.
It’s useful to start the story with a character ripe for change, on the verge of a collapse if he doesn’t change. This adds a sense of urgency and immediacy, and gives a more logical reason for the Hero embarking on the Journey.
Think Speed McQueen in Cars, or Bolt. Different at the end of their journey, having grown positively. Which means you have to set them at the beginning as in need of that growth.