Monday, October 10, 2005

The Rule That Your Main Character Must Change -- Part 2

As I said yesterday, what must change about your main character is his or her emotional state. This change is a natural result of rising conflict.

The hero decides on a course of action to fix his problem. Obstacles frustrate his efforts. Each intensifies the conflict, causing him to choose a new course of action. In other words, "the plot thickens." If he gave up, you would have no story. So, mounting obstacles test his desire. They up the ante, increasing his determination to achieve his goal.

That determination is what changes. That's what "grows from pole to pole." Think of it as mounting desire, a growing hunger and thirst. It grows from being relatively mild to the point of being desperate. This change readies your character for the final conflict.

And, as Shakespeare tells us through Hamlet, "The readiness is all."

In the end, Hamlet's determination has increased to the point that he is ready to do anything to achieve his goal. Ready to die. Suddenly all his inner conflict is gone.

Spielberg shows us the same thing in the Indiana Jones trilogy. When the bad guys throw an obstacle in his face, Indy just becomes more determined than ever to achieve his goal. He gets to the point that he will even swim in hot pursuit of a German submarine!

In all seriousness Shakespeare does likewise. Each of Hamlet's soliloquies shows increasing determination. Each shows what Hamlet is ready to do at that point. In the beginning Hamlet meekly takes Claudius' belittling sermon, willing only to demonstrate the passive resistance of refusing to break mourning for the dead king. When he is absolutely certain of Claudius' guilt and that the court is willfully blind to it, he becomes openly rebellious. In short, the mounting opposition he encounters, climaxing in the court's obdurate refusal to know what Claudius has done, drives him to keep seeing and raising the bet with bolder and bolder action. In the end he is ready to walk into an ambush for the evidence he needs to justify justice.

Claudius too grows from pole to pole this way. Before the beginning, he made an obvious mistake by not killing Prince Hamlet right along with King Hamlet. But he wasn't willing to risk losing the affection of the Queen. In the end, he has been driven to the point that he is willing to do anything. Rather than blow his plot to kill Hamlet, he lets the Queen drink the poison he intended for her son.

She too grows from pole to pole in determination to have things her way. In the beginning she was willing to overlook the betrayal and destruction of her husband but not her son. In the end, she will do anything to keep what she got, by covering her guilt. So she joins in discrediting Hamlet by the abysmal act of screaming that he was attempting to kill her. She thus caused Polonius' death. For, when Polonius, who could not see that she was in no danger, cried out in alarm, Hamlet justifiably killed the presumable assassin hiding behind the drapery in the Queen's bedroom. But she dumps her guilt for that on her son, too.

All Shakespeare's characters are thus driven by rising conflict. The ultimate example is Macbeth. In fact all characters in all good, dramatic stories are thus driven by mounting desire in the face of mounting opposition.

So, an essential change in the habits, beliefs, or attitudes of your character may occur, but need not occur. If your hero starts out a drunk, his mounting desire will make him ready to give up drinking, as a necessary step in achieving success. In the end he'll be sober, but that doesn't mean you must use a character who begins drunk. For example, from beginning to end, Hamlet is solicitous about his reputation. Though he does sacrifice it, his dying request is that Horatio salvage it for him. No change there. From beginning to end Hamlet is so dismayed and miserable that he'd rather be dead, but he fears death throughout, risks but tries to protect his life throughout, and holds suicide a sin. No essential "character change" there either. None whatsoever. Only an ever increasing hunger and thirst for justice.

Opposed by an ever increasing terror in Claudius and Gertrude that needs to escape justice.

Spielberg adds a profound postscript. In all three Indiana Jones stories, Indy is driven partly by a desire for "fortune and glory." In the end, however, he always avoids destruction by resisting desire. When the Ark of the Covenant is violated, he is as desirous of violating this privacy with his eyes as everybody else, but he shuts them tightly and avoids the wrath of God. When he acquires the prized Shankara Stone, he really wants to take it to a museum. But he returns it to where it belongs, where it has the power to bring life, instead. And, when the Holy Grail is an inch from his grasp -- well, that was a close one. His father had to bring him back to his senses by warning him to "Let it go."

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