If you write fiction, you’ve probably discovered that your two biggest challenges are creating compelling characters and creating compelling plots. The reason that both these story elements are so difficult to achieve is that they are closely linked by a subtle concept: your protagonist’s vision of the future.
At the beginning of any story, the main character has a picture in his or her mind of what the future holds. This picture may be blurry or clear, hopeful or despairing, but it is always based on the character’s experiences and beliefs up to that point. The character’s initial vision of the future may not be expressly stated in the narrative.
Here’s an example. At the beginning of Jane Eyre, we can assume that when young Jane imagines her future, she sees herself in a perpetually subservient role. After all, she’s an impoverished, dependent child whose guardian despises and terrorizes her before sending her off to an abusive school. Jane’s primary task is simply staying alive. When she eventually leaves school, she pursues a post as a governess, since this is the role she sees as appropriate to her station in life and her expectations for her future.
By the end of the novel, Jane’s vision of the future has completely changed. Now, she looks forward to years spent happily with Mr. Rochester, raising their son, welcoming grandchildren into the world, and enjoying rich friendships.
Why is the story of Jane Eyre so compelling? Because readers can identify with her initial vision of darkness and dependence. We want to know that our despairing expectations can be replaced with hope-filled ones. But we also know, deep inside, that this requires fundamental changes in ourselves. In a good story, we don’t just see that a character’s vision of the future has changed; we see how it changes.
In Jane’s case, we see hope begin when she pages through heavy books in her aunt’s library that inspire her to imagine beyond her current circumstances. Hope grows when she meets the maverick Helen Burns at school, who teaches Jane how to love while standing up to injustice. And later it becomes full-fledged when Mr. Rochester—her wealthy employer—treats her like an equal.
There are a few more questions on this topic that we’ll discuss in future blog posts: What happens when a character’s vision of the future is put to the test? What if it seems like a character’s vision hasn’t changed at all?
For now, though, if you’re struggling with a character or plot issue, take a little time to brainstorm your protagonist’s two visions of the future: the one he holds at the beginning of the story, and the one he holds at the end. Then identify the steps he takes from one vision to the next. This will help to clarify strong and weak points in your story.