Complete the Character
Endings are on my mind today. I just spent the last three days with my father (90 years old) who is dying—his body is simply shutting down. Now, we don’t usually write about death in our novels, unless it is a sudden one that must be investigated, but we do write about a character’s developmental arc and must bring that arc to a close by the end of the book. So, let’s take a closer look at this arc and how we can wrap things up nicely and neatly so that the reader is left satisfied when they close the book.
The best books usually contain interesting characters who go on, not only a journey to attain something—love; a comfortable, happy life; or the answer to “who done it,” but also have an internal journey where they come to terms with something significant that happened in their past (an internal wound) or grow by learning something about themselves and how to deal with others or just themself. In this way, our protagonists develop and change throughout the novel and this change is usually essential for them to achieve their external goal (that something which they must attain).
So, how do we go about creating this change?
Things happen. Things that make the character stop and think about their preconceived beliefs. Things that force them to acknowledge that what they thought was right might not be, that there might be another way of looking at things. Things that show them that there’s another way to live and it might just make them happier than the way they have been living.
This is the plot of your story—or part of it. But more than just plot points to move your character toward love or solving a murder or a political quandary, it moves them toward being a better, happier person who allows themselves to be that better, happier person. How they get there, what these events are, is, naturally, up to you, the author. But you must craft them carefully so that your character doesn’t have the opportunity to deny the change. In other words, it needs to happen slowly over the course of the novel allowing the character to come to terms with the change—these things rarely happen in one huge ah-ha moment that has them running down the street naked.
All this slow change must ultimately come to a satisfying conclusion where the character accepts the change, internalizes it, and allows their new reality to dictate their life moving forward, hopefully, a happier, more complete and fulfilled person (and bring them to the conclusion of their external goal as well).
For my father, he has been fighting against death for nearly two years now. Bedridden, he has denied the reality that he was never going to get up again, and yet he did almost nothing to get himself up (not cooperating with physical therapists and the like). Only once he internalized the fact that he was going to die, that he was not going to get up again, has he allowed the natural process of death to begin. His ultimate external goal is death, his internal goal is accepting that he has lived a long and happy life and that death is a natural part of that life.
I knew that he finally accepted this when he asked me whether he had been a good father to me and then I saw it when he could not fully wake up the following morning (he did eventually, but it was a struggle). He has reached that point which is the most difficult thing for a person (real or fictional) to accept and now that he has done so he will be able to attain his final goal. This is a good thing. It is something that will allow my family to close the book of my father with a satisfied sigh knowing that going forward everything is going to be all right for him.