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  • Writer's pictureXavier Kane

The character's journey

This meme caught my attention today and it really made me think about the nature of character driven stories. When telling these stories, most of your characters are going to be far different people on the last page than they were on the first page. Maybe it's my German heritage, or a long-term battle with anxiety and depression, but these character journeys are more often than not going to leave scars on your characters, and in some cases going to lead to their death.

This is a major theme in both my books Broken Hearts & Other Horrors (available now) and A Mother's Torment (available September 1st 2023). The stories told in these books involve growth as painful as it is significant. My characters have gone through Hell and have the scars to prove it.

The types of these scars depends on the genre.

If you're writing romance, chances are these scars are going to be emotional and metaphorical. An arrogant character is going to end the story with their confidence humbled. The same goes for comedy-dramas. The best example is The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Each character is damaged in someway. Midge, the main character, is a housewife in the 1950s. She's got the perfect life (for 1958): affluence, handsome husband, two kids, an Upper West-Side apartment, and a plan. By the end of the pilot all of this has crumbled and continues to crumble throughout the series. At the end of the series we see through flash forwards that while she remains close to her (first) ex-husband, she never returns to a happy family life as her kids grow distant and she leaves a wake of broken hearts behind her. However, she does have Suzie.

Other genres, such as fantasy, sci-fi, and horror leave characters physically scarred as representations of their character growth. At the end of The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker loses the hand holding his father's lightsaber. This physical deformity is symbolic of the innocence lost with the revelation that his father is actually the guy he was told betrayed and murdered his father.

And speaking of losing hands, in Evil Dead II Ash Williams is forced to cut off his own hand once it becomes possessed. Which is totally okay since he gains a chainsaw instead. It's an indication of his transformation from early '80s 20-something kid to warrior and slayer of Deadites.

These are not hard and fast rules that authors must follow. Kate Chopin's The Awakening ended with the protagonist killing herself. And H.P. Lovecraft created an entire genre about the protagonist losing their mind at the end of the story. As with any trope, the fun of writing is how you play with it not in blindly following it.

It's not all about your Main(s).

Your protagonist can't be the only one to experience some sort of growth and transformation. Their journey is going to change everyone that's part of their journey. The people they leave behind are going to change in their absence. The characters that accompany them are going to change as they face challenges with (or because of) the protagonist. Even the villain will change.

Starting at the beginning, unless your protagonist's home is destroyed in Act I, if they return home they will be very different people. But what about their family? How has their lives changed in their absence? Did their parent's remain the same and expect their child to return to the same routines with the same attitude? In terms of spouses, reach out to any veterans you may know. Any married servicemember who's ever deployed will tell you that "return and reunion" can be difficult. Their spouse has developed new routines in their absence and now that they're suddenly back--this equilibrium has been disturbed and a new one must be reached. (Hint: these are all great things to keep in mind for any sequels.

Then there's the hero's companions. A great example would be the hobbit contingent of The Fellowship of the Rings. Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry all start out on the journey together only to be split into two groups. Sam shares in the protagonist's journey overcoming most of the same obstacles of Frodo, but also a few of his own. The end result is they two are closer than brothers while having a few strains of growth all their own. This is shared growth.

On the other hand, Pippin and Merry find themselves on their own paths. Overcoming their own challenges and growing as individuals. This makes a story more dynamic and helps with worldbuilding since you can have them doing things in different parts of your universe and showing them more of how things work. Star Wars and Marvel also does this well.

Finally, there's the villain. Do they have a redemption arc? Or do they experience the transformation

from living to dead because of their wicked ways? Whatever you do: do not deprive your antagonist of growth or change! Many writers struggle with this. It feels wrong to humanize monsters. But your audience needs to view your bad guy as relatable. Keep in mind the definition of "relatable" is more broad than being able to relate a character to oneself. If your villain makes your audience think of Hitler, they are relating the character to something familiar to them that grounds your narrative.

Villains who are evil for the sake of being evil run the risk of being cartoonish. Think the shark in Jaws IV: The Revenge. Instead of a shark doing shark things, the writers have ascribed human like motivations to the shark and it robs the movie of it's tension. Now, it makes a great popcorn movie and guilty pleasure but it doesn't make a great Jaws movie.

A good example is General Hux in Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. A true believer in the first two sequel trilogy films, his loyalty is tested by the temper tantrums of Kylo Ren. By the third movie he's had enough and betrays the First Order. He hasn't suddenly seen the light and is switching sides. He's making a power play for the top job, the good of the First Order, getting revenge, or maybe all of the above when he says: "I don't care if you win, I need Kylo Ren to lose."

What's important is character growth.

I was recently at a writer's conference and was sitting at a table with a mix of friends and strangers. One of the strangers and I got into a discussion about why we write in our particular genres (she writes inspirational fiction). My reason for writing horror is I like to explore how humanity overcomes adversity. She replied that this need not be dark.

And she's right. As humans we all experience our journey from start to finish in a myriad of ways. There are people who are entertained and uplifted by tales of others who have overcome adversity by calling upon a higher power or lifting themselves up "by their bootstraps". In a metaphorical sense, characters in these novels work in reverse: starting with scars and ending with their scars healed. And these are great stories because the character has gone through a journey! They are not the same person they started as.

In fact the single story with the greatest impact on me is 1977's Star Wars (as in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope). This is an example of secular inspirational fiction. The hero overcomes the loss of his family in the first act to save the Rebel Alliance in the third. A friend (R2-D2) is brought back to life. A mystical mentor (Obi-Wan) demonstrates that death is but a veil between planes of existence. Friends decided not to abandon him or his cause. And he's saved the princess. Luke is a changed person, all without being disfigured. (Yet.)

Since then and now, I've lived a life that has left some scars both seen and unseen. While the Star Wars franchise still holds me in thrall, so does the gritty storytelling of Stephen King and Jordan Peele. Characters who emerge out the other side of challenge and/or conflict beaten, bloodied, and bruised wondering: how in the hell did I survive that? resonates with me. Part of this is because I've experienced darkness in my life and found myself beaten, bloodied, and bruised wondering: how in the hell did I survive that?

But there are people who have walked paths that are mostly well-lit. Or having seen horrors, wants to delete them from memory. And that's fine too. At the end of the day what makes a story engaging is the growth of the characters. Whether you leave them scarred or unscarred is immaterial. But unless you're Junji Ito, you must leave your characters changed at the end.

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