Your protagonist is not just bouncing from one event to another. They are changing as a result of those events. In this episode, we dig into your protagonist’s arc of emotional change, both why it matters and how to establish it.
Here is the truth about writing a novel. It is hard and it takes a long time. Anyone who is telling you something different is not giving you the full picture. One of the reasons it is hard and takes a long time is because not only do you have a lot of juggling balls in the air, you also have to make a lot of decisions along the way. And one of those decisions is how your protagonist is going to change.
In her book Story Genius, Lisa Cron says “who’s life will you utterly upend?” That person, that character, is your protagonist or main character. Not only are you going to throw a bunch of wild circumstances at them, you are going to leave them at the end of the story a changed person from how they were in the beginning.
This is called their arc of change.
Here are a few examples. In the children’s book Charlotte’s Web, Wilbur the pig starts the story sad, alone, and seriously lacking self-confidence. By the end of the book, he is proud and able to hold his head high. In Bridget Jones’s Diary, Bridget begins the novel thinking she needs to change everything about herself in order to find love, but by the end she’s realizing maybe that’s not true. In the original Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is naïve and has his head in the clouds. By the end, he has a new understanding of himself in relation to the way things are in his universe.
Why does it matter if the protagonist changes? Why can’t the story be about the external events? The answer is simple: the emotional growth of your protagonist is how readers will connect with them. And if the reader doesn’t connect with the protagonist, they won’t really care about what happens next.
I’ve had people argue with me that there are some protagonists that don’t change, who remain the same single-focused people they were in the beginning. Characters brought up often include James Bond and Sherlock Holmes. But I would argue that they are changed. All you have to do is look at how they are making decisions. Every character in every book hits a moment of crisis or is pushed out of their comfort zone at some point. So while the arc of change may not be dramatic, it will be there.
So how do we figure out how our characters are going to grow, change, or otherwise shift by the end of the story? Well, you start with your point, the message you are trying to say with your story. I give you strategies for how to figure this out in episode 12, and I’ll put the link in the show notes. I highly recommend you go back and listen to that. If you were writing a story about two lifelong friends now in their midlife, you could be trying to say that the nature of friendship changes over time. So you would take that statement, and the way your protagonist changes would center around their understanding of that comment. Maybe in the beginning, the protagonist is really desperate to keep everything the same between herself and her friend, and by the end she embraces change both in herself and in her friend.
This is an off-the-top-of-my-head example, but you see what I mean. The message you are trying to convey with your book, the point you are trying to make, is connected to how your protagonist will change.
Another way to look at the internal arc of change in the protagonist is to consider what the character believes – or more importantly, misbelieves – in the beginning of the story. Our protagonist in the friendship book might believe that friends shouldn’t drift apart, that it means someone is doing something terribly wrong. Once you’ve got a handle on that misbelief, you’ll be able to help her evolve into believing something that serves her better.
The change in your protagonist doesn’t need to be extreme. It might be life-altering, but it also might be subtle. Both ways – and anything in between – is completely acceptable! Your job as the writer is to figure out what your protagonist’s arc of change is, and then map that change alongside the events of the plot. Every decision they make, every reaction they have, every misstep they have …it’s all moving toward their final emotional destination.
Writers, even stories with the most exciting and page-turning events need to have a protagonist that is changed by those events in some way. This is how readers connect with your story. It takes time, and it takes hard work. But it’s worth it, because your story matters. I’ll talk to you next week!