In most modern novels, the main character undergoes some sort of transformation or enlightenment, which we call the character arc. Huckleberry renounces slavery, for example. There are exceptions. In farcical novels (P.G. Wodehouse, Carl Hiaasen, Christopher Buckley) and series novels (adventure, mystery, thriller) the character is often essentially the same at the end of the book as when it started.
But the majority of novels do employ a character arc, sometimes
called the inner journey, as opposed to the outer journey, which the action of
the story. Huckleberry escapes down the river with Jim, for example.
The outer journey gives narrative momentum to the story to
keep people turning pages. The inner journey is what makes it matter, the thing
that lifts it above an action story. You can have the outer only and end up
with pulp fiction, or the inner only and end up with some kind of literary
miasma. Or you can make the inner and outer journeys dependent on each other,
thereby reinforcing the significance of both.
Here's an example from Muffin Man to clarify. I dreamed
about a sheriff who hears voices from a muffin. Although warned against it by
dozens of people, I was certain this brilliant idea was my next novel. But I
needed a reason why an otherwise normal guy would begin hearing voices. Over
the space of several months I created a history for the sheriff, a bipolar
father who abandoned the family and then suddenly makes an unwelcome return 24
years later. As it developed, in my mind this became the main story line--the
father/son relationship going both ways from the sheriff, up to his father,
down to his son, and his fears that he is actually bipolar as well.
This is all meaty, visceral stuff, but it's all inner
journey. I knew that this part alone wasn't enough to carry a novel for 300
pages. So I created the whole disappearing arsonist case as an outer journey,
the story engine, the thing that pulls the reader to the next page to see what
happens. How did those guys disappear out of a locked room? Why were they in
there? Why did they set it on fire?
And there is the question of what is going on with the
muffin (Is it really talking or is it all in John's head?) does pull the reader
forward, but I don't think anyone would care enough about that question to stay
with me for 300 pages.
So I found ways to bring these three elements together, to create
multiple links between the father/son conflict and the arson case and have the
muffin sitting in the middle of the whole mess.
Without both the outer and inner journey, and the
connections between them, the novel would not be as compelling.
In your current work in progress, pay attention to both
story lines, the inner and the outer, and find ways to interlace them to
strengthen the spine of your story. It could bring a new depth to your work.
Brad Whittington is the author of the Fred trilogy, What Would Jesus Drink? and Muffin Man.