I like reading about thieves. I enjoy all their faults: their conceit, their disregard for personal property, and their general dishonesty. Though there are other things that make me like such characters– perhaps they do have honor among thieves, or are willing to help those poorer than they, or their attitude toward life– I believe that their potential for change makes me love them more than anything else. I don’t see what they are, but what they could become.
Or not. It depends: are you in a philosophical mood?
But one thing that always is true for thieves is their plots. They never fail to embark on great journeys and quests that turn their characters around.
I’ve posted about character development before– how you must outweigh the bad with the good that comes later– but that had more to do with character development on a whim than character development through the plot.
It is said that journeys change you. With the Hero With A Thousand Faces monomyth, the hero always changes through the ordeal and ends the story better for it. But it isn’t just the hero deciding, “I must return home better than I started; here, wizened old beggar, you may have my walking stick. I can sign it if you want.” The journey changes him.
Pixar has this down to a science. Woody, solitary leader of Andy’s toys, has his leadership challenged when Buzz Lightyear arrives on the scene. His flaw: he likes power. The plot: someone else suddenly gains power. The development: he realizes he can occasionally submit to the newcomer without losing respect. It sounds pathetic when you say it like that, but it’s true. Buzz Lightyear is the antagonist.
You don’t change your protagonist, your plot changes your protagonist. Example story: Never trusted in his life, a thief is called by accident to be the primary guard of the kingdom’s greatest treasure and defend it against the king’s worst enemies. Main character: the thief. His flaw: he is dishonorable– he considers his honor to be worthless. The plot: someone else thinks his honor has worth, and trusts him. The development: he realizes that if someone thinks his honor valuable, it is valuable.
It sounds formulaic. It is. This sums up Tangled, in fact. It sums up Ratatouille. It’s wrapped up in the single question, “You trust me?”
Perhaps it feels repulsive to you. It might. My point is, the plot should do the developing, not the author. The plot should be specifically tailored to the main character.
For me, it’s hard. I don’t have main characters before I start novels. I have, “What if someone had a highly contagious disease and then was forced to shake hands with everyone around him?” Or something like that. (I’ve never written that one, so you can have it.) I just start with some sort of conflict and figure out what character I want from there. I never create the character and make the plot later. It doesn’t work for me.
However, this could be a spectacular way to choose your main character. The Writing Excuses people say that your narrator should be the person with the highest emotional stakes in that scene. What about in the story? If you need someone to guard the kingdom’s precious treasure, why choose someone who is ready and able? Choose a thief, for whom the task is unthinkable.
The idea here is to take your main character’s greatest flaw and use the plot to directly challenge it. The story ends when the flaw has resolved.
Of course, some of us love flaws. That thief’s attitude toward the world might be incorrect in your opinion, but it makes him lovable all the same. If that attitude suddenly changed, where would we be? Everything we loved about him would be gone in a puff of smoke. We don’t want a perfect character, after all– we want a delightfully imperfect one. You have to be careful not to change the qualities the reader likes best. Take Iron Man, for instance. He’s pretty horrible at the beginning, but some of his flaws (conceit and independence) endear us to him, and others don’t (willingness to blow the world to smithereens). However, as the movie progresses, his greatest flaw (blowing the world up) disappears and he becomes something better. He’s still conceited and independent, as we see in the later movies, but those are the things we like about him.
Try to condense your main character into the four things I gave for Toy Story: the pitch, the flaw, the plot, and the development. If you can’t find it, perhaps you need to dig deeper– or your characters aren’t developing through the story.
The Phil Phorce, episode four: When Percival finally gets the powerful position he’s always wanted, he finds himself in a situation he can’t control. The flaw: arrogance. The plot: he doesn’t have the knowledge or abilities he needs to lead. The development: he backs down and allows someone else to be the hero.