Which Character is Supposed to Be the One Who Changes?

"Supposed to" is a terrible phrase in the world of creativity. I find myself wrestling with it all the time when I write. We're "supposed to" show, not tell. We're "supposed to" stay away from adverbs. We're "supposed to" make sure something significant wrenches "life as usual" from beneath the protagonist at the end of act I. Who knew so few words could exert so much pressure on a writer?

Currently, I'm working on the sequel to Curse Bearer, a book I'm tentatively calling A Voice Within. Whether that name will stick through the completion of the book, who knows...since I've taken what the book was in rough draft form and demolished it, and am now fairly certain I will only retain the vaguest plot markers from the original. But I'm wrestling currently with the big "supposed to" of character development:

The main character is "supposed to" undergo a paradigm-shifting change of attitude that will take them from a destructive or unworkable set of behaviors and move them toward a more victorious mindset. At least that's how it goes if you're writing a happy ending, which I am.

The trouble is, the protagonist of Curse Bearer, Danae, underwent her epiphany at the climax of book I of this series. I have been wrestling with getting book II off the ground because it's a continuation story, and what remains for Danae to do is grow in the knowledge that she's newly embraced. I don't have another "knot" (to use Jeff Gerke's terminology) to work out for her in this book.  I could manufacture one, but right now, I view her more as a character who knows what she needs to do--she just has to get trained up enough to do it.

A discussion of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader that we had at the West Branch Christian Writer's Conference that brought me to a bit of a crisis point with A Voice Within's story structure. The more we talked about Darth Vader in terms of character "knot" and epiphany, the more I started thinking, "You know, Luke's the protagonist of Star Wars, but he doesn't really change. Sure, he learns things and goes from farm boy to Jedi--but his general desire for truth and his inescapable sense that there's something more out there in the universe he's meant for than operating vaporators, aren't reversed in the original trilogy. They're only built upon to make him an amplified and more capable version of what he was already.

However, Darth Vader, he's the guy you talk about when it comes to discussing someone who has an epiphany that forces a decision between sticking with his usual M.O. and something completely different. He's the one who throws off his loyalty to the Empire (and subsequently the Dark Side) and becomes the agent of change. Arguably, it's Darth Vader who won the day for the rebel alliance, because in choosing to destroy Palpatine, he threw the Imperial forces into disarray, and without that, the rebels would have surely lost.

But anyway, what's all this Star Wars geekery have to do with my writing? It makes me think that here, in book II of Risen Age, that I have to allow an ally to be the character who has the more dynamic inner journey. It's Culduin who stands in the position to have a revelation and change his approach. But the question is, am I deft enough as a writer to allow him to be the changing character? It would be easy to just let Culduin run off with the story, since awesome elves have a way of doing that. But if I allow Culduin to be the character's whose inner journey we explore in this book, can I do that and still finish what I've begun in terms of Curse Bearer's plot? I don't want his character development to cloud my plot vision in terms of Danae's desire to get back to her father in time.

I take comfort in knowing this has been done before. Not only the Darth Vader transformation comes to mind, but the story of Samwise Gamgee. He serves in the role of ally in The Lord of the Rings, but he's the one who changes, not Frodo. So if I can pull off the transformation of a secondary protagonist, at least I'll be in good company.

What about you? Can you think of other examples of great stories where the main character isn't necessarily the one who changes the most? If I can make a study of stories that do this well, I'll be much better armed to try it myself.


  1. The only recent books I've read this happening has been Veiled Rose and Moonblood by Stengl. Rose changes very little over the two books--it's Lionheart who does all the changing. In Arena by Hancock, the MC has a similar growth pattern to Dinae--the first half she struggled, then the second half she wins her powers and she develops differently, and her boyfriend gets to struggle. In the Song of Albion trilogy by Lawhead, the first book deals with the MC going to this new world and all. The second book is told from the perspective of his sidekick who gets his own story arc, and its a better book than the first. The third book returns to the original hero who has no more growth and it sucks majorly. He should have written a third character instead.

    So, there's different ways of doing this. If this story wants to be Culduin's story, why not let it? It might please your hot elf guy fans. :-)

    1. Thanks for the great list of examples, both positive and negative. It's funny how sometimes stories seem to have an instinct all their own and steer us blundering authors the way they should go. :D

      And yeah, you certainly can't write too much material on elves of awesomeness, right?

  2. I just finished reading the Mistborn trilogy, and I think Sanderson must have faced the same problem. In the first book, the protagonist Vin is the character who has the epiphany. That book is almost entirely about how she changes. Vin gets some further development in the The Well of Ascension, but Elend -- who was relatively unimportant in the first book -- increases significantly in importance and also has the strongest character arc. Vin and Elend both seem pretty stable in The Hero of Ages; but Sazed suddenly turns into the primary dynamic character, and Spook is exalted from his previous role as a supporting extra to a heroic role with a transformational character arc.

    If I may take the concept outside of fiction, I'll add that I'm a little skeptical of big epiphanies. I definitely think adding additional epiphanies on top of already completed epiphany arcs is a fairly bad idea---especially when the epiphany is somewhat analogous to spiritual salvation. Although I'm sure you could make it work, I'm kind of cautious of the idea of giving Culduin a big epiphany. Danae's last epiphany sort of brought her to a soft conversion. If Culduin's epiphany is also a soft conversion, that would be far too convenient for me; it would set of my cynicism. Elves are awesome, but would-be elvish boyfriends who turn into fellow pseudo-Christians are too conveniently awesome.

    1. Yeah, I have to agree that taking Danae and Culduin to the same place in terms of character arcs would be a bad idea, and it risks the subtext: "the only real character transformation worth talking about it 'getting saved.'" That's definitely a monologue I want to stay away from, and frankly, the concept of "getting saved" doesn't entirely work in the context of my world's theological system anyway. But that's another (long) discussion.

      For Culduin, I think his arc more involves getting his head around his buried resentment and finding peace with the idea of his life having quiet impact. His need is to stop doing things by rote and start living them.

      I appreciate your input, Bainespal! As always, you're very insightful.

  3. It's not SpecFic, but in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Cameron is the one who changes. Ferris is the catalyst. So I agree that having a different character in each book have their major arc is great. I love Karen Hancock, but one of the things that annoyed me about the last book in the Guardian King series was that the hero seemed to regress in his faith so he could learn his lessons over again. Not that such things don't happen for real, but in the context of the story it felt contrived. I'd rather read a book where heroic people do heroic stuff but don't have knots to untie than read a book where the characters are tied in knots just for the sake of having a knot to untie.

    Come to think of it, Jan Karon did that in the Mitford series, too, although it was less noticeable because they are quieter stories. But about the third time you follow Father Tim through a Dark Moment to an Epiphany, you start wondering how many times one guy can have those kinds of moments.

    And just to share my own approach, all three sequels to Alara's Call give someone other than her the major internal arc. She has a few issues of her own to work out, but the person with the major "knot" is different in each book.


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