Put Your Character's Vision of the Future to the Test

In a well-told story, characters and plot are linked by a changing vision of the future: we see the protagonist move from one set of expectations to another. The character’s perspective doesn’t have to change from despairing to hopeful, as happens in Jane Eyre. It could move from hope to despair, from something good to something better, or even from a negative vision to a worse one. What makes the story compelling is that we see the vision put to the test. When it stands or falls in the face of adversity, the reader feels confident in deciding whether that vision might have a place in his or her own life.

A good example of a character’s positive vision being tested is in the story To Kill a Mockingbird. At the beginning of the story, the protagonist, Scout, has an understanding of the world based on her happy, secure life with a loving father and brother. While Scout’s experience may be idyllic, the reader also knows that it is childish and probably cannot last. The question is, Can Scout's sense of security and love withstand the harsh realities of the world?

Those realities begin to flood in as Scout encounters all kinds of strange, painful things. Her schoolteacher reprimands her for knowing how to read. Her brother begins to grow up without her. A local black man is falsely accused of rape, publicly humiliated, and then killed—and Scout's father, Atticus, is unable to prevent it.

Throughout this gradual disillusionment, Scout finds herself absorbing a new lesson: we become part of the solution to suffering when we learn how to walk around in the other person’s shoes. Compassion is the code by which Atticus has lived all these years, and it’s the basis on which Scout’s happy childhood was built. The only way for her to bring the best of her childhood forward is to expand that vision to include mature compassion. At the end of this wonderful book, while readers may feel sad that so much evil can exist in the world, they also feel sure of the value of compassion and empathy in combating that evil.

Putting your character’s vision of the future to the test makes your story all the more compelling, because it reassures your readers that the final picture does indeed reflect reality. This holds true even when the character’s vision doesn’t actually change after being tested.