Does a Main Character Always Have to Change for the Better?

What we want to see happen in a story is not always what we need to happen.

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Whether we like it or not, stories, in their own unique ways, reflect real life.

They mirror life experience both because writers need outlets and readers need relatable stories. Not everyone relates to the same story in the same way, but there is a story out there for everyone who needs to know they are not alone.

This means happy endings are not always the best option.

Characters who change for the better are not always usable.

We all want that one struggling character to find his way to the right side of the fence. We all want that character we love to avoid their inevitable downfall. But what we want to see happen in a story is not always what we need to happen.

As writers, the story we want to tell, and the story we need to tell, are not synonymous.

Don’t take the easy way out

You can disagree with me here, but sometimes I think we’re too nice to our readers. We make things too comfortable. Granting our character a positive development from start to finish is easy. A no-brainer. If it makes sense for the story you are trying to tell, fine, and this will still happen quite often. But if your story could go either way, and you have the option to do the tough thing and make your MC go down the wrong path in response to a trigger, make them do the wrong thing.

It doesn’t matter if some people get upset

I don’t know about you, but I am tired of readers claiming authors ‘ruined’ books because they did something unexpected. Tris. Prim. Snape (yes, apparently some people hated that too). Did Amy learn her lesson at the end of Gone Girl? Absolutely not. And if you hated how that book ended, I’m sorry, but from a writing standpoint, we needed something refreshing to shake things up, and Gillian Flynn delivered.

The literary world can never have too many dislikable characters

Some characters will start off okay and descend into awfulness as the story goes on because of reasons. Write characters even you can’t stand. It is uncomfortable and different, and that is why we need more of it. You will not fall in love with every single person you meet (not even on a platonic level), the same way not every book you read or write should feature an MC everyone loves to love. Sometimes, people do the wrong thing. Sometimes, it is unforgivable. Don’t be afraid to do that.

In creating an MC that changes for the worse, or does not make a dynamic shift in the way we normally think of them, you are taking a major risk. But in many cases, it is a risk worth taking. Doing something different is not a bad thing. Doing something different, for the sake of being different, can be, if you aren’t careful. Do what is best for your story, and the messages you are trying to send.

What do you think? Should more books feature main characters that don’t develop in a positive way from beginning to end? Are you concerned with your future readers’ reactions to storytelling risks you take in your writing? How can we cope with these concerns?

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter.

3 thoughts on “Does a Main Character Always Have to Change for the Better?

    1. Our characters in a way have minds of their own – they want the story to go one way, and it’s often completely different from what we want. There is no right or wrong, we just have to do what we feel is best. I.e., I don’t LIKE having to kill so-and-so off, but if it needs to happen, it needs to happen!

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