Discussion: The Hero’s Arc

The morning my post I Read Shadow Scale and I Was Disappointed went live, I was thinking about what is it that makes me “approve” of a hero’s arc, because really, that is what makes or breaks an ending for me. Do I feel the hero’s journey changed them, was worthwhile, helped them grow? I discussed this briefly in my post Plot Vs. Character?, but wanted to go more in depth with the idea of a character’s arc.

If you’ve ever read any of my book reviews on the blog, you’ve probably seen me character arc. If you’ve seen me fangirl about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, you’ve probably noticed the character arcs were a big part of that show for me. I just love to see characters go through a significant change. I may be adverse to change in my own personal life, but that’s a different story. 😉

It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.

I haven’t even read The Two Towers, but thanks to  the movie I became familiar with this monologue from Sam and it’s my favorite passage from a fictional book. It so perfectly encompasses what we expect from great story telling. We want the character to overcome trials. In the end, we want them to come out stronger, that’s what makes the story worthwhile.

In Star Wars, we see Luke overcome the power of the Dark Side, even though it means opposition against his father. In Harry Potter, we see Harry defeat Voldemort and usher a new era for wizards through sacrifice. In Lord of the Rings, we see Sauron defeated through two little hobbits’ tumultuous journey. These are stories I think most all of us agree are powerful.

Not every story that is told is going to be on the same epic levels as the aforementioned examples, nor do they need to be. The resolution of a story doesn’t even have to be tied up neatly where everyone and everything is happy for it to be satisfying. I just need to glean emotional satisfaction from the main character’s journey, that they are changed in the end, hopefully for the better. If not for the better, I need to feel satisfied with the reasoning of why, of what the journey was about then, instead.

I think one reason I enjoyed Jane Austen’s Emma so much is that, though the story is about romance, it’s also largely about Emma making mistakes, learning from them, and becoming a better person. It may not be a sweeping epic journey, Emma lived a pretty normal life in regency England, but she grew in the story, and there’s more to it than just her happily-ever-after.

In the movie Inception, Dom’s one goal is to get back to his family, but there are complications caused by his inability to let go of his deceased wife and what caused her tragic death. While the last image of the ending is left somewhat ambiguous (which is appropriate given the theme of dreams vs. reality), Dom has let go of his wife and is home with his children, thus completing his journey emotionally at the very least.

We get frustrated with TV series finales at times because we don’t like where the character ends up, what their absolute resolution is. I’ve discussed before how the TV show finales for Chuck and Star Trek: Enterprise really left the characters worse off than before for reasons that seemed senseless and meaningless, whereas the show Fringe resolved all the emotional aspects of the character’s journey and, even if it was logically confounding, put them back in a place where we wanted them to be and made it overall satisfying.

Frodo-Sam-hero-journeyWhat about you? What makes a story’s ending satisfying, the character’s journey worth it to you?

Also check out this recent post on Publishing Crawl about writing about change. 

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8 thoughts on “Discussion: The Hero’s Arc

  1. This is such a great post! Immediately the first thing I thought of was the Grisha trilogy because Alina has *such* a strong character arc. I know some people say that Alina annoyed them in Shadow and Bone (though I never felt that way — I really need to reread the series!), but she goes through noticeable change in Siege and Storm that by Ruin and Rising it’s stunning how much she has developed and how subtly in each book. *Applauds Leigh Bardugo* So although the ending might seem like one of those where it might not be obvious why the characters even went to such great lengths to begin with, I think you identified perfectly what made the trilogy worthwhile.

    • I agree that Alina does have a good arc! Great example! And I’m with you, she didn’t annoy me either… maybe a tiny bit in the second book when she kept not talking to Mal, but really he was annoying me a little too because he wasn’t talking to her either! But thankfully it all worked out! 🙂

  2. I like your examples with Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker. It’s so important to have an emotionally satisfying arc in a story.

    Though, Sam’s quote isn’t quite in the Two Towers. Jackson and crew actually took one conversation (from Book 4 Chapter 8) and spread it across the two scenes in the movie (the one with the monologue and the end scene). The book conversation is actually much lighter in tone (more like the end) . “and [Frodo] laughed, a long clear laugh from his heart. Such a sound had not been heard in those places since Sauron came to Middle-earth. To Sam suddenly it seemed as if all the stones were listening and the tall rocks leaning over them. But Frodo did not heed them; he laughed again.” It’s a great conversation where they’re talking about living in stories, through the dark parts on to the end.

    • Well dang, I thought I had researched the quote well enough to know it was the same in the book (and actually in the book). How tricky of you, Internet!

  3. I like reading a book that has an ending that involves the character being changed. For the better or worse, I want to see it. But I also don’t want it to be perfect. I don’t want everything to come out sunshine and rainbows, because like isn’t like that, but I also don’t really like it when the book ends on doom and gloom.

    One particular arc I like is when the character realises their weaknesses, and that those weaknesses aren’t necessarily “fixable” and cannot be overcome. They’re just part of who they are. I really like that because I like realistic characters, and I think realising our flaws and weaknesses is something really brave, and human.

    To be honest, there’s no real particular ending or character growth/arc that makes a book worthwhile for me, but when I finish the book, I want to feel like I have taken a journey with the character, and that that journey was worthwhile in some way or another.

    • I agree with all this! The ending shouldn’t be “everything is perfect” but you don’t want it to be hopeless either. It’s that balance of things being better and the character coming to terms with where they’re at.

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