When Your Character's Vision Doesn't Change

Not every great story features a protagonist who develops a new vision for what’s ahead. If a character’s vision of the future doesn’t change, we have a different, sadder kind of story.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s exquisite novel The Remains of the Day is one example. Ishiguro’s protagonist, a butler named Stevens, begins his career during the heyday of the English country house. He foresees a brilliant future in the service of Lord Darlington, expecting to one day rest on his hard-earned laurels while Darlington’s home continues its glorious life at the center of society and politics. Stevens is a man who defines his identity entirely by his work, not by relationships or recreation. Thus, he pours himself into being the perfect butler and neglects his personal life.

Stevens’ vision of the future is put to the test when his employer’s public reputation is destroyed due to Nazi connections before World War II. While Darlington is expelled from society and his lovely estate is bought by a vulgar American, Stevens persists in running the house (and himself) as though nothing has changed. He is so convinced of the immutability of his vision that he refuses every opportunity to pursue a meaningful personal relationship with his colleague Miss Kenton.

There is nothing wrong with a story like this. Stevens’ frozen vision of the future shines a light on what happens when we refuse to adapt our beliefs to life’s realities. By the end of the novel, we feel compassion for Stevens, and we are motivated to follow a different example than his. We have learned something about life, even though Stevens hasn’t.

For aspiring authors, it’s important to be able to identify if a main character’s vision isn’t changing, and whether this works for the story we’re writing. When we’re first developing a plot or drafting a story, it’s natural to focus on the action and have a limited awareness of its deeper meaning. However, at some point we need to assess our protagonist’s idea of the future, test it within the story, and honestly portray the outcome. This will result in a much more compelling narrative.