Building Characters – The Final State

I apologize for being late with this post. You know the “good intentions” excuse, so I’ll let you fill it in. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming. Jeff Gerke wrote an awesome book about building believable characters called Plot vs. Character. I’m giving you the good stuff.

This is the end of the hero’s inner journey. She was happy in her dysfunction, but the pesky author came along and messed it all up by forcing her to see how the old way was slowly killing her.  The alternative required a major change and a great risk, but it’d be healthier for her in the long run. She was forced to choose. Now she’s at the Final State: what life is like after she’s made her choice.

For starters, she won’t be the same person she was at the beginning of the story. “The journey itself defines character,” Jeff says. Whatever she chose in her moment of truth, her final state has a direct correlation to who she was at the beginning. Maybe she’s now the opposite of her beginning state. Maybe she’s gone the other direction and is now much worse. “The Final State is both a reflection and an amplification of the initial condition.” 

Think of Anakin Skywalker. He had good and evil in him at the beginning of his story. His mentor thought the evil had been driven out, but it wasn’t, and it took over. Later, Vader’s son appealed to the good side, and in his moment of truth, Vader chose the good. It cost him his life, but he found redemption. His Final State was a moment of peace and reconciliation with his son before death. His condition was the complete opposite of his beginning.

Think of Gollum. He had good and evil within him at the beginning. The ring drove most of the good from him. Frodo tried to find the goodness within Gollum, and almost succeeded. In the end, though, Gollum chose the ring. Gollum’s Final State lasted about 40 seconds of screen time as his body fell toward the steaming lava pit of Mt. Doom. The look of joy on his face as he beheld his precious ring, slowly falling with him toward destruction, was his reward for his final choice. It didn’t last long, but he had it. 

Once your character has made her choice, don’t leave the reader hanging as to what happens next. Let them see your character dealing with the aftermath of this life-changing choice. Is she happy with the decision she made? Is her life now more fulfilling, more joyful? Or does she regret her choice? Does she now pay the consequences, but they’re too high, and it leads to madness or despair?

Look for extreme ways to reveal this emotional state. Don’t settle for narrative summary (“he rode off into the sunset on a white horse”). You’ve lead the reader on an intense emotional experience, so don’t skimp on the ending. Show your hero externalizing what he’s feeling on the inside. If you tie this final scene to the initial condition, you create a satisfying and resonating ending for your reader.

Ebenezer Scrooge reacted to Tiny Tim in normal humbug fashion at the beginning of the story, but at the end, Scrooge treats the boy with kindness.  In A New Hope, Vader tried to kill Luke Skywalker and defend the Emperor. At the end of the story arch, Vader embraced Luke and killed the Emperor. The symmetry of “bookending” the initial condition and the final state resonates well and makes the book feel complete and intentional.

That completes the hero’s journey and the first half of Jeff’s book. The second half deals with plot, if you want to check it out on your own. 

-Sonja
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