Is there such a thing as a delusional character arc?

by Logan
(Ottawa, Ontario)

Question: I am writing a fantasy novel. Strangely I am having great success with all my characters EXCEPT my protagonist. In attempt to focus in on and internalize him, I have been going through all kinds of systems, structures and advice about creating compelling characters.

One major thing I read a lot is the need for a character to have a "need" and a "want" or a "subconscious want" and "conscious want" etc ... then a successful character arc is the character achieving both.

But what if the two are contradictory?

i.e. my protagonist WANTS to escape his father's shadow (a great academic in an academic world), to distinguish himself as his own person, but the method he thinks will achieve this is actually delusional (to become a great warrior, which his father hates). This goal is simply rebellion, trying to become what he believes to be the opposite of his father.
What he NEEDS is to discover who he truly is completely independently of his father, neither conforming nor rebelling.
The pursuit of this need would be a very long and complex arc, perhaps covering many stories.

at last my actual question(s):
Would it be crazy/foolish to have the protagonists arc in the first story/book end with him successfully achieving his WANT of distinguishing himself as a great warrior, therefor achieving peak rebellion, but also failing to achieve what he NEEDS: true self-truth?
... then in further stories he would transition through to truly achieve his NEED?

And if this is a good idea ... how would one *show* at the end of the first story, that such a thing (want achieved at the cost of the need) had happened?

Answer: Great question, Logan!

I'm going to address this using Dramatica terminology, because I think this will make things clearer.

Dramatica uses four terms in reference to the main character:

Symptom: What the main character thinks his problem is, but it's really just a symptom of his underlying problem.
Response: What the main thinks will solve his problem, but would really just address the symptom (i.e. this is what he consciously wants to do, wants to make happen).
Problem: What his problem really is, which he may be consciously unaware of.
Solution: The real solution to his problem (i.e. what he needs).

So in your story, as I understand it...

The symptom is that your main character dislikes living under the shadow of his father's reputation and feeling like he cannot be his own person.

His response is to try to become a great warrior, thus building an identity for himself in a different sphere.

But his real problem is that he is still seeking an identity that is defined in terms of his father -- either conforming to his role model or trying to
be the opposite.

The real solution (the thing that would truly satisfy him) would be for him to become neither an academic nor a soldier but something he does not yet know (but maybe you as the writer do).

Generally, in a story with a happy ending (what in ancient times would be called a comedy), the main character pursues the symptom and only realizes at the moment of his personal crisis what his real problem is, at which point he changes. He takes a leap of faith and tries something new, and this choice allows him to achieve the story goal and resolve his personal problem.

In a series, you generally do not want your main character to make such a change until the final installment -- because once he resolves his inner conflict, his story is over. Similarly, you may have an external goal involving the entire story world that will not be resolved until the final installment. In high fantasy, this may be the end of the old world order and start of a new one, or the final defeat of the villain. Again, this cannot happen until the last book because once it does the saga is over.

Regarding this first book, you could have your main character achieve a military victory -- maybe he gets a medal or some equivalent -- which should be a satisfactory response to his want (symptom), only to realize he is still personally dissatisfied. Whether he's aware of his true need (problem) or not, his dissatisfaction remains because it has not been addressed. How you illustrate this is up to you, but it could be something as pedestrian as the main character's friend coming up to him after the medal ceremony and saying, "Well, I guess you showed your father," at which point the main character gets a sinking feeling in his stomach because he realizes his success is hollow. Or perhaps the father takes the main character's success as a kind of personal validation in a way that, again, takes away any sense of satisfaction the main character might have had. Perhaps the main character tosses the medal in the lake immediately after.

At the same time, you might include a small detail that indicates to the reader that whatever apparent victory the heroes won was in fact insubstantial. Perhaps the villain they defeated was only an underling and the real villain is still at large and working on a bigger plan. Perhaps the villain intended to lose this fight to lull them into a false sense of security or as cover while he achieved a more important objective.

With this, you would be showing that the external story problem is not really resolved yet either and won't be until a later book.

Best of luck.

Comments for Is there such a thing as a delusional character arc?

Click here to add your own comments

Feb 01, 2022
wonderful, thank you
by: Logan

this was extremely helpful ... you've put into words and clear structural comments, some vague notions floating around my head that I couldn't get a grasp on!

Thank you very much indeed!

Click here to add your own comments

Join in and submit your own question/topic! It's easy to do. How? Simply click here to return to Questions About Novel Writing.