We’ve all read about the late-teens, early-twenties protagonist learning to make their way in the world. It’s a character arc that describes the struggle to transform from someone who isn’t making it to someone of substance. They come into their own.
What I’ve noticed is that really good character arcs have that same quality. Conflict causes character transformation. I cover this in Story Alchemy, but until recently I didn’t realize how profound character change should be, how much the character must go through a life transformation. Something like the transformation of Alex Eidyn in Carpathian Vampire. Of course, she goes from clutsy teenager to major vampire talent early on, but she keeps transforming throughout the novel. Right up to the end.
I believe this is the reason many sequels don’t work. Character transformation occurs in the first story, and follow-ons take it from there and never get the depth of character transformation necessary to build a good story. The movie Rocky is a good example. Yes, Rocky wasn’t a teenager and was in fact getting well into his thirties, but he had never had the opportunity to show the heart he really has. He rose out of oblivion to give the heavy weight champion of the world a run for his money. In the second movie and subsequent sequels, they tried making him the underdog, and yes they were watchable movies, but they still didn’t have the breadth of character arc to make them the great movie that Rocky was.
The first Star Wars movie (A New Hope) was, in my opinion, the best. And it was Luke Skywalker’s coming-of-age movie. And this is a really good example, because the second Star Wars movie (The Empire Strikes Back), which I believe was also pretty good, was also a coming-of-age movie for Luke because he came under tutelage of Yoda to become a Jedi Knight. Character transformation under the heat of conflict is what story is all about. I believe it would be helpful for storytellers to always look at their efforts as coming-of-age stories, if for no other reason than to capture the depth of the change that the protagonist must experience.
It’s also very important to understand that the central conflict, that between the protagonist and the antagonist, is only the surface of what supplies meaning to the story. The conflict is about something (slavery, revenge, love, etc), and that ‘something’ is the central theme that focuses the work. I describe this in much greater detail in Chapter 7 “Becoming Worthy” in Story Alchemy. Here’s the plotting symbol that helps generate the character arc relative to the theme of the story, and it’s built upon the five plot points of the plot pentagon:
At each stage, the protagonist becomes more aware of who s/he is and how s/he must change to be successful. I call this “the five types of deep awareness.” All of these changes are forced by the central conflict. This is the most interesting way I know of accomplishing the depth of change, consistent with the nature of the conflict, in your protagonist. With this in mind, it’s easier to see how important conflict is in our lives. Conflict forces us to change and to become more than we have been. Conflict develops character.